Saturday, November 24, 2012

Once Again: The False Dichotomy Zone: God did it vs. Deep time did it!

In my last post I remarked on Uncommon Descent’s Barry Arrington’s tendency to frame the question of creation within the “God did it vs. Evolution did it” dichotomy. Subsequently, I was very interested to see a blog post by Young Earth Creationist Jason Lisle where, as I’d expect, we find that he too promulgates a similar perspective.  Arrington, however, isn’t a YEC as far as I’m aware, but in spite of that the “God did it vs. Evolution did it” dichotomy is seductive enough to lure a wide spectrum of views; in fact the theological categories of some atheists betray a similar underlying structure.

In a post entitled “Deep time- the god of our age” and dated 9th November Lisle tells us:

However, by their actions, Deep Time disciples do indeed imbue him with personal characteristics and powers that only a conscious being can possess…..Consider (1) Deep Time has characteristics and powers that belong to God alone.  In fact, the parallels are truly amazing!  For example, Deep Time has the power of creation.  According to His followers, he has made stars, planets, and galaxies.  He has made canyons, and mountains.  Deep Time separated the continents and oceans.  He has made all living creatures through his servant – Evolution.  Indeed, Deep Time took the elements of this world, and from that dust he made man.  These are all powers and actions that are rightly reserved for God alone (Nehemiah 9:6, Psalm 33:6, Job 38:4, Psalm 104:5-8, Genesis 1:9-10, Genesis 1:20-25, Genesis 2:7).

Lisle, of course, doesn’t believe in deep time but he nevertheless holds in his head the folk caricature that portrays the physical processes of deep time as truly creative powers rendering a Creator God redundant. Lisle is probably a fundamentalist by inheritance; that is, he was born and bred into a fundamentalism where he was taught to think of those physical processes as an imaginary pretender to God’s unique position as Creator. In Lisle’s fundamentalist mind the description of radical changes in the pattern of matter (such as gas to galaxies or elements to organisms) using physical algorithms is to render God redundant and to thereby threaten faith. In fact as he says above these are powers only a conscious being can possess. For Lisle it is an either/or choice between God and physical processes.

But there is no rational basis for Lisle’s distorted caricature of physical processes as a god pretender. So-called deep time is neither very deep nor capable of answering the profound questions about ultimate origins. A few billion years is completely swamped by the colossal dimensions of the combinatorial space in which we find living structures located. To locate those configurations or locate the rare physical regime capable of generating them (if such has a mathematical existence) is a task of extreme computational complexity, a task well beyond the resources of pure chance and our deep time.  “Deep time” leaves those questions of ultimate origin untouched. A back handed acknowledgement of this fact is the popular recourse to those multiverse scenarios that attempt (vainly I believe) to take the stress away from having to posit a cosmos that must be endowed with very peculiar and special conditions for it to work. “Deep Time” is certainly no god and cannot even be caricatured as such: Deep time is in fact a mere host that has been impressed with some very unique patterns of behaviour; that these patterns have been smeared out over a relatively short space of time is remarkable. But the fearful Lisle is not going to see it in these intellectually neutral terms; for a marginalized/persecuted YEC like Lisle the claimed output of deep time looks so suspiciously god-like that for him the question of creation is very much framed, as it is for Barry Arrington, by a dichotomy - in this case the specific dichotomy is being expressed as “God did it vs. deep time did it”. *

Another of Lisle’s naiveties is the common YEC misconception that separates out “historical science” (such as evolution) from “operational science” (such as physics):

  Although Deep Time has nothing to do with science, often the science and the stories are interleaved such that it can be difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends! 

