Friday, September 20, 2013

The Kalam Argument Sucks.

Kalam: God as a boundary condition!

This event at Holy Trinity C of E Church in Norwich looks very interesting: It’s a talk by a Dr. Peter Bussey (who lives in Norwich). Dr. Bussey is Emeritus Reader in Physics and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. He appears to be part of a prestigious academic Christian scientific community who are probably not getting the recognition and air-time that they deserve in some Christian quarters*

Unfortunately I won’t be attending the event, so I’ll have to make do by commenting on the article as it appears on Network Norwich and Norfolk.

“In the beginning was the Word”. One very old argument for the existence of God states that everything that comes into being has a cause. Our universe has come into being. Therefore it must have had a cause, and the obvious candidate for this is God. The Big Bang model of the universe has provided a new impetus for this argument. However, there are a number of recent theories that see our universe as having had an earlier existence, prior to the Big Bang, which could possibly be infinite.

My Comment: The concept of “cause” envisaged here is one that is very much bound up with time: The reasoning goes something like this: “It wasn't here before today but it is here now, therefore it must have some prior cause”. I have trouble with this concept of “cause” given that physics seems to be a way of describing the patterns of physical ontology using mathematical functions. If an ontology has a given pattern, is the cause of this pattern to be found in an antecedent conditions or in the mathematical constraint that describes that pattern everywhere and everywhen?  In this sense “causes”, so-called, are found everywhere and everywhen and not just in past “boundary conditions”. I would therefore question whether it is meaningful to talk about a concept of “cause and effect” strictly bound to antecedents. In particular, a very temporal concept of causation is inappropriate to statistical patterns constrained by functions that control distributions; it is meaningless to try and explain the elements of these statistical patterns without reference to the timeless logical objects that constrain it.

In his talk Dr Bussey's talk will consider the plausibility of these scenarios and their impact, if any, on the argument for God as the first cause, known as the “Kalam argument”. The Kalam argument relies on the universe not being infinitely old.

My Comment: Binding the “Kalam argument” to a universe of finite age bears out what I have already said, namely, that the concept of causation being offered here is very much bound up with antecedents.  In this argument God takes his place amongst an identity parade of possible antecedent “causes” some of which may be designated as “natural” as opposed to “supernatural”. If one opts for the “supernatural” cause God becomes merely “the first cause” at the beginning of a chain of otherwise “natural” causation. If you are a deist then you believe that once the “first cause” has acted he stands aside and lets things run their “natural” course.  In fact Western Christian theism may actually be not so far removed from deism; the only difference being that in Western Christian theism the “first cause” is believed to occasionally “intervene supernaturally” in an otherwise quasi autonomous natural order. Thus, if you take away these “interventions” you are back to deism! The dualism here is apparent: The natural and supernatural orders are sharply distinguished as two different categories of causation.

 Quantum physics enables a causal ‘arrow of time’ to be more clearly identified than in classical physics, making better sense of the idea of a First Cause.

My Comment: What I think is being envisaged here is that the random reduction of the state vector in quantum mechanics entails a physical algorithm that every so often clears its “memory banks” of information thus making physics irreversible. (Not true in the parallel histories interpretation of QM). This will give an absolute direction to time and a stronger reality to the progressive sequential nature of physical processes, thus paving the way to a non-cyclic cosmology with an initial temporal hiatus that lends itself to the "first cause" paradigm.

There are serious problems with physical infinities and this requires that an argument for an infinitely old universe has to be rigorously stated. Considerations involving increase in entropy production, stability and the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem suggest that the universe (or any time-extended cosmos) is very likely to have had a start in time.

My Comment: The general mathematical principle being invoked here can be found in algorithmics. The computations inherent in some functions cannot be meaningfully wound back in time indefinitely. There comes a point when the computations prior to a certain time in the past are undefined. So yes, it may well be that the physical computations that run our cosmos have a definite start time. However, it is one thing to hypothesize physical functions that can’t be run back in time indefinitely and quite another to make one’s theology depend on it.

From this it follows that the Kalam argument holds, but the argument should also be seen in the context of wider theological viewpoint.

My Comment: The Kalam argument follows if your theology sharply distinguishes between natural and supernatural causes as events; that is, as objects embedded in history. In fact the argument here isn’t much more sophisticated than this: “If you can’t find a “natural” cause that did it, then God must have done it!” (Notice the past tenses here!). But if the computations of physical functions do indeed run past the “big bang” you’re back to square one because the Kalam argument is then negated.  “Natural causes did it, therefore God didn’t do it!” (Incidentally: From my reading of Genesis 1 it is not 100% clear that we have there an absolute beginning)
I have must say that I'm a little bit disappointed that scientists like Peter Bussey are still toying with the Kalam argument (if only to consider its merits and demerits) as I had hoped they would have moved on from this dualist dichotomy. In the Kalam argument God is evoked as a kind of special temporal boundary condition. If the cosmos does have an absolute beginning it would simply be another facet of  The Grand Logical Hiatus in which our cosmos is immersed. The logical edge of the universe is everywhere and everywhen and not just in the distant past where the ability of physical algorithms to meaningfully describe the patterns of the cosmos runs out. Once again God’s eminence is being stressed at the expense of his immanence. This is the paradigm of Western dualism for you.

Some relevant links:

* Just as an example, here is Uncommon Descent's anti-academia extremist Denise O'learly pronouncing on the kind of Christian community Peter Bussey represents: (Dated 19 September)

....that usually nominally Christian, group waves a halo over the tax-supported public promotion of atheism in the Western world in the guise of “science” and suggests that we all raise our eyes upward while Darwin’s followers manage the microphone and the till … Uh no, here at UD, we keep our eyes dead level, thanks. 

Notice O'Nearly's reference to "tax-supported public promotion of atheism" which I have emphasised in bold. See here for more on this subject:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Yes it’s all science Larry but not as you know it!

Spring extending and test-tube precipitating science may not be the best epistemic models for sociology.

I was glad to see that in his post here atheist Larry Moran advocates a fairly broad brush approach to the definition of science and one that doesn't exclude history and other “soft science” disciplines like, say, sociology. I'm inclined to agree with him on this. In its most general form “science” is a matter of juxtaposing theoretical narratives with experience (See my side bar) in order to make “best” sense of that experience. But this definition covers a very variegated range of epistemic activity because:

a) Ontologies vary in their amenability to the “checks” of direct experience.
b) Subjective factors as to what constitutes “best fit” introduce ambiguities, especially with complex ontologies
c) The spring extending and test tube precipitating sciences are often a misleading epistemic model for the highly open ended ontologies of complex objects.
d) Standards of scientific rigor vary with ontology and discipline.

Because the conception of science being proposed here is itself highly open ended Larry Moran might be very alarmed to learn that he has now embraced a conception of scientific epistemology so broad that even theology becomes a science! After all, theology too attempts to make sense of experience with theoretical narratives. However, the ontology theology is claiming to deal with means that one can’t expect the standards of spring extending and test tube precipitating science to apply! However, it ironic that fideist religionists and Larry Moran, although at opposite polarities, are nevertheless on the same spectrum of epistemic activity in their attempts to make sense of experience. But they are so widely separated that it seems to them that they have “ways of knowing” that are qualitatively different and don’t see themselves as occupying the same boat called “sense-making”.

In the broadest sense of the term "science" covers a very wide spectrum of epistemic activity, from the highly formal and institutionalised methods of establishment science to the informal juggling that goes on as a truth seeker tries to make sense of his experience with a world view. In this context closed-ended toy-town models of science are seen for what they are; that is, as theoretical structures that fail to do justice to one's real experience of cut and thrust epistemic endeavour.

Toy-town science has been put on a pedestal by some.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Bayes Theorem and God

Bayes: A man of the cloth

I’m making available for download this paper entitled Bayes Theorem and God. It first appeared in two parts on my blog in July 2010. (See here and here)

The interest in this paper is, as far as I’m concerned, bound up with it providing yet another angle on Western dualism; that is, an implicit philosophy that sees the world through the two sharply distinguished categories of the natural and the supernatural. My oft quoted example, of course, is the way this dualism makes itself felt in the North American Intelligent Design debate. This debate casts the question of the origin of life in a dichotomised conceptual mold: namely, that is life either the outcome of natural processes or supernatural intelligent agency and neither the twain shall meet; if it is intelligent agency then that is considered to be sure fire evidence for God, but if it is a natural product then absence of evidence may be evidence of God’s absence! 

