Thursday, May 07, 2009

Atheist Atheology

Atheist anti-theology is getting into a tangle over on Sandwalk

Francis Collins' take on theistic evolution is creating a poser for scientific lawman Larry Moran. Is Collins breaking scientific law or not? To this end atheist Larry Moran does a spot of theology, (or perhaps I should call it anti-theology). That Larry Moran is an atheist is immaterial: what I am putting under the spotlight here is his notion of God, a notion he must in some measure have assembled in his mind in order to test it against experience and rule out as an extant ontology. As we shall see, basically his concept of God is that of an interventionist God, a concept closely linked to dualism. But in the apparent absence of a cosmos being nudged and knocked by an interventionist God the conclusion is that either God is making himself scarce, or perhaps simply doesn’t exist. Needless to say Larry believes the latter; who can blame him if God’s only mode of working is that of intervening, because just where are those so called interventions?

Characters of the Wild Web number 8: Is Francis Collins good, bad or ugly? He certainly looks shifty but can lawman Larry bring him to book as a scientific law breaking baddy?

Here are some of Prof Larry’s comments on Collins' views, followed by my own comments.

Larry Moran: Theistic Evolution is a form of creationism that limits God's involvement in the creation event. The chief limitation is that most of God's activities have to be consistent with the facts of evolution.

Comment: Given that there is a very wide spectrum of views running all the way from Big Bang creationism, through Intelligent Design’s second creative dispensation, to Young Earth Creationism, the main function of the term “creationist” is to define a category that lumps together a wide diversity of philosophies into one in order that Larry can identify who the law breakers are. It cleans up reality into clear cut opposing camps, and makes it easier to identify targets to shoot at. You know you are on wrong side of the law if you are labeled a “creationist”, and this readily paves the way for further emotive terms like “superstitious”.

The phrase “limits God’s involvement in the creation” makes sense in the light of Larry’s interventionist notion of God; for between limited “interventions” the cosmos is likely to be conceived as an entity that runs itself under a regime of quasi-autonomous “law and disorder”* normalcy. Law and disorder normalcy allows the interventionist to distinguish between two further contrasting categories, namely that of natural action and supernatural action, the latter transcending what is expected under natural law and disorder. In consequence interventionists have a tendency to gravitate toward a natural vs. supernatural dualism. However, I wouldn’t disagree with Larry’s observation that God’s activity, or whatever deeper ontology underwrites cosmic contingencies, must be consistent with the facts of evolution. (if indeed they are facts)

Larry: Many of us have difficulty understanding how a personal God can be involved in guiding evolution without violating the laws of physics and chemistry. In other words, how is Theistic Evolution/BioLogos compatible with science?

Comment: Why a personal God? Does the opposite of an impersonal God provide any less difficulty in understanding how deity might “guide” evolution? I put it to Larry that some theological complex is lurking under the surface here that explains this nuance, perhaps to do with the problem of pain and suffering, although, of course, this would be strenuously denied. As for “guiding evolution without violating the laws of physics and chemistry” that, I submit, betrays some rather crude theological anthropomorphisms also lurking under the surface. Viz: Humans create highly organized structures like clocks, engines and computers, by imposing an organization on preexisting matter which, given a preexisting regime of natural laws, then run themselves, apart from, perhaps, some “guiding” maintenance to keep them on track. I suggest that it is this kind of anthropomorphic picture that informs Larry’s concept of Divinity; that is, he sees the physical regime running itself according to the patterns of normalcy unless tampered with by deity; but since we don’t see many such tamperings the conclusion is, understandably, that “God probably doesn’t exist so stop worrying and enjoy life”.

It is this “engineering” anthropomorphism that also seems to be at the bottom of deism; the thought is that God is some kind of supernatural engineer who builds mechanisms which he then leaves to run themselves, although perhaps he might pop back from time to time for some guiding maintenance or, if we are lucky, to give us a miracle or two.

If there is a God it is not at all clear that this engineering anthropomorphism works. The ex-nihilo creation (and destruction) of mass-energy and its sustained existence have no known inherent logical necessity and presumably are supported by some deeper logical necessity. If God exists then it is likely that God should be identified with this logical necessity, rather than a part time anthropomorphic creator who merely reorganizes what’s already up and running, occasionally nudging and knocking it, but who is otherwise a divine slouch who loafs off and largely forgets all about it.

Larry: According to him (Francis Collins), Christians believe in creation and a strictly scientific explanation of evolution seems incompatible with this belief.

Comment: Seems incompatible with what belief? Let me submit that what Larry means here is that evolution is incompatible with his preconceived notion of an interventionist God. Standard evolutionary theory uses the known processes of law and disorder to explain the history of life. Using the engineering anthropomorphism the deist is inclined to believe that these processes have a self sufficient autonomy enabling them to continue unless tampered with by the Divine hand. In the absence of evidence of interventions the deist has little choice but to serve a redundancy notice on his part time God or perhaps even come to the conclusion that absence of evidence of interventions is evidence of God’s absence. Hence belief in evolution could be construed as a process, if not incompatible with an interventionist God, not exactly supportive of it.

However, if “creation” is understood not as an interventionist act but rather as the underlying logical necessity that creates and sustains the fundamental constituents of the cosmos and their patterns of behavior, then the interventionist argument against God’s existence collapses. If God is identified with the underlying supporting Aseity sustaining and creating a contingent cosmos, then sheer existence becomes the continuous present tense evidence of God’s reality. It is nonsense to say that this kind of God intervenes any more than it is right to say that Quantum Mechanics intervenes too create the observable world, or that an author intervenes in the book he is writing, or that a computer intervenes in the software it is running.

Larry: Collins makes it clear that theism is not deism and his view of Theistic Evolution/BioLogos is not deistic. So how does he solve the problem?