YEC’s are unable to deny the success of the hard sciences like physics and chemistry, sciences which deal with present tense continuous processes. But natural history, of course, is anathema to YECs and so they attempt to drive a wedge between history and physics. But as Lisle admits above it can be difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends! There are good reasons for those difficulties of distinction, because all science is at once both highly historical and yet highly contemporaneous: The present tense continuous processes of physics are justified by a history of documented evidences, evidences that are in fact signals from the past. Moreover, new evidence never emanates from circumstances that exactly reproduce the past and so the interpretation of new evidence depends very much on a knowledge of history. Ergo, physics is grounded in history. And historical science is grounded in the present: Events long past leave a present tense continuous trace of evidence that can be used as test material. In both physics and history the logic of the general epistemic problem is the same: Viz. that of endeavouring to infer the form of an otherwise inaccessible structure from a set of data samples. Fundamentalist attempts to undermine “historical science” ultimately subverts both science and history and rides rough-shod over the assumption of a rational readable world.

Lisle’s thought life is impeded by a set of flawed stock arguments and concepts repeated endlessly in YEC circles. These he can’t or won’t think round; to question or review those stock arguments and concepts will smack of compromise and spiritual failure. In fact the chief polemical weapon in the fundamentalist’s armory is less reason than it is a deep resource of spiritual invective that is ready to use to impugn the consciences of Christians who question the YEC tradition. The following quotes speak for themselves:

Disciples of Deep Time worship him with reverence and awe.  They may deny this with their words, but their actions indicate that they do cherish this god above all others.  This makes sense: if indeed Deep Time does have the powers and abilities that his disciples attribute to him, then he should be worshiped…..Since Deep Time is so contrary in nature and actions to the God of Scripture, it is disappointing that many Christians attempt to honor and serve both of them……. It’s not that modern Christians want to give up the True God.  Rather, they simply want to add another god, one who is contrary in nature and actions to the Living God…... Remember reading of Baal?  Baal was the Canaanite god of weather and thunder.  The Israelites often fell into Baal worship, in violation of the First Commandment.  Elijah pointed out their absurd inconsistency in 1 Kings 18:21, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.”  It was illogical for the Israelites to attempt to serve two contrary gods (and immoral).  Are we any different today when we try to add other gods to Christianity? No man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).  …..Those Christians who want to believe in Deep Time along with the biblical God are being dreadfully inconsistent.  They may claim that they serve the Lord alone, but by their actions they reveal that Deep Time is their primary god, and the Lord is secondary. 

According to Lisle Christian scientists like John Polkinghorne, Chris Isham, Ken Miller, Denis Alexander, Simon Conway Morris, John Lennox, and Francis Collins, (not to mention many Uncommon Descent contributors) are worshipers of a strange god who is contrary in nature to the living God. Lisle is accusing them of violating the first commandment and therefore of being little better than idolaters and worshippers of Baal; in fact Lisle implies that deep time is their primary god! Given that God is probably the most important thing in the life of these scientists we begin to appreciate how deeply a YEC is prepared to insult the faith of other Christians.

But to be fair to Lisle we need to put this sort of invective in context. Lisle is very much part of a minority, a minority he perceives as persecuted and having to fight discouragement:

Textbooks that fail to acknowledge the supreme lordship of Deep Time are not likely to be used, or even published.  Those who wish to work as professors must swear allegiance to Deep Time and His servant Evolution if they want to be hired……It can be discouraging to see so many Christians attempting to serve the pagan god Deep Time.  It often feels like the Christians who truly stand on God’s Word are so very few.  But we should remember that Elijah was discouraged as well.  In a time when he was afraid for his life, and thinking that he was the last faithful believer he cried out to God (1 Kings 19:14).  But the Lord responded, “Yet I will leave 7,000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:18).  Think of this the next time you are discouraged about the rampant compromise within the Church.  How many more Christians has the Lord kept for Himself who have not bowed the knee to Deep Time?

Lisle does try hard to be logical and scientific, and his personality type favours a rational faith. But he is limited by the strictures of the inscribed-in-stone 6000 year time frame of fundamentalist Christianity, a stricture impelled with the kind of threatening spiritual language that we have seen above. Lisle is stuck with the legacies of his past; a born and bred YEC he is now trapped. Status and loyalty binds Lisle to his flock of admiring followers who look to him as a champion against the encroaching philosophy of profane science. Therefore Lisle is unable turn his back on them without a great betrayal apparently taking place. It is probably too late for Lisle to change; his boats were burnt long ago. Thus Lisle finds himself very much locked in to a reactionary and anachronistic cultural minority not unlike the Amish. But for the Amish a self-imposed separation insulates them from the grief and aggravation that comes through intercultural contact. But this is not an option for YECs who are committed to doing all they can to convert Christians to their 6000 year time scale, But if they are making such little headway with Christians what hope do they have with secularists? No wonder Lisle is discouraged!

