Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Dualist Theology Rears its Ugly Heads Again

Two heads are not always better than one.

In a blog post a dated 19th February and entitled “The Apologists for Religion” we find evangelical atheist PZ Myers complaining about theists who would prefer to cope with the results of science rather than contradicting them. So Myers, all too ready to strain out scientific heresy, finds what is basically a philosophical reason for why these “copers” are actually contradicting science all along. Below I quote parts of Myers blog post followed by my own comments:

Are orbital mechanics atheistic? Can we say, well, the orbit of a satellite is entirely compatible with the idea that a god is keeping it aloft — that we could imagine that this god is actually doing all the heavy lifting and flinging of the equipment about, