Thursday, September 07, 2006

Kicking and Screaming

There's a disturbing trend across the Christian blogosphere. Creative interpretation of the history of science. Let's get this straight. Religion is the enemy of science, and it always has been. Science prospered in spite of religious efforts to suppress it.

Here's how the story goes:

1) Religionist cooks up non-predictive fairy tale about some natural phenomenon, e.g., lightning strikes. His prescription: do what he says, or, what he says God says. If you get struck by lightning, you deserved it.

2) Scientist comes up with new, predictive, scientific explanation of lightning. His prescription: find shelter, build lightning conductors, etc.

3) Religionist assaults scientist for stealing God's thunder (or lightning, or mojo, or whatever).

4) Assuming scientist survives, his theory is vindicated, lives are saved, there is much rejoicing, etc.

5) After the original stick-in-the-mud religionists expire, the religious establishment embraces the scientific theory as a miracle of God, or as having been forecast by a holy book. Or, they simply claim that all regularity and predictability are gifts from God.

Is religion the power behind science? Of course it isn't. Religion is a parasite that feeds on science.

The thing that's changing today is that history is being more aggressively rewritten by religionists. Some bloggers have told me that Galileo wasn't imprisoned by the church for his ideas about heliocentrism, but because he published his ideas with inadequate experimental rigor. Say what!?! As if this would be okay now that science is God and all. This is just ridiculous. Galileo challenged the Pope's grip on totalitarian power, usurped supernaturalism, and challenged the church's worldview. They locked him up and threatened to kill him. It's that simple.

The same story is played out over and over again. Seeing human physiology as machine, human mind as mechanism, the universe as physics - all these things challenge the role of God and ethereal spirits. Each was challenged as offensive to religious belief, vindicated, then hailed as a contribution of theology.

Religion was responsible for scientific advance in the same way that the Third Reich was responsible for the modern state of Israel. The influence of the church on science is undeniable, but it's not a causative relationship. Religion was dragged kicking and screaming into a scientific world. And it's still kicking and screaming.

21 comments:

Ken Brown said...

If you’re going to accuse theists of historical revisionism, perhaps you ought to get your own facts straight first.

1. The biblical picture of God’s activity makes no attempt to explain the continuing physical workings of the world. The claim that it does is a post-scientific point of view, which truly should be laid to rest. In fact, the Bible itself disavows the animistic view you invoke (that natural events are a series of direct acts of god(s)). Creation is viewed as an expression of God's will, of course, and there is no doubt that he was assumed to have continued interaction with it, but no where does it claim that lightning (or whatever) is a direct act of God with no natural explanation. It's point is theological - that God is the source of all that exists, etc. - not a scientific account of how it exists or operates.

2. Ptolemaic geocentrism and the dualistic view of human nature were both imports from Greek thought, not a direct product of biblical religion. The claim that they are theological necessities is and was foolish, but hardly proof that religion is “a parasite that feeds on science.” Religion is also a process of continual struggle and discovery; it's not so different from science on that count.

3. It is true that theological belief in creation by a dependable God formed the rational basis for most of those who led the scientific revolution, including Copernicus, Galileo, Keplar, Newton, etc., etc. It was this belief which drove their search for order in the universe. You might try to argue that it modern science could have arisen without it, but the fact is, it didn't. To deny this is itself historical revisionism, unless you have some evidence of atheistic presuppositions driving early science?

4. Galileo’s notorious trial was indeed a tragedy, but it was hardly the cosmic battle between science and religion that is commonly assumed. Galileo wasn’t just arguing against the church, he was arguing against the entire scientific establishment. For that matter, it wasn’t even his acceptance of Copernicanism that set him at odds with the church. He had already published a number of academic defenses of that view and discussed it with the Pope on numerous occasions, who even encouraged him to continue his research. There wasn’t a problem until his failure to convince the scientific community led him to write a popular level book which took them and the church to task for failing to agree with him.

It was mostly his arrogance, not his scientific views, which got him in trouble with the Inquisition. His “terrible” punishment was house arrest. Oh, and nevermind that he was a convinced theist who conducted his scientific research on a church pension. For the full story, see this even handed account.

No one is suggesting that the church was innocent in the affair, nor denying that the Inquisition was a terrible thing, but to claim it as evidence of some irreconcilable struggle between science and religion is ridiculous. Or is it only revisionist to dismantle secular myths?

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

You're playing the game as we speak.

1. The biblical picture of God’s activity makes no attempt to explain the continuing physical workings of the world.

It did before we knew the workings were physical. Lightning was viewed as an act of God, and Ben Franklin was lambasted for his study of the phenomenon on those grounds.

How many times have you heard people say that the wonder of the world can only be explained if there's a God? Or that there has to be a first cause? What about ID, for science's sake!

As each of these falls, theists will say, "oh, no, those things are not theological necessities, but merely imports from Greek thought."

2. Ptolemaic geocentrism and the dualistic view of human nature were both imports from Greek thought, not a direct product of biblical religion.

This is an illustration of how scripture was invented. The church pulled what were believed to be facts about the world from the era, placed them on a pedestal, and actively eliminated those who would criticize it.

The claim that they are theological necessities is and was foolish,

You say that now, but why not say that of ID or of free will or of wonder or of religious experience?

Maybe you do.

The fact is that most religionists regard the unexplained as vital to their worldview.

3. It is true that theological belief in creation by a dependable God formed the rational basis for most of those who led the scientific revolution, including Copernicus, Galileo, Keplar, Newton, etc., etc.

The men you listed lived in acute fear for their lives from the church. Even Newton hid his doubts about the Trinity for fear of death or worse. In that environment, one has to frame one's work as a mission for the church.

Had these men worked in the Soviet Union, they would have framed their work in the language of the glorious revolution.

4. Galileo’s notorious trial was indeed a tragedy, but it was hardly the cosmic battle between science and religion that is commonly assumed.