Fundamentalists like Lisle are apt to regard those who are not with them as being against them and in their spiritual conceit they see those who are against them as necessarily also against God. Not surprisingly then for the marginalized fundamentalist evil appears to lurk round every corner and they view the world beyond their cultural boundaries as totally depraved. Consequently, a profound distrust colours and pervades their perception of their social surroundings and this makes them susceptible to the paranoia and false dichotomies of conspiracy theory(Also see hereFor fundamentalists the creation question is also cast into the mold of a false dichotomy: Either one accepts  the YEC view of God as a magician who speaks creation into existence or one is in danger of entering the eternal fire for believing  nonsense about creation somehow being able to create  itself!

Addendum 01/12/12: Fundie 'Elder Statesman' Breaks Rank!
An indication of the isolation of YECs comes from a video posted on PZ Myers' blog (A very useful source on  the state of American fundamentalism). In this video we find Pat Robertson, an "Elder Statesman" of American right wing Christianity, disowning Young Earth Creationism. This is what Robertson says:
If you fight revealed science, you’re going to lose your children! And I believe in telling them the way it was.
As far as I'm aware Robertson is influential so this looks to be good news. But then given the number of pathetic "prophetic" gaffs he's known for this could be a  mixed blessing.

Note 9/03/13  The following is a quote I have recently picked up from a fundamentalist:  "....the big bang is a secular idea to try to explain the universe without God! ". In this fundamentalist's mind those who believe in big bang are, as we have also seen in the case of Lisle above, being accused of setting up an alternative to creation by God. This straw man is being wrongly foisted on Christians who accept established science and who see the cosmic story as simply a description of a natural history rather than the god pretender portrayed in these fundamentalist's distorted caricature. The "God did it vs. Naturalism did it" is a dichotomy that is very much centre stage in the fundamentalists mindset.

* In his post Lisle attempts to press home his argument against deep time with a moral argument about the dispassionate cruelty of physical processes. This is essentially a question bound up with problem of evil and suffering, an issue I’m certainly not touching here except to say that it is as much a problem post-Adam as it is pre-Adam. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The False Dichotomy Zone.

Religious fanaticism vs. a cool head

When Barry Arrington took over from William Dembksi as moderator of Uncommon Descent that blog took an intellectual down turn. Arrington sees the evolution debate very much in the frame of the “God did it vs. Evolution did it” dichotomy. Arrington, it turns out, is a fine example of the polarized naturalism vs. supernaturalism habits of mind that dominate the American debate. What brought this small post of mine on was a post by Arrington that typifies his views. I’m not going to a spend my time systematically working through Arrington’s article exposing his philosophical naiveties except to provide this link which deals with the God did it vs. Evolution did it dichotomy. (See also here)

I don’t particularly want to make enemies of Uncommon Descent; a lot of worthwhile posts and commentary can be found there and I am an open ear when it comes to criticism of the mechanism of evolution as it is currently understood. However, there are some contributors at Uncommon Descent that have thoroughly alienated me. American ID appears to have become bound up with the very dangerous political polarization we see in that country. Fanatical commentary emanates from high places, such as, for example, the denouncement of evolution as Lies straight from the pit of hell. With this sort of fulmination the musty smell of irrational fundamentalist zealotry hits you straight away; it comes straight from the seething cauldron of authoritarian, sectarian and cult religion. It gives me the creeps.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Coping with White Space