I have, of course, criticised this dualistic philosophy many times before; see here for example. The basis of my criticism is that in the West God’s eminence is stressed at the expenses of His immanence; the upshot being that God is then seen as a disconnected homunculus who tinkers every now and again with his creation; if we see no evidence of tinkering then that is taken to be evidence of his non-existence.

A consequence of homunculus Intelligent Design theory is that it has become very dependent on disbelief in, not just current theories of evolutionary mechanisms, but in fact any “naturalistic” scenario whereby it is recognised that the physical regime has the potential to generate life. Dualistic categories that polarise natural and supernatural categories against one another inclines those who use those categories to draw conclusions like: “If natural processes did it, then supernatural processes didn't do it!” or conversely “If God did it, natural processes didn't do it!”.

Clearly, the existence of archaeological artefacts, like tools and buildings etc point to the existence of the action of human intelligence (or perhaps even alien intelligence if they surfaced on the Moon or on Mars!). But this homunculus model breaks down with Divine Intelligence. The Christian understanding of the Divine is that God’s Intelligence is totalising and immersive; being all around us it does no justice to describe it soley in eminent terms (although that intelligence can, of course, on occasion, interface with our world as if it were an homunculus). Therefore in the light of Christian theology, natural processes and Divine Sovereign management are difficult to disentangle.

If life has been generated by some kind of “natural process” (even if it’s not evolutionary mechanisms as conventionally understood) then this rules out the operation of an eminent homunculus who works within the rules of the physical regime. Instead it leaves us with a far more startling option; namely, that our universe is governed by an extremely rare and special kind of logic; one that can generate life. Alien homunculi, presumably, can’t choose or influence the logic inherent in the laws of physics. So if our universe is immersed in a regime of logic which governs everywhere and everywhen, then whatever selects and controls the operation of this very special logic is immanent and not just eminent. Given the Western Christian theological background it is difficult to gainsay the conclusion to be drawn from this; namely, that God’s presence is manifest in the very fabric of the cosmos and not just in the occasional acts of a homunculus. It is an irony that North American ID, with its dualistic categories, is not helping us to see what could be staring us in the face.

The fine tuning argument is treated similarly by North American ID: See here:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Riddle of The Sphinx

The Time Traveler was confronted by a sphinx with a faint shadow of a smile on its face.

In the two years following 1998 I wrote two essays that were inspired by my reading of H. G. Wells book “The Time Machine”. These essays can be downloaded as one PDF from here. They were my personal exploration of the loss of religious faith that is closely associated with the kind of world view implicit in The Time Machine. My copy of Wells' story, which I read in the nineties, was presented to me by my brother-in-law Jonathan Benison. It was very helpfully annotated by Jon’s erudite editorial notes, notes which proved to be very illuminating as I struggled to form my personal view on the message in the book. Jon himself was also struggling with the issues raised by the book and it was clear to me that he too didn't accept what he referred to as “reductive half-truths”; in this sense Jon was a fellow traveller and pilgrim. 

The general tenor of the book is bleak and nihilistic. In fact it is difficult to derive much consolation from Wells' world view; that view is one of a cosmos which in the large scale is utterly indifferent to human affairs and concerns, a place where beyond our very parochial context there can be found no meaning and purpose. Wells sends his Time Traveller on a mission into the far future thus giving him a startling retrospect on the heady and confident times of Victorian England. Or were they confident? Doubts were beginning to set in, it seems. From the distant vantage point of nearly a millions years hence ephemeral human affairs, according to Wells, pale into insignificance. This is what Jon Benison refers to as the cosmic perspective.

Wells was writing in late Victorian England and his views were based on what he believed to be the ramifications of the relatively new evolutionary theory. The riddle of meaning that the science of the day posed Wells and mankind as a whole is, I believe, very aptly symbolized by the figure of the Sphinx which the Time Traveller meets and which looms forbiddingly over the whole story. It is now be well over a century since the book was published, but that same riddle confronts us today. Wells was either warning us to respond proactively to the riddle of the cosmic perspective or Wells himself had actually acquiesced to it. These essays are my own reaction to this riddle.

"The Universe doesn't care about us!" said one atheist when he saw this spectacular meteor entering the atmosphere over Russia.