Ken, read Lindner's account again.

Lorini's letter:
"All our Fathers of this devout convent of St. Mark are of opinion that the letter contains many propositions which appear to be suspicious or presumptuous, as when it asserts that the language of Holy Scripture does not mean what it seems to mean; that in discussions about natural phenomena the last and lowest place ought to be given the authority of the sacred text..."

"To Bellarmine and much of the Church's upper echelon, the science of the matter was beyond their understanding--and in many cases their interest. They cared about administration and preserving the power of the papal superstate more than they did getting astronomical facts right."

"When depositions in the Galileo matter concluded, the Commissary-General forwarded two propositions of Galileo to eleven theologians (called "Qualifiers") for their evaluation: (1) The Sun is the center of the world and immovable of local motion, and (2) The Earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but moves according to the whole of itself, also with a diurnal motion. Four days later, on February 23, 1616, the Qualifiers unanimously declared both propositions to be "foolish and absurd" and "formally heretical."

There are probably a dozen more quotes I could lift from Linder's text, especially this one:

"He endured his rheumatism, enjoyed the attention of his daughter, Maria Celeste, and adjusted to a world which elevated mindless conformism over scientific understanding."

As for his church pension, I wonder... what other sorts of pensions were available? The church was the state.

So, tell me. Given Lindner's article, was the church a pro-science force? I don't think it was. Galileo's research on chronometry for shipping was apparently uncontroversial because the church was pro-technology, pro-economy. It was not pro-science.

Ken Brown said...

doctor(logic),
How many times have you heard people say that the wonder of the world can only be explained if there's a God?

You are conflating efficient cause with final cause. I'm writing this comment (final cause) but it is a network of computers that is actually "causing" it to be posted (efficient cause). You aren't alone is that, many theists do it too, but that, more than anything else, is the biggest source of today's strife between science and Christianity. The Bible does not use the language of causes in this way either, but it does pretty clearly focus on God as final cause, with little or no concern for efficient causes. Science has limited itself to efficient causes, and many theists have jumped on that bandwagon, but it really is tangential to biblical religion.

The fact is that most religionists regard the unexplained as vital to their worldview.

First, "what most people believe" proves nothing - truth isn’t determined by vote. Every one of us is wrong about a great many things, but that doesn't mean there is no right answer. Second, even this claim doesn't hold up – “most” religious people do not care about the unexplained, they care about those things they think are explained by their religion.

As for Galileo, note that his pension was not generic, it was direct sponsorship, maintained through numerous personal conversations between him and the pope:

Maffeo Barberini [Pope Urban VIII] was an accomplished man of letters, who published several volumes of verse. Upon Galileo' s return to Florence, in 1610, Barberini came to admire Galileo' s intelligence and sharp wit. During a court dinner, in 1611, at which Galileo defended his view on floating bodies, Barberini supported Galileo against Cardinal Gonzaga. From this point, their patron-client relationship flourished until it was undone in 1633. Upon Barberini' s ascendance of the papal throne, in 1623, Galileo came to Rome and had six interviews with the new Pope. It was at these meetings that Galileo was given permission to write about the Copernican theory, as long as he treated it as a hypothesis.

As for his later condemnation, you miss the significance of the second paragraph you quoted:

To Bellarmine and much of the Church's upper echelon, the science of the matter was beyond their understanding--and in many cases their interest. They cared about administration and preserving the power of the papal superstate more than they did getting astronomical facts right.

The bishops were not concerned with science or even religion, but with politics. It is totalitarian government that should be at issue in Galileo's case, not religion. You’re allusion to Stalin only emphasizes this. The fact that the church became synonymous with the state is deplorable, but it only proves that religion (like anything else) can be abused.

It remains true that belief in the order of creation formed the basis for Galileo’s work, even if church-state culture hindered this.

The simple fact is that the relationship between religion and science is much more complex than simple opposition. This is hardly surprising though, since religion is a human activity, and all human activities are messy. The relationship between politics and science would be equally complex.

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

You are conflating efficient cause with final cause.

I would like to know how you think this distinction is at all relevant.

Final causes still have to be scientific, or at least predictive. It only makes sense to say that events are the goal-directed plan of an agent if you can predict what will happen next. This just isn't the case. Instead, theists generally insist that final cause should be severed from prediction so that it can be said to exist without meeting scientific verification. God moves in mysterious ways, or rejects our attempts to test for his final causation.

I know that you claim to have verified personal religious predictions, but you'll forgive me if I wait for the scientific evidence to come in. Science is designed to eliminate personal bias, and where this has been done, no trace of God's agency has ever been found.

More to the point, without prediction, there's no meaning for God anyway. Otherwise, God is just another name for the sum total of all the data we already know.

Second, even this claim doesn't hold up – “most” religious people do not care about the unexplained, they care about those things they think are explained by their religion.

But this is exactly my point. God explains nothing because it predicts nothing. Theists only think God is explanatory. The unexplained is valuable to theists because theists need something that they incorrectly think God will explain.

The bishops were not concerned with science or even religion, but with politics. It is totalitarian government that should be at issue in Galileo's case, not religion.

I agree that totalitarianism is a major part of the problem in this case. However, there are two things you're omitting.

First, Christianity wouldn't be the big business it is today without its totalitarian past.

Second, the game played by Galileo's critics is being played out again today by the ID crowd. They remain in outright denial of established science, and they're taking their case to the uneducated (including the uneducated administration) in order to suppress scientific education and advancement. So, religion is repeating the same mistakes it has always made, suppressing science in favor of superstition.

Are there theologians who are liberal enough to recognize that scripture cannot contradict science? Or that the Bible should be taken with a grain of salt? Sure. If this was all there was to religion, then religion would be nothing but art, and I wouldn't spend much time criticizing it.

It remains true that belief in the order of creation formed the basis for Galileo’s work, even if church-state culture hindered this.

But what does this "belief in the order of creation" do?

Suppose God did not exist. Should we then assume that there is no order in the universe? That all the order we see before we start scientific investigation is coincidental? Of course not. As I said before, the assumption that there are predictive laws doesn't require theism, and theism doesn't add to our knowledge in this regard. In fact, we need predictability and order for rationality, and rationality is philosophically prior to theism.

Religion, survival, war, culture, all these things influenced history. The question is whether there is some principle in theism that is the bedrock of scientific advance. The answer is no, there is no such deep principle because such a principle says nothing more than rationality itself.

Ken Brown said...

doctor(logic),
Sorry I've been a bit harsher lately than usual; I'm very pressed for time and have taken some of it out on you, so I apologize. That said, I really do need to focus on my school work, so I'll only respond to your first question for now. Maybe in a couple days I'll be able to come back to the rest.

Final causes do not need to be predictive in the same way as efficient causes because they do not deal with mechanisms at all; they deal with reasons. You see a chair and ask "why is this here?" Physical science focuses on the series of events that led to the chair being there: a tree grew and was cut down, a truck carried it to a wood-mill which cut it into smaller pieces, which were then assembled into this shape, shipped on a truck to a store, purchased and placed in this particular spot. This is precisely the kind of neutral description biologists strive for in describing all aspects of life. It is an entirely appropriate form of inquiry, but it clearly leaves something important out: reasons.

Why do we cut down trees? Why do we make chairs with four legs? Why do we buy chairs? Why did someone place this chair right here? Physical science has almost no ability to answer these kinds of questions, yet they clearly have as much to do with the chair being here as the physical processes which operated alongside them, and because of them.

When it comes to understanding the reasons behind human artifacts, we turn to the "soft sciences" like psychology, sociology, history, etc. When it comes to the physical world, however, such methods fall short and we turn to metaphysics and theology. Life seems to be just as goal-oriented as any human artifact, and the progress of science has only made this ever more clear as it has elucidated its mechanistic operation. Thus, the debate over whether this indicates that there are also reasons for life, or not, remains distinct from the debate over how life came to be.

Clearly final and efficient causes are not entirely unrelated (our reasons for building a chair will impact how we build it), but they do play two different roles in our understanding of the world. I do not think either can provide a full account on it's own - the problem with much narrow-minded religion is the attempt to replace all efficient causes with final ones, while the problem with much narrow-minded scientism is the attempt to replace all final causes with efficient causes.

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

Sorry I've been a bit harsher lately than usual;

No problem. This blog post was more inflamatory than usual. The whole "science is religion's baby" thing drives me bananas.

Final causes do not need to be predictive in the same way as efficient causes because they do not deal with mechanisms at all; they deal with reasons.

Ken, reasons are mechanisms. What does it mean to be goal-oriented? It means simulating outcomes of events, or simulating ideal worlds, and taking actions that you predict will have the effect of actualizing those worlds.

Why do we have four-legged chairs? Culture, comfort, hygeine, stability. In short, utility. Utility and reason are connected.

So there's no reason at all why final causes should get a free pass on predictability. If a man commits some evil act, we want to know his final cause. What were his goals? Why did he do what he did? This is all quite sensible because when we understand his reasons, his actions become predictable.

There are ways to bypass predictability, but then you lose intelligibility. If God's reasons are not predictive of action, then we can't claim to know his reasons because there's no way to infer them from action.

Looking at this from a utility perspective also illustrates the problem. God doesn't need anything, so utility is non-predictive in his case. Contrast this with SETI where the utility of radio signals is quite apparent for aliens. Yet, God doesn't need to conserve energy in a narrow band, or send simple signals, or broadcast using physical mechanisms. It's no wonder that ID is such a miserable failure.

An event without a predictive cause is an unexplained event. A supernatural event that is beyond predictive explanation is inexplicable. Giving name to an unspecified cause is not understanding that cause nor even the establishment of an existent cause. If you think we can know anything about non-predictive causes, I'd like to hear about specifics.

Ken Brown said...

doctor(logic),
Ken, reasons are mechanisms.

What?!? How is "I prefer sitting to standing" a mechanism? That particular reason may become manifest through any number of mechanisms, but it is not itself a mechanism.

If God's reasons are not predictive of action, then we can't claim to know his reasons because there's no way to infer them from action.

I never said God's reasons are not predictive of action, I said reasons in general are not predictive in the same way as mechanisms. If you know how a mechanism works, you know what it's outcome will be, but knowing a person's reasons does not guarantee knowledge of which particular way they will choose to manifest them. Some actions will be more consistent with particular reasons than others, but there is no one-to-one correspondence.

God doesn't need anything, so utility is non-predictive in his case. Contrast this with SETI where the utility of radio signals is quite apparent for aliens. Yet, God doesn't need to conserve energy in a narrow band, or send simple signals, or broadcast using physical mechanisms. It's no wonder that ID is such a miserable failure.

Utility is an excuse; when faced with extraordinary design, we don't say: "it's too extravagant, it must be an accident!" If all the stars in the milky way suddenly shifted position to express the Da Vinci Code in binary (relative to earth), we would obviously conclude design without any idea of the utility or feasibility of the pattern.

An event without a predictive cause is an unexplained event. A supernatural event that is beyond predictive explanation is inexplicable.

Yet it is precisely what a religious person believes about the character and reasons of God that determines whether a particular event is perceived as a miracle or not. This is why members of different religions are generally more skeptical of each other's supernatural claims than of their own, because they (for good reasons or bad) don't see such events fitting in with the character of their God.

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

How is "I prefer sitting to standing" a mechanism?

Imagine the software that executes this preference. It has a component that recognizes sitting versus standing via geometry and bodily sensation. It has another component that indicates a preference for sitting, e.g., favoring reduced physical exertion. It's a very straightforward mechanism, even if the reason for its existence is historically complex.