In the video above atheist Sean Carroll explores the implications of his ulterior metaphysical vision of ontology, an ontology he believes to be all embracing and exclusive, in affect defining the boundaries of all he thinks has been, will be and is. This kind of ontological exclusivism is a common metaphysical interpretation of physics. Although I’m a great fan of the coherent highly integrated world that physics paints, I wouldn’t say that I’m so taken by it as to make it the basis of an all excluding metaphysical ontology, a metaphysic that doesn’t dare speak its name for of fear of being recognized as such.
Nevertheless there is plausibility in Carroll’s philosophy, a philosophy which is an arguable construction any reasonable person may feel they can place upon human experience and the human predicament. But plausible is not the same as rationally obliging, and in my opinion one can dissent from Carroll’s views with a clear scientific conscience in spite of the insistence of some secular fundamentalists to the contrary. The sort of ontological exclusiveness Carroll espouses looks suspiciously like a way of coping with the white spaces at the edge of knowledge by circumscribing it away.
I would not only question Carroll’s ontology but also his epistemology. There is a delicate balancing act to be maintained in the negotiations between institutionalized science and the wild card of human experience. If either is allowed to dominate the other intellectual pathology is a consequence. For example, there may come a point when the political entrenchment of institutionalized theories is so great that it is impossible for experience to inform them any longer, as Galileo found out. Conversely experience can lack the rational framing that it badly needs for its correct interpretation – something that I can personally testify to having seen what happens so often in evangelical Christianity. As regards this balancing act I find Carroll far too institutionalised to be an objective observer.