Further relevant links.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Science Lacking in Content

If science ever completes the descriptive jigsaw of physics then god-of-the-gaps theologians will have to admit defeat. In the meantime dualists can cling on to the benefit of gnostically inspired doubts in science!  We need to move from  a religion that trades on  gaps in science and is therefore antagonistic to it, to one that attempts to interpret the findings of science.

In this post on his blog evangelical atheist Larry Moran takes IDist Jonathan McLatchie to task for his wrong suggestion that a particular pseudo-gene could become functional by RNA editing. McLatchie has admitted his mistake.

Anyone who knows anything at all about the de-facto Intelligent Design community in North America will understand McLathie’s motivation. As Larry Moran says:

Intelligent Design Creationists don't like pseudogenes because they are junk and their intelligent designer would not fill up the human genome with junk. Hence, pseudogenes must have some function that has yet to be discovered.

I must add, however, as an aside that even if one assumes the kind of Homunculus Intelligent Designer as conceived by the North American ID community, then an absence of Junk DNA is not an absolute expectation: There is clearly a large measure of inscrutability about the personality of a sentience with intelligence powerful enough to have conceived and engineered life. Ergo, there are all sorts of scenarios one can imagine involving an homunculus intelligent designer that could conceivably explain redundant bits of genetic code, starting with a desire to retain some bits of the edit history of the DNA program (as do human programmers) through to “I can’t be bothered to do a code cleanup!”. Or perhaps it’s got something to do with the intelligent designer’s code source control methods! Who knows! North America IDists don’t do justice to the fact that any real intelligence necessarily has all the motivational foibles of a personality; and that's tantamount to introducing an explanatory object with an open ended number of adjustable variables, thus opening up the potential to "explain", that is, to "join the dots", of just about any presented data set. Conspiracy theory has a similar explanatory potential!

But the real problem with North American ID is rooted in, as I’ve said many times before, a god-of-the-gaps theology which in turn leads to Intelligent Design being set over and against what is (wrongly) referred to as “chance and necessity”.  Deeper still we find that god-of-the-gaps theology traces back to a concept of God which stresses His eminence at the expense of His immanence; hence the North American idea of the Creator is one of an homunculus who is eminent to the processes of life as might be an alien molecular engineer.

The upshot is that North American IDists are well motivated in their attempt to prove the inadequacy of physics to manufacture life, thus leading to a science of negation rather than a proactively positive science with lots of content. Larry Moran’s observation seems all too true:

McLatchie failed utterly to give us a plausible example when he discussed the GULOP pseudogene and his hand-waving references to RNA editing are useless unless he can point to another specific example. But that's what counts as legitimate argument on the creationist blogs. All they need to do is raise doubts about evolution and it doesn't really matter if their arguments make sense. McLatchie's error was to pick a specific example that could be easily refuted. Most creationists don't make that mistake. I think Jonathan McLatchie has learned the lesson. We probably won't see much science from him in the future.

Although I have a lot of sympathy with the North American IDists and would want to distinguish them from the lake-of-fire-breathing fundamentalists*, they nevertheless share a common god-of-the-gaps theology that leads them to promote a science of negation which in turn sets them on a collision course with the government controlled academic establishment who see ID science as a purely negative affair. Their consequent maginalisation from the establishment makes them susceptible to anti-government right-wing conspiracy theorists who receive them with open arms.

This is not to say that I myself am 100% satisfied with the proposed evolutionary mechanisms as they currently stand. In fact consider the relationship I stated in my last post:

Dg <= k log T + D0

The class of complex configurations of length Dg can only be reached in slow logarithmic time. This suggests to me that there may be some sort of yet to be understood (expanding) parallelism in physical processes which compensates for the slow linear time processing of conventional computation. The immanence of God may express itself in physical processes that are in effect a manifestation of intelligence at work.


* Footnote on Lake of Fire breathing fundamentalists.
As one of Jason Lisle’s fundamentalist followers triumphantly informed me:

Mr. Reeves, Your war is with God, and you've already lost. You should read your bible and believe it and repent before its too late. A lake of fire and eternal suffering await those who reject God till the end.

Lovely people! Really lovely people! I'm sure atheists are queuing up to join them like they would queue for a kick between the legs! No surprise that they rationalise their marginalisation with a separatist ideology which portrays them as a holy and elite spiritual remnant fighting against the world-wide Satanic conspiracy.