I never said God's reasons are not predictive of action, I said reasons in general are not predictive in the same way as mechanisms. If you know how a mechanism works, you know what it's outcome will be, but knowing a person's reasons does not guarantee knowledge of which particular way they will choose to manifest them.

This is no different from the situation from software. Even knowing the algorithm, it can be difficult to predict exactly what will happen given a particular set of inputs. However, software applications are still scientific and predictable in principle.

Your claim is that there is some such program running and affecting our lives, and I want to see the scientific justification for that claim. You need to establish the existence of this program over and above the background noise level of patterns we see in random data.

Utility is an excuse; when faced with extraordinary design, we don't say: "it's too extravagant, it must be an accident!"

You are taking a very narrow view of utility. By this reckoning the Louvre has no utility, when clearly we are willing to pay a lot of money for what it has to offer.

If all the stars in the milky way suddenly shifted position to express the Da Vinci Code in binary (relative to earth), we would obviously conclude design without any idea of the utility or feasibility of the pattern.

This would be a clear case of utility for communication.

But does this apply to the complex machinery in living things? The function of all these things is just survival. DNA for replication, blood clots for resiliency, flagella propel for feeding and evasion, eyes see for prey and predator. Yet, survival is the one utility predicted by evolution.

You can ask how our appreciation for the Louvre fits into this utilitarian picture, and the answer isn't a simple one. However, almost all of our cultural and social behaviors appear to have natural precursors. The picture is just what we would expect to see in the case of evolution to the point of an intelligence capable of altering its own environment.

Yet it is precisely what a religious person believes about the character and reasons of God that determines whether a particular event is perceived as a miracle or not. This is why members of different religions are generally more skeptical of each other's supernatural claims than of their own, because they (for good reasons or bad) don't see such events fitting in with the character of their God.

Well, here we agree. In the random noise of experience, we are naturally going to pick out events of personal significance, and interpret them as the work of hidden agency. If our interpretation is such that it admits confirmation but not refutation, then we fall into a trap of belief. Our personal and cultural histories get frozen into our worldview in an irrational way. Knowing this, how can you claim any such beliefs are rational?

Ken Brown said...

Doctor(logic),
Imagine the software that executes this preference.

I’m willing to concede that reasons can be codified into concrete mechanisms (otherwise we, being concrete beings, couldn’t have them), but that is not to say that reasons are concrete mechanism, which should be obvious from the fact that numerous mechanisms could be used to express the same reasons.

You are taking a very narrow view of utility. By this reckoning the Louvre has no utility, when clearly we are willing to pay a lot of money for what it has to offer.

Quite the contrary, I was merely applying the definition of utility you provided:

God doesn't need anything, so utility is non-predictive in his case.

Since you now admit that need is not the only measure of utility (I would say that utility is not the only reason why God might create), it seems that your point is moot. If we can build the Louvre, surely God could create without needing to.

But does this apply to the complex machinery in living things? The function of all these things is just survival. DNA for replication, blood clots for resiliency, flagella propel for feeding and evasion, eyes see for prey and predator. Yet, survival is the one utility predicted by evolution.

The fact that life needs DNA does not explain why DNA exists, it only explains why DNA might survive once it does exist. Whatever evolution explains (and I think it explains a lot), it does not explain the origin of life, the origin of information.

In the random noise of experience, we are naturally going to pick out events of personal significance, and interpret them as the work of hidden agency.... Knowing this, how can you claim any such beliefs are rational?

The fact that we are capable of deceiving ourselves does not prove that all spiritual experiences are deceptions. While many spiritual experiences are probably not falsifiable (which isn’t to say, false), many are, and it is these which ground the unfalsifiable ones. To name just one example: The resurrection either happened or it didn’t – there is a historical fact in dispute. If it did then the other miracles claimed of Jesus gain credibility, even if we have no direct evidence of them. If it didn't, then the chance that those other miracles happened is also reduced.

Whether we have sufficient evidence to prove it or not does not change the fact that it is falsifiable. And even the earliest Christians realized that its falsification would be deadly to their faith:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
1 Corinthians 15:17

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

Since you now admit that need is not the only measure of utility (I would say that utility is not the only reason why God might create), it seems that your point is moot. If we can build the Louvre, surely God could create without needing to.

But God still has to want something preferentially. People who like art will build the Louvre, but they won't wake up the next day and hate art and want to destroy the Louvre. Personality is generally predictive.

So suppose that God is a mechanism that intends to achieve certain goals. If God exists, that means we can find these goals (this sentence is tautological because existence means the ability to find).

People want to interpret world events as if they were the actions of God, but then you run into the problem of evil which makes a mockery of the idea of God as a person who is good. At best, God is a person who is indifferent, and an indifferent God is phenomenologically the same as a non-existent one.

The fact that life needs DNA does not explain why DNA exists, it only explains why DNA might survive once it does exist. Whatever evolution explains (and I think it explains a lot), it does not explain the origin of life, the origin of information.

Ken, technically evolution studies speciation. However, this mechanism does generate new information, as do genetic algorithms. There's more information in a human genome than in a protozoan's, and that information got there via evolutionary processes.

The physics of abiogenesis are almost totally unknown. Abiogenesis could be so probable as to be inevitable. Yet, even if it was improbable, you would need your alternative to be more probable. As soon as you force your model to be more probable than abiogenesis, you will start making real predictions.

What are the odds that a mysterious agent who can do anything for any reason would create life on this planet and in this way? The probability of this is infinitesimal.

You would likely answer this by saying that God predicts what we see because he wants what we see (humans) to come about. But what specifically does he want to come about? If it is everything we see, then you are expressing the tautology that God wants us to observe what we will observe, no matter what we observe. This is a delusion because it doesn't explain anything. It just draws dots over the data points on our graph. It never puts a curve through them. At some point, an explanation has to predict an observation that is inferred by prior observations.