Video Content
Near the beginning of the video Carroll tells us triumphant tones:
In our thousands of years long quest in understanding the universe and how it works.. …we have finally figured out what the rules of the game are.
My Comment: May be or may be not; I can’t be this bullish myself. I construe Carroll’s scientific triumphalism as a reaction against the religious fundamentalists with their quack “science” who are very much abroad in America. Anomalies, in particular, have a way of eventually opening up into huge paradigm shattering vistas. And who knows there is still plenty of room in physics for anomalies to crop up! Physics is yet a fully integrated and exclusive system.
Carroll tells us that the (relatively) easy part of science is that of determining the rules of the (physical) game but the hard part is applying those rules successfully. This is probably true. However, I think we need to bear in mind that there are two types of rules: Viz: a) The local rules of a cellular system ontology. b) The non-local rules of an ontology constrained by global constraints. Currently physics is almost exclusively based on a cellular ontology, which is probably why the ideas of Nobel Prize winning physicist Ken Wilson apply. But what if non-local rules exist? Could we easily detect them?
Your friend says “I’ve always been partial to the green cheese hypothesis; I think the moon is made of green cheese”
My Comment: Carroll commences the easy work of refuting this idea from the point of view of physics, a physics which allows us “ahead of time” to contradict such arbitrarily constructed hypotheses. But this is as easy as shooting a rabbit that’s just been pulled out of the hat. Life is much more difficult if the rabbit has been spawned in the hedgerows and knows the ways of the wild: The moon landing conspiracy theory is also absurd, but it is a lot less easy to refute with just mockery alone. This is because it is not an arbitrary creation and didn’t appear “just like that” out of a hat. Rather, it has a history with causes deeply embedded in the current social malaise, a malaise of disaffection that generates a strong emotional rationale for this kind of conspiracy theory. Moreover, it doesn't do anything so obviously radical as to posit a very explicit break in the laws of physics (Unlike the green cheese “hypothesis”)
We don’t understand turbulence, weather, high temperature superconductivity, cancer, consciousness, economics…
My Comment: Note that “consciousness” appears in this list – it’s being categorized as a phenomenon to observe and explain, just like the weather: But where do I go to observe some consciousness? Don’t tell me a person’s brain, because all I ever observe there is a combination of a neural activity and emergent behaviour.  If “consciousness” is just a way of talking about a complex emergent aggregated phenomenon, then what’s the analogous term for that aggregated phenomenon we call the weather? Weather is a system composed of a huge number of particles which exhibits emergent behaviour such as storms, but it is wrong to conclude that storms are to air and water molecule as consciousness is to neurons. The conundrum of consciousness is that although human beings are a cluster of emergent behaviours that is not the same as consciousness. One doesn't observe conscious cognition; rather it is conscious cognition that does the observing; it is the beholder and not the beheld. Carroll can’t have it both ways; either he should simply ignore consciousness, or if he wishes to recognize it as something significant (as he has effectively done above) he shouldn't include it in his phenomenon list; in which case this would be an admission that consciousness doesn't classify as a member of the class of phenomena.
 You can’t bend spoons with the sheer force of your mind. There are no forces of nature which allow you to do that…Astrology cannot work; there  is no force that can extend from those stars to my little birth place…. We already know ahead of time that they cannot be right because the claims they are making are not compatible with the laws of physics as we know them
My Comment; Fair enough but only if we feel sure, “ahead of time”, that the cellular model of physics is all embracing and exclusive!
There is no life after death…That’s because there are no particles or forces that could contain the information in your brain after you die…that’s not compatible with the laws of physics as we know them. We don’t need to look carefully at past life regression studies or anything like that; the claim violates the laws of physics
My Comment: I suspect Carroll may be trading here on the connotations of the words “laws” and “violation”. The laws of physics don’t know themselves to be literally “laws” that cannot be “violated”; rather they are mathematical constructions describing patterns consistent with our observational experiences to date; this latter take, which uses neutral words like patterns in place of emotive words like laws or rules, doesn’t allow us to form statements with negative connotations such as “A violation in the laws of physics”.
Physics comes with an implicit understanding of the set of circumstances to which it applies: Viz: For all O then P , where O is a set of observational/experiential connections and P is the claim that physics ultimately “explains” O. The big question here is this: Are we to regard “O” as covering all possible experiences or just a subset of experience? At this point a philosophical leap has to made: For example, we might assume that the ontology physics handles (i.e. objects called fields) is inclusive of all there can be and that therefore “O” must cover all experiential connections. Accordingly, it might be argued that there is no observational evidence for O that isn’t explained by physics.  (This is what I mean when I refer to Carroll’s ulterior ontology). But in saying that we are, in fact, making a universal statement that is subject to the test of experience; that is, ultimately it is experience that is used to negotiate with a statement like For all O then P. Ergo, sufficiently compelling claims of occult experience are always on the agenda for analysis whatever Carroll likes to think ahead of time.
Having said that, however, we must recognize that “occult” claims are usually liminal in nature and therefore Carroll can hardly be blamed if he feels “ahead time” that these experiences are not compelling enough to warrant further investigation. Moreover, Carroll has a huge stake in the scientific establishment and therefore may be motivated by the all too human trait of desiring to draw a line round what can be defined as authentic experience, thus paving the way, ahead of time, for dissenters to be accused of the scientific equivalent of heresy!
There is no ghost in the machine. What you are is a collection of atoms obeying the laws of nature.
My Comment: I don’t believe in the ghost in the machine myself, but Carroll’s second statement here is blindingly obvious, and yet at the same time omits the blindingly obvious. It is clear that any observation one makes on a person will only ever reveal the third person perspective of matter aggregates in motion; that and emergent behaviour.  It is also obvious, and this is what Carroll is missing, those observations which are the data samples for our physical theories about human behaviour cannot be meaningfully divorced from the conscious cognition that is the assumed agent and underwriter of these samples. Ergo, third person narratives always entail an implicit and irremovable first person perspective. However we couch it, whether in first or third person terms, conscious cognition is always lurking in the background as the source of the data samples that are the rationale of all theorizing.
 I am myself very comfortable with the idea that conscious cognition can “explain itself” in the third persons terms of atomic motions in the brain. But in spite of that we never approach a another person is if they are just a collection of atoms or even a collection of high level stories that are simply a convenient way of talking about the emergent behaviour of that collection of atoms. Rather, a parallel story of conscious cognition is the empathic construction we make and associate with those third person observations on neural atoms; we know what it “feels like” to be that configuration of atoms and fields. It is this dual story of the first and third persons that flaws Carroll’s category system which places “weather” together with consciousness cognition. Weather may be a convenient way of talking about a huge collection of particles, but all said and done it is still a third person perspective and as such it is not a logical analogue of conscious cognition; the latter is in an entirely different logical category altogether. The stories of the first and third person perspectives cannot be reduced to one mother; they are two parallel perspectives that arise when conscious cognition makes observations on conscious cognition.