Friday, May 08, 2009

Who Shot TVR?

Characters of the Wild Web Number 9: Who is he (she?) and what direction did the shot come from? Where’s lawman Larry when you need him?

Somebody has taken a pot shot at my last post, presumably a Wild Web Winchester Wielding sniper (see above). Here’s the comment followed by my reply.

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....
2:12 PM, May 07, 2009

Thanks very much for an intelligent comment!

Hhmmm… whom have I got here? An atheist who doesn’t like any form of theism or a theist who is not keen on my brand of theism? Probably the latter as my commenter seems to regard Pandeism as even worse than my own theological ramblings; for Pandeism is likely to be slightly more acceptable to an atheist than my own views. Moreover, that sardonic use of “truly random” and “unacceptable tinkering”, could be a sign that I have here an ID supporter; perhaps even an evangelical ID supporter?

Why not declare yourself? I won’t bite. I have plenty of time for ID supporters, because who knows, those one-off “unacceptable tinkerings” may well pop up here and there in the history of the cosmos and supplement the more “acceptable” and epistemologically tractable “tinkerings” of “law and disorder”. Perhaps ID supporters can teach us a thing or two on this score? I know I’m playing a dangerous game here with people like lawman Larry around; he might accuse me of conspiring with those who subvert scientific law and disorder.

But I just don’t take a hard line on such matters. After all, as far as humanity is concerned all those “tinkerings”, whether law and disorder or other, in the final analysis present themselves as patterns, and that really also includes “randomness”; although I much prefer the term “disorder” to “randomness” because it emphasizes “pattern” rather than “process” or “dynamic”. "Process" and "dynamic" are terms that are more likely to get loaded with emotive and metaphysical associations to do with a preconceived primary ontology. Hence we hear expressions like “truly random” – what’s the difference between “random” and “truly random”? The difference is, of course, that the word "truly" signals a difference in an ulterior weltanschauung and beliefs about just what is the primary engine creating (and destroying) the patterns of our cosmos.

As for the nature of God and how he relates to the cosmos: Yes I’m sure like everyone else I’m pretty much groping on this matter and like the rest of humanity bound not to get it quite right. Although I do have some sympathy with the Pandeist efforts to grapple with God, with them the divine personal element largely seems to be missing as you may agree.*

I remember reading an article in an evangelical publication entitled “Heresies Ancient and Modern”. What interested me was that amongst some of the more gross heresies it listed many were actually quite subtle differences from the authors own views on the Trinitarian Godhead,derived from his particular interpretation of Scripture. I was left wondering why he could be so hard on quite subtle departures from his own opinion given the Grace of God and human epistemological difficulties.

As I have said what seems to be missing from much Pandeism is the personal element, and, I would add, that it is also missing even from some forms of evangelicalism. For if God exists and we succeed in making that “Abba Father” (Roms 8:15) connection with Him, then why all the fuss about our approximate and sometimes downright erroneous renditions of the nature of God and how He relates to the cosmos? Isn’t God Gracious? When I was young my connection with my mother was such that I might have thought of her as literally being made of sugar – clearly an erroneous idea, but it didn’t stop her from mothering me, or me using that metaphor to validly convey something about our relationship. No doubt other children would have poured scorn on the idea, especially those who were of the opinion their mothers were made of cotton wool.

We’ve just got to give people the security of allowing them to take risks and allowing them to be wrong and mistaken when working in such difficult and speculative areas. We must get away from some of these high passion and ill tempered debates that are doing a disservice to a perennially difficult subject, a subject that calls for some delicate and risky maneuvering.

I hope to shortly continue my Darwin Bicentenary series by continuing to look at William Dembski’s “active information”.

* Footnote 9/5/9
What I should have made clear is that I make a sharp distinction between Aseity (=God) and the contingent cosmos Aseity creates, sustains and destroys (effectively a distinction between necessity and possibility). I am inclined to eschew supernatural vs. natural dualisms that implicitly posit a three tier system consisting of God, the supernatural world and the natural world, with man a hybrid of the latter. This three tier system is often the de facto scheme found amongst evangelicals and it has some resemblances with preliterate religion (see However, the last thing I would want to do is to try and bully people into my own point of view by suggesting that they must be evil and malign idiots simply because they don’t follow my own opinions in this very speculative area of study. It is quite possible that the pandiests are working their way toward God (see .


Anonymous said...

Why do you presume that your anonymous critic is an either/or between atheist and theist? An entire universe of shades lies between them. Granted that some assume the duopolistic stance -- Dawkins for example will tell you that all pantheists are truly atheists and all deists are truly theists, and that anyone who posits a Creator with any level of responsibility for the state of the Universe may as well be a full-blown theist. But the propensity towards heightening the contrast to eliminate the greytones stunts discussion of their relative probability.

Suppose, now, that there was a Creator, but one that made its Creation exactly right, such that it served its purpose without need of further intervention. One might think a God that created a Universe in which it need not thereafter intervene had done the superior job. And suppose that this Creator had made a Creation which exactly suited its needs, but said Creator nonetheless fell short of the traditional arbitrary benchmarks defining "God" (i.e. "all-knowing," "all-powerful," "all-loving").

Consider also, what has motivated the Creator to create? The Universe could just as well be an experiment by a Creator with no capacity for love (and in all likelihood, as special as we humans would like to think we are, the vastness of the Universe alone informs us that we can not be the sole object of the Creator's interest, even). Some Deists, including Pandeists, come down to such a conclusion. These views acknowledge Creation, but find it to have been rightly down in the first instance -- like a bowler bowling a perfect strike down a very long lane, without having to run beside the ball and nudge it straight here and there.

Anonymous said...

Having omitted a key point from the above, I will add it here. A predetermined Universe would be of no particular interest such that it would have no need to actually bring it into being once its course was known. It is as a rule of logic that the Universe must be random and unpredictable even to its Creator.

Now this does not invoke complete randomness such that a grand piano could suddenly pop into existence in orbit around Ganymede. But consider a truly balanced pair of dice, if you roll them you know a number between two and twelve will result, but not which number, which is why anyone ever rolls dice in the first place. So it is that the laws of physics which encompass our Universe may allow for an umpteen number of unpredictable occurrences within a range that insures that whatever activity occurs will include the participation (at some point) of intelligent life.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Another (less abrasive) Mr Anonymous I take it! Thanks for the in depth comments!

First post.On the first Mr. Anonymous’s theism: Not so much a presumption, but my best guess (or gamble) given that most interlocutors cluster around the atheist-theist poles; I’m simply aiming at the biggest targets (not to mention evidence internal to the first Mr. Anonymous’s statement). And not without reason are those targets biggest. When pondering the primary ontology behind our setting it is difficult to unthink the precedents of algorithmic law, disorder and variations on intelligence and personality. Our world presents us with few alternatives to work with as models of creation.

As things currently stand our vision of cosmic law and disorder is such that it all seems so utterly contingent and unnecessary. In fact given the computational nature of logic it appears that we will never discover any humanly comprehensible “sufficient reason” that obligates the cosmos to be the way it is. In fact I’d be bold and venture to say that sheer platonic possibility is the chief attribute of the cosmos and that no rule in mathematics or logic would be violated if it all disappeared tomorrow, along with tomorrow itself.

Hence taking my cue from this I conclude that the cosmos is no more self-sustaining, or has the wherewithal to take-off by itself, than a software simulation can run without a computer supporting it. So, using the computer/software metaphor my conclusion is that our world needs constant sustenance by some deeper existential necessity, as would, I guess, any platonic entity taken from the domain of mathematical possibility and reified. A creator would be bound by this conclusion, and could no more create a self sustaining contingent cosmos than he could declare 1+1 = 3.

So if there is a creator, or for that matter some utterly impersonal primary ontology underneath it all, then I’m expecting it to be an ontology of Aseity. This Aseity, with its deep existential necessity, contrasts with our cosmos which has no deep existential necessity and therefore whose existence Aseity must constantly maintain. Although I am clearly drawing on anthropomorphic metaphors in order to arrive at these conclusions, the idea of a creator who does his work and then like a proud engineer or curious experimenter stands back and watches it perform is, I fancy, rather too anthropomorphic!

As for the exact nature of the Creator: Yes, who knows, the sky’s the limit on the possibilities we can think of. But as I’m a fairly conservative liberal Christian (sometimes I’m a liberal conservative – it depends on my mood) our culture has provided some answers on that one and I don’t see many choices but to run with these and take them as some kind of revelation. After all, if “God” is some sort of impersonal process our strivings are likely to be futile, but if he is personal, loving and gracious, there’s a good chance of our seekings getting a result (Acts 26ff) . Epistemological beggars can’t be choosers.

Interesting to read your comment “ ..and in all likelihood, as special as we humans would like to think we are, the vastness of the Universe alone informs us that we cannot be the sole object of the Creator's interest, even.” In Judeo-Christian theism that can be turned right round as follows: The vastness of the cosmos is intimately bound up with the possibility of evolution, for example the ramping up of probabilistic resources. As far as our particular reified contingent cosmos is concerned, with its vast arid volumes of dead matter, it may be that a good old Jewish saying helps us here: “For a single rose a field of thorns was spared”. On the contrary, the sheer size of the cosmos may actually be evidence of the creator’s deep interest in our contingent being. That’s grace at work.

Second PostI have one or two queries here.
A predetermined Universe would be of no particular interest such that it would have no need to actually bring it into being once its course was known.

I think this depends on the nature of the creator. Using a metaphor: An author of a novel knows the plot inside out and yet he might like to see the story reified in the qualities of a different medium, like say a film or a stage production. There is, I suggest, a difference between formal structure and the existential qualities reifying that structure.

It is as a rule of logic that the Universe must be random and unpredictable even to its Creator.I’m not familiar with this logic – the only thing I can think you are referring to is the self referencing problem that arise when an agent tries to predict his surroundings; if his surroundings are coupled with his own state, he must also predict himself. But in any case, if a creator somehow stands outside the time line of his creation, as does say an author of a book, “prediction” for such a creator may be meaningless.

On Randomness: I tend go for the “randomness as disorder” school of thought; that is that randomness has more to do with pattern and configuration rather than dynamic. This view ends up by blending the domains of algorithmic law and randomness into a single category of study – patterns and their description. Why use two categories when one will do!

I’ve committed myself to a fairly conventional Christian theism but what is your own take on theism? Have you committed yourself to a point of view? I don’t think it is wrong for people to go for a particular grand world view and use it a-priori style as an interpretative framework in order to try to make sense of the human predicament – it’s only human to do that; but it must be done with humility and without any badgering of those who have selected a different weltanschauung in good conscience.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot to chew on, and a proper response will take some time. But let me ask you this, do you know what superstring theory proposes to be the substance underlying the whole of existence?

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks for the time - there's no hurry.

I don't know much about String Theory - its not a horse I've got round to backing! Actually I don't think it needs my help with people around like Ed Witten!

Anonymous said...

The current idea in superstring theory is that the fundamental particles, the bits from which sub-quarks, or perhaps some kind of sub-sub-quarks, are made, is nothing more than curled up bits of space itself, vibrating at different frequencies. Those different frequencies of vibration are, in turn, responsible for how that tiny twisted strand of space -- of nothingness itself -- acts as a particle of energy or force; and as you know, it is those particles of energy bouncing off each other that create the illusion of solidness to matter!

Now, I like your analogy above of software needing a computer to run on, and so it is comparable that vibrating strings of space need something to sustain their existence in that state. But that "something" need not be within a theistic framework.

I agree also with your statement that "the sheer size of the cosmos may actually be evidence of the creator’s deep interest in our contingent being" -- if that is understood in the sense that the Universe had to have been designed on the scale that it is in order to facilitate the development of life. But if that is the case, it can hardly be imagined that life was intended to develop on one lone planet (for if we have a life-bearing sort of Universe, the odds must be for life everywhere), and it can hardly be imagined that we are in fact alone in the Universe.

Now, as to your God-as-author analogy, it simply doesn't work. How does the Universe-as-existing reify God's internal vision of same? How would they be distinguishable? But the real point of the objection is that God would have no need to create anything if the outcome were already known, it is the very mystery of outcome which provides the motive to create.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks very much for the hints on string theory: I really do need to get up to speed on it.

I agree that the “something” which sustains vibrating strings need not be within a theistic framework. I believe that in his book “The Goldilocks Enigma” Paul Davies speculates on how a non-theistic cosmos might logically sustain itself. But in my case, for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons, I’m trying the theistic framework. Here is my reaction to Davies book and here is little bit of correspondence I had with him over it. He’s a breath of fresh air after the haranguings we get from militant atheists and religious fundamentalists.

...if that is understood in the sense that the Universe had to have been designed on the scale that it is in order to facilitate the development of life.Yes, that’s a big “if”. But taking our cue from the way science looks at the moment then given the logic of the physical regime, large amounts of cosmic space and matter seem to be the necessary “waste product” that results if one wants to generate life.

Life elsewhere? Possibly or possibly not! It is difficult to be sure either way: perhaps the improbabilities of life evolving are so great that planetary life might be scattered as thinly as one per galaxy, or perhaps one per galactic group or even less. My gut feelings are that life is pretty unique, but I’d admit that my Christian outlook may be influencing that feeling.

That’s a very good point about whether it is possible to make a meaningful distinction between God’s internal vision of the universe and an actual reified universe. Perhaps as far as the Divine mind is concerned to merely think about an object taken from the mathematical realm of platonic possibility is to effectively create it and the object then undergoes a change in quality from mathematical formality to a kind of conceptual reification (which I suppose isn’t at all far from the ideas of the computer simulationists). However, as the divine conceiver would still effectively stand outside the plot His time line may be very different from the time line of those inside the plot and this temporal incommensurability might, from the perspective of the creatures, force a distinction between a predictive formal knowledge of the plot and its conceptual reification. (See Ps 139:15ff for this kind of distinction)

But in one sense I think you may be right; there would be measure of mystery for a creator prior to a conceptual reification and that might contribute to his motives. But if in trying to get a handle on the divine mind we allow ourselves to attribute such anthropomorphic motives, we must also not leave out other possible motives: like, for example, love of the objects being created.