The resurrection either happened or it didn’t – there is a historical fact in dispute.

There was a big discussion about this a few months ago on Thinking Christian.

What I concluded was that the resurrection has significance because it is so physically improbable. Of the 10 billion (order of magnitude) people who have lived on Earth, resurrection has never been observed. So the odds of resurrection are 1 in 10 billion. Now, one can point to reasons why the NT might seem improbable if the resurrection didn't occur, but these improbabilities could be 1 in a million and still they would make the story true only 1 in 10,000 times.

That's the point of miracles. They're one-off events that are so improbable that the mundane alternatives (mass delusion, political intrigue, wishful thinking, misinterpretations) are far more probable explanations.

The rational person must conclude that the resurrection probably (indeed, almost certainly) didn't happen, even if it actually did.

Ken Brown said...

doctor(logic),
But God still has to want something preferentially.... People want to interpret world events as if they were the actions of God, but then you run into the problem of evil which makes a mockery of the idea of God as a person who is good.

What God wants can only be determined from what God says. The only way to determine them, is to take a particular claim of revelation, carry it back to the world, and ask yourself if it lines up with what we see. Thus, biblical Christianity claims that among God's desires are that we would love him and each other. As theologians since Augustine have noted: love cannot be forced, humanity must have a choice whether or not to love God and each other. But if it is a choice, then we can choose to reject it. The simple fact is that the vast majority of human suffering both now and in the past, has been the direct result of our failure to love one another - we can only blame ourselves.

As for the remainder - tsunamis, tornadoes, ebola virus, etc. - biblically these are claimed to be reminders of our rebellion, i.e. a curse:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Romans 8:19-22

By the way, to say there is a "problem of evil" only makes sense if evil is something objective, and not merely "what we don't like."

technically evolution studies speciation. However, this mechanism does generate new information, as do genetic algorithms. There's more information in a human genome than in a protozoan's, and that information got there via evolutionary processes.

Evolution does produce new information, but not from scratch. The ability to evolve is itself crucially dependent upon vast amounts of information, whether inherent in the structure of the reproducing cell, or the hardware and software of the computer running the genetic algorithm. We have zero evidence of information arising from non-information, absolutely none. This is itself the most obvious result of abiogenesis research. Since information clearly does exist, but has not always existed on earth, the most logical explanation is that it came to earth from somewhere else.

You would likely answer this by saying that God predicts what we see because he wants what we see (humans) to come about. But what specifically does he want to come about?

This is a complex question, but the short answer (again, biblically) is that God wants a good creation complete with creatures made "in his image." Thanks to our rebellion, however, that wish has not yet become fully manifest. Thus creation is not yet fully good, and we do not yet fully live out the image of God.

That's the point of miracles. They're one-off events that are so improbable that the mundane alternatives (mass delusion, political intrigue, wishful thinking, misinterpretations) are far more probable explanations.

The rational person must conclude that the resurrection probably (indeed, almost certainly) didn't happen, even if it actually did.


And that is just the problem with logical positivism - it means we cannot accept the possibility of miracles even if they happened. But if they did happen, they would obviously be the most important events of all. Faith might be wrong, but at least it isn't prevented from being right by definition.

Have a good week; I'll come back to this discussion (and the one at Signs of the Times) next Friday. Now it's back to the books. :)

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

As for the remainder - tsunamis, tornadoes, ebola virus, etc. - biblically these are claimed to be reminders of our rebellion, i.e. a curse:

This is a cop out. It says that God wants X, but in order to achieve X, he may appear to act consistent with the goal of ~X with equal or even greater frequency. That's totally unacceptable by any rational standard, especially when we are asked to infer his existence by the consistency of his works.

By the way, to say there is a "problem of evil" only makes sense if evil is something objective, and not merely "what we don't like."

No, it makes perfect sense. Just use an opinion poll to define the good. No absolute morality required.

Christians define good, and they say that God is good, but God acts counter to their own definition.

To bypass this problem, Christians have to posit that it is good for a parent to cause intense suffering for its children and its children's children, should those first generation children act wrongly. Sure, it could be good for a parent to do this, but only if the parent doesn't love its children.

We have zero evidence of information arising from non-information, absolutely none.

Just to clarify... You admit that a genetic algorithm produces new information, but the substrate for the algorithm must exist for the algorithm to run.

So, the issue is whether the mechanism or substrate for genetic algorithms could could arise from natural, random processes. It's certainly possible, but you are assessing the odds as being very low because we have never observed such effects in the lab. Yet, we haven't even scratched the surface when it comes to research. Your claim is that, if life could form from inanimate matter of the type present on early Earth, and it could form at least once in millions of years in a vessel the size of Earth, then we would already have seen it by now in modern environments in vessels the size of test tubes. This is simply unjustified. It's no more justified than my claim that abiogenesis is inevitable in such environments.

This is a complex question, but the short answer (again, biblically) is that God wants a good creation complete with creatures made "in his image." Thanks to our rebellion, however, that wish has not yet become fully manifest. Thus creation is not yet fully good, and we do not yet fully live out the image of God.

So, God wants the good, but we won't know that by looking at his actions (if we even knew which actions were his). This amounts to invisibility. Instead, we have to take it on faith that there's an invisible God based on some ancient writings. This would be irrational.

And that is just the problem with logical positivism - it means we cannot accept the possibility of miracles even if they happened.

Neither of these clauses are true. First, it is always possible that a highly improbable event occurred despite the evidence to the contrary. Even a logical positivist can accept that. What we're talking about is the irrational inference that such an event actually did occur despite the evidence to the contrary.

Yes, it's possible that Elvis and JFK are still alive, but the odds are much higher that they are dead. Is it then rational to prefer to believe that they are alive? No. Even if they actually are still alive, it's not rational to believe that they are until there is extraordinary evidence to confirm it.

Second, this has nothing to do with logical positivism. It's about rationality and probability. You don't need LP to reach this conclusion.