Comment: What problem? Larry once said that deism is the only view of God that is compatible with science, so let me suggest that what he means here is that if you are not a deist then theism is a problem for science, because it otherwise entails “unscientific” divine interventions. But a deist is essentially an interventionist who has served a redundancy notice on God’s interventional activity and an atheist like Larry is essentially a deist who has served a redundant God with a death certificate. Therefore it follows that Larry Moran is an interventionist who has concluded that the interventionist God doesn’t exist. Ironically I agree with that conclusion.

Larry: If science says that evolution obeys the laws of physics and chemistry then there's no room for an interventionist God without violating those rules. And if your God does that then there's a conflict between science and religion. They are not compatible.

Comment: That really sums up Larry’s view, but let me spell it out: Like I said, Larry’s notion of God is that of an interventionist Deity who is patently not intervening because the law and disorder normalcy of the universe suggests no interventions are taking place. Those interventions are not taking place because, in Larry’s view, God doesn’t exist; no make that “the interventionist God doesn’t exist”.

Larry: What to do? Miller and Collins, and many other theists, opt for a solution where God can intervene at the quantum level without ever being detected. Thus, nature only appears to obey the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry because God is clever enough to disguise his interventions.

Comment: Crafty that – God encoding his interventions by embedding them in randomized patterns thus making them all but undecipherable. With this and the butterfly effect boosting things up to macro level just about anything could be a “supernatural” intervention. This is no doubt what is really worrying atheist Larry. If the dog next door barks, who knows, it might be message from God tripped by some quantum intervention amplified by a chaotic neural state. This leaves us with an ontology that could be classified as “unscientific” because it presents an epistemologically intractable object – the “enciphered” intervention. I have no principled objections to people positing epistemologically intractable ontologies, but they can’t expect them to be classified as science given that methodological decisions about what constitutes science are usually based on epistemological tractability.

However there is a philosophical/definitional problem here: My understanding of the interventionist concept of an intervention is that, based on the anthropomorphic engineering analogy, an intervention entails a departure from the patterned normalcy of the cosmos – a departure from the so called fundamental laws of physics and chemistry (ibid). But since quantum reality appears to be obeying statistical laws its failure to depart from statistical norms could be construed as also a lack of evidence of divine intervention. Why should statistical patterning be any better evidence of interventions than the high order patterns of simple algorithmic laws?

Larry: On the surface it seems to work since, by definition, all of God's interventions and guidance are undetectable. Therefore, there can't be any obvious conflict between the purely modern scientific view of evolution and creationism.
Personally, I don't think you can have your cake and eat it too. Once you start attributing events to God's intervention you are conflicting with a strictly materialistic interpretation of those same events. It doesn't matter whether your God is extremely careful to fool scientists into thinking that evolution is natural. The very act of postulating divine intervention in the natural world is not compatible with the scientific way of knowing.

Comment: “…it seems to work”: Really? Without those so called interventions causing transcendence from normalcy (a normalcy which includes conformity to statistical patterns), can we deem the interventions to have happened? But if we do allow quantum events to be classified as possible interventions where do we stop? Since life is an aggregate of quantum events perhaps anything and everything is an intervention. Moreover, if we allow statistically conforming events to be interventions then why not also the events constrained by the patterns generated with deterministic algorithmic laws as well? And what if it turns out that quantum disorder is not absolute but caused by the chaotic effects of a deterministic decoherence? Would this disprove all possibility of Collin’s conjectured interventions?

Judge’s Summing Up Comments: It’s no wonder that lawman Larry is having trouble pinning the charge of heretical superstitious scientific law breaker on Collins; lawman Larry 's prosecution case is all but unintelligible. All Larry can come up with is that Collins can’t have his cake and eat it, because somehow Collin’s conjectured interventions are “conflicting with a strictly materialistic interpretation of those same events”. But just what is a “materialistic interpretation” of those same events? What property is Larry attributing to these same events that are different from that of Francis Collins? Just what are “materialistic interpretations”? Do they enlighten us to the conjectured fundamental logical necessities that underlie the cosmos? Charges of violating “strictly materialistic interpretations” are just too woolly to enable scientific lawman Larry to pin anything on Collins. After all, how does one submit the notion of “materialistic interpretations” to the vaunted "scientific way of knowing" in order to clinch the case against Collins? How does one go about testing “materialistic interpretations” scientifically? Such interpretations have the character of preconceptions which is fair enough as long as they are acknowledged as such. Otherwise Larry's case looks to leading us up the garden path.

Where I would agree with Larry is that there is little or no evidence of God that is amenable to a scientific methodology and its affiliated scientific institutions, but unfortunately that doesn’t help much because many questions in history and prehistory cannot be settled by scientific methodology; some objects are just too complex and remote, like for example a conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Flintstone circa 10,000 BC. So for me the question of God is not just an open one but also an active area of seeking. This is where Prof Moran and myself go our separate ways, just as we must go our separate ways on a "way of knowing" that presumptuously declares objects beyond its remit and capability as unreal, not to mention those woolly “strictly materialistic interpretations” that escape critical scrutiny, and above all on the mindset of interventionism. For it is clearly meaningless to say that substrate ontologies intervene in the phenomena they generate and support.

Characters of the Wild Web: Sheriff Larry Moran; (over) enthusiastic guardian of scientific law and disorder

“Law and Disorder” is the phrase I use to refer to the physical sciences almost exclusive use of two sorts of explanatory object Viz. simple deterministic algorithmic laws and statistics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well it could be worse, we could be dealing with Pandeism, which proposes a God that is a quite logical and scientific entity which engineered a Universe that is truly random, and lacking in any of that unacceptable tinkering....