Have a good week; I'll come back to this discussion (and the one at Signs of the Times) next Friday. Now it's back to the books. :)

Ah, the life of a student. ;) Have a good week.

Tom G said...

Just dropping in to add one note on a fine point I picked up in here.

doctor(logic), I hope you have a better grasp of statistics than you have displayed here. You say that the odds of resurrection are 1 in 10 billion, based on the number of people who may have lived throughout history.

You should realize that if a resurrection has happened, in the case of Christ, your 1/10 b. number is accurate only descriptively, and not predictively. That is, it would not follow from that event that the next person to go to a funeral as the honored guest has a 1/10 b. chance of walking out.

Because of its lack of predictive usefulness, your statistic is not terribly interesting.

Probabilities must take background information into account. If that person at the funeral is also God, then his probability of leaving under his own power is vastly higher than your statistic would suggest. If he or she is not God, then we're probably all in agreement that the chance is far closer to zero than that.

Then of course there is Ken's other objection, directed toward your logical positivism, which was that by your system, no miracle can be judged to have happened even if it did.

I don't expect this background information regarding Jesus Christ as God would be at all persuasive to you; I'm just popping in, as I said, to note one fine point of correction. Other than that, I think Ken is doing a fine job here that I wouldn't want to get in the way of.

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for stopping by.

Probabilities must take background information into account. If that person at the funeral is also God, then his probability of leaving under his own power is vastly higher than your statistic would suggest. If he or she is not God, then we're probably all in agreement that the chance is far closer to zero than that.

This argument is circular. We would only think Jesus was God if he was resurrected. You think he is God because he was resurrected, and you think he was resurrected because he is God.

Then of course there is Ken's other objection, directed toward your logical positivism, which was that by your system, no miracle can be judged to have happened even if it did.

Tom, this conclusion has nothing to do with logical positivism. It has to do with probability. Miracles are far less likely than the alternatives. We cannot rationally conclude that miracles happened any more than we can conclude that Elvis, JFK, and MLK are still alive.

Ken Brown said...

Doctor(logic),
Just use an opinion poll to define the good. No absolute morality required.

It doesn’t work that way; if morality is subjective, then suffering only matters to those to whom it happens to matter (or something like that). Those who happen not to care about suffering (perhaps because they themselves do not suffer?) could not be called “evil” because that implies that suffering itself is bad (and thus that those who perpetuate it are bad). There is only a problem of evil if evil is a real thing.

But evil is a real thing, and thus there is a problem. How could we possibly call anyone “good” who would allow suffering which it is in their power to end? We agree that we can't, but what exactly would be a proper response to evil?

One option would be to prevent evil from ever happening, but doing so on a wide scale would destroy the autonomy of the universe. The result would be something like the “justice field” on Red Dwarf or the "Pax" on Serenity. These might prevent evil, but they would also reduce reality to a puppet show. From someone who believes the consistency of the universe is absolutely essential to rational thought, I can’t imagine you’d embrace this.

The other option would be to actively destroy everything in the universe that is evil, but what would that leave? I know I would be toast. After all, the fall isn’t a story about some mythical first couple, it’s the story of all of us (In Hebrew, Adam is the word “man,” Eve is the word “life”) – we are all prideful and self-focused, and this is the direct cause of most of our suffering. If God is going to destroy evil, then, he had better do something else first, or none of us would survive.

But what else could he do? Only something “absurd” (to use an early church father’s term): to work with creation and destroy evil from the inside, preserving its autonomy; to enter into creation himself and suffer with us, illustrating both the gravity of evil and the proper respond to it; to re-create us as we allow him to do so; to promise hope beyond our pain through resurrection.

We might not like how long this method takes, but it sure beats the alternatives – a puppet world or none at all.

Your claim is that, if life could form from inanimate matter of the type present on early Earth, and it could form at least once in millions of years in a vessel the size of Earth, then we would already have seen it by now in modern environments in vessels the size of test tubes.

Not at all, I am saying that the more we learn about information-processing systems like the cell, the wider we find the gap to be between these and non-information systems. If this pattern continues to persist, then it isn’t a matter of failing to yet replicate a natural origin of life, it’s a matter of ruling out such an event altogether.

I’ll respond to the remainder of your comments in the above threads.

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

It doesn’t work that way; if morality is subjective, then suffering only matters to those to whom it happens to matter (or something like that). Those who happen not to care about suffering (perhaps because they themselves do not suffer?) could not be called “evil” because that implies that suffering itself is bad (and thus that those who perpetuate it are bad).

But evil is in the eye of the beholder. From an individual's perspective, it doesn't matter whether another person thinks he's being evil or not, what matters is the individual's perspective. The Morality Room experiment applies here.

Again, we can use musical taste as an example. I can regard my brother as having poor taste in music, and it really doesn't matter whether he thinks he has good taste or not. What counts in this evaluation is what I think. You can't claim that I cannot define good or bad taste in music. I evidently can. It's just that it's subjective.

The only difference between musical taste and moral taste is the degree of effort I am willing to go through to condition the world to my tastes.

There is only a problem of evil if evil is a real thing.

For Christianity, it is a problem because Christianity fixes the definitions of good and evil.

One option would be to prevent evil from ever happening, but doing so on a wide scale would destroy the autonomy of the universe.

In the same way that my mother reduced my autonomy when I was a child? I certainly wasn't an automaton, and I had plenty of choices, and plenty of ability to misbehave - up to a point! I don't buy the argument that God has to make a worse parent than a human. Neither do I buy the claim that billions must be unspeakably punished for the utterly trivial indiscretions of two individuals. If I disobeyed my father, should he throw me into a wasteland to fend for myself? This is Bronze Age thinking.

The other option would be to actively destroy everything in the universe that is evil, but what would that leave?

Or why not implement ethics of the type humans advocate? Don't create living, suffering systems if you are going to cause unnecessary suffering in the process. Don't create evil beings.

Also, you speak about puppet worlds. Isn't that exactly what God has planned for us? Sort of like a father raising his child to be forever inferior to himself. A pet monkey that dances for his pleasure.

Not at all, I am saying that the more we learn about information-processing systems like the cell, the wider we find the gap to be between these and non-information systems.

How do you define "information processing" in this context?

If this pattern continues to persist, then it isn’t a matter of failing to yet replicate a natural origin of life, it’s a matter of ruling out such an event altogether.

As yet, there are no known barriers that prevent highly complex things from evolving. Behe and Dembski will disagree, but their claims have been thoroughly refuted by the scientific community. There is no evolution-defeating pattern out there to persist.

Ken Brown said...

Did you even pay attention to what I wrote? Each of your objections ignore what I’ve already said, so I’ll let my previous comments speak for themselves on those points. You do ask three questions that merit further response, however:

you speak about puppet worlds. Isn't that exactly what God has planned for us? Sort of like a father raising his child to be forever inferior to himself.

To be God means that all other beings are inferior by definition, but the whole message of Christianity is that God has done everything (including lower himself down) to raise us up, create us in his own image and re-create us as “joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). It is precisely because he left this an invitation - which we may accept or reject - that we can be partners with God (“participants in the divine nature,” 2 Peter 1:4), rather than his slaves. The goal is not a puppet world at all, but one truly free to live up to its God-given potential.

But of course, if we really are free, then we really can choose evil, and we have - each and every one of us. God did not create evil, we do, every time we choose selfishness over love. And our choices effect others; if I choose to steal, it is always from another person that I do so - evil always harms an innocent. Again, the fall isn’t about Adam and Eve and an apple (if they even existed, which I doubt), it’s about you and me and our hubris, choosing to experience “the knowledge of good and evil” for ourselves rather than trust God.

If I disobeyed my father, should he throw me into a wasteland to fend for myself?

Choosing to go our own way is choosing a wasteland, for God himself is the source of all life. But God does not immediately toss us out for our choice; this world is not a wasteland and you are not struck down for rejecting him. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). If resurrection is reserved for those who live for God and others rather than themselves, can you object? You have rejected the source.

How do you define "information processing" in this context?

An information processing system is one that actively uses and increases information to accomplish a purpose. All such systems, whether biological or technological (i.e. life and its products), are themselves vastly complex and qualitatively distinct from the non-informational world.

There are, of course, information-containing systems which are simple enough to arise by chance (whatever power blind evolution has, is based on this fact), but information processing is much more involved. Even the simplest calculator depends on vastly more structural information than could ever arise by chance, and even the simplest life is vastly more complex than this.

When I say that origin of life research has only widened the gap between biologically meaningful information, and the random noise of the non-living world, I mean it very precisely: the past 60 years of research have continually and dramatically increased our awareness of the unprecedented degree of information required for self-replicating life.

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

Each of your objections ignore what I’ve already said, so I’ll let my previous comments speak for themselves on those points.

I really don't understand your complaint here. You claimed that if evil is subjective, then I cannot describe another person as evil. But surely I can, by my standards, and by the standards of those who share my subjective views.

If you are arguing that I may not be able to come to consensus with someone I consider to be evil, that is true. Of course, since feelings are our only guide to morality, the same is true of objectivists with differing moral views.

As for the philosophical problem of evil, that is a problem that exists for moral absolutists who believe in a totally good deity. There is no philosophical problem of evil for the relativist.

To be God means that all other beings are inferior by definition, but the whole message of Christianity is that God has done everything (including lower himself down) to raise us up, create us in his own image and re-create us as “joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).

I don't believe God has done even a fraction of what I would do in his position. I just find this claim implausible.

The goal is not a puppet world at all, but one truly free to live up to its God-given potential.

This just doesn't wash. What about childhood? Is childhood a puppet world? Is the afterlife a puppet world? I doubt that you think so.

Furthermore, those who go to the afterlife are not much different behaviorally from your or I. Yet they are somehow redeemed (whatever that means). Why not send everyone there now instead of causing so much suffering? What kind of love is this? The theology doesn't seem to correlate with the definitions of love, justice and good that I am familiar with.

But of course, if we really are free, then we really can choose evil, and we have - each and every one of us.

My child might choose to crack his sister over the head with a crowbar - an evil act to be sure. But won't I prevent the crowbar from striking her if I have the chance? Again, I fail to see how a loving parent removes free will, even if we're only considering freedom to do evil. More relevant is all the free will to act in good ways. If such free will doesn't exist, then is there no free will in the afterlife?

Choosing to go our own way is choosing a wasteland, for God himself is the source of all life.

Let's go back to the same old analogy. If my toddler runs off instead of heeding my call, do I let her go? If you suppose we are somehow at an "age of consent," then how come we're not smart enough to understand God?

An information processing system is one that actively uses and increases information to accomplish a purpose.

What is the purpose of blood clotting? You could say that its purpose is to maintain the survival of a living being. Yet, can we not say the same of glaciers and ocean currents with respect to global climate. Should our blood not clot, that system we regard as "alive" would cease to have that property. Without ocean currents, that system we regard at climatically stable would cease to exist. What's the difference?

the past 60 years of research have continually and dramatically increased our awareness of the unprecedented degree of information required for self-replicating life.

I think this is true, but I don't see the relevance to the ID debate. Life is very complex. We have only just looked under the surface. We understand less than 1% of life's mechanics. Therefore, it was designed? That's not a logical inference.

Ken Brown said...

doctor(logic),
There is no philosophical problem of evil for the relativist.

That was precisely my point!

I don't believe God has done even a fraction of what I would do in his position.

So you will only believe in God if you find evidence of him acting as you would?

Is childhood a puppet world? Is the afterlife a puppet world?

In many ways, childhood is a puppet world. Adulthood means freedom to make one’s own mistakes, even when they hurt yourself or others. As for the afterlife, there may indeed be some similarities with childhood, but the key difference is that one has already made their choice – to live for God and others, or to live for oneself. If God confirms this choice for eternity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t free.

Why not send everyone there now instead of causing so much suffering? What kind of love is this?

As I said, doing so would mean destroying all those who choose evil, or denying them freedom in the first place. We must first have the choice, and live long enough with the consequences to know what we are choosing.

If you suppose we are somehow at an "age of consent," then how come we're not smart enough to understand God?

Do you have to fully understand your parents before you should be granted the freedom of adulthood?

What's the difference [between blood clotting and glaciers]?

Do glaciers actively used and increase information? If not, how does this undermine my definition of an information-processing system? Heck, even if blood clotting doesn’t increase information, how does this change the argument? Blood clotting (which is an immensely complex process) depends on the self-replicatory machinery of life – if that machinery also depends on blood clotting (in most cases, it doesn’t), you have only increased the level of complexity that must be explained.

I think this is true, but I don't see the relevance to the ID debate. Life is very complex.

I wrote a post on this topic in May; you can find it here. You might also read this one from last year, though the latter is not as carefully argued as I would write it now.

We’ll talk again later. Have a great week.

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

There is no philosophical problem of evil for the relativist.

That was precisely my point!


Okay, so we have established that the prolem of evil renders Christian theism inconsistent, but has no power to do the same to moral relativist atheism.

Adulthood means freedom to make one’s own mistakes, even when they hurt yourself or others.

But we're not adults in your theology. We are forever children (and that's with a generous reading).

As for the afterlife, there may indeed be some similarities with childhood, but the key difference is that one has already made their choice – to live for God and others, or to live for oneself. If God confirms this choice for eternity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t free.

There are at least three problems with your position here.

First, if God shows himself, demonstrates his power and tells us what to do, we are still free to disobey, so your argument about freedom goes nowhere.

Second, it is patently absurd that a good God should remain mysterious and inaccessible to rational thought, and then punish people he loves for making the most rational choice they can.

Third, if my beloved child disobeys me, I do not necessarily assign to that child an evil intent. Rather, the choices made by the child are due to emotional immaturity or to shortsightedness. It seems to me that relative to God, we are emotionally immature and shortsighted. It costs God nothing (far less than a human parent) to fix the person, reform the person, provide the person with emotional maturity and foresightedness. Even if it takes a long time. If you're omnipotent and loving, you don't give up on children. You don't kill or torture anything.

So you will only believe in God if you find evidence of him acting as you would?

It's not a case of the problem of evil ruling out God altogether. It rules out an omniscient, omnipotent good God. God could be evil or indifferent, and that would provide an easy escape from the problem.

We must first have the choice, and live long enough with the consequences to know what we are choosing.

This doesn't happen, so it's irrelevant.

Do you have to fully understand your parents before you should be granted the freedom of adulthood?

I'll answer this question with a question. At what point does the analogy between parent and child, God and man break down?

If it breaks down at cultural adulthood, you have to argue that adult humans have reached the limits of their intellectual capacity, foresight, wisdom, etc. when they reach cultural adulthood, and so the human will never be in a better or fairer position in which to make theological decisions.

Where this leaves men who never hear of Christianity is another issue.

Do glaciers actively used and increase information? If not, how does this undermine my definition of an information-processing system?

Cells have no more epistemological capability than do river beds. Both are imprinted upon by their environments, and both respond to future environments according to their past history. Neither system reasons to an action. Neither system "rationally decides" to act. Neither system knows what it knows nor why it knows what it knows. It's just a mechanism.

Blood clotting (which is an immensely complex process) depends on the self-replicatory machinery of life – if that machinery also depends on blood clotting (in most cases, it doesn’t), you have only increased the level of complexity that must be explained.

There are many things that are explained by evolutionary biology, and much more that is unexplained. However, a lack of explanations doesn't constitute an alternative explanation. Explanations are always predictive, and ID can't make any predictions.

Doctor Logic said...

Ken,

I just read your two blog references.

The earlier one asks, if algorithms do nothing but sort, then what is evolution sorting?

Well, if algorithms truly "do nothing but sort," then theorem proving programs would be sorting out structures in mathematical spaces. Simulations would sort out consistent paths through simulated worlds. Et cetera.

Evolution sorts through survivable physical structures. As the theorem prover explores mathematical space, evolution explores physics.

The more recent blog post talks about how genetic algorithms create information, but asks how the genetic algorithm was bootstrapped.

Of course, answering this in detail would mean solving the question of abiogenesis which has hardly been researched at all.

The problem with your critique is that you assume that a cell has to be very modern to function as a platform for a genetic algorithm, but this isn't true.

For a genetic algorithm to work, you need a mechanism for replication, a mechanism for variation and a fitness measure. The fitness measure is simple - that's just survival. The other two mechanisms don't need to be as efficient as DNA and DNA mutation. They can have low efficiencies and still execute the algorithm.

Imagine a colony of protocells that feed off the surrounding environment. Nutrients outside the cell are allowed in, and eventually the protocell divides by simply sharing its guts equally with both halves of the cell.

The cell passes on its approximate contents with the next generation, and it does this without using a fancy mechanism for precise replication. If a cell absorbs complex organic molecules or forms them within its cell walls, it may become better suited to certain environments. This is a very simple mechanism that functions
"genetically," but without genes. Such cells might form in rare chemical environments, just from surface tension and primitive chemistry.

Anyway, even a low efficiency algorithm provides a simple platform on which more complex mechanisms like DNA and RNA can eventually gain a foothold. The protocells are already feeding and replicating, and DNA/RNA might provide a mechanism that makes the process more efficient.

This is a "just-so" story, but it illustrates the possibilities. Again, today's cells are like space shuttles, and we're just looking for a wooden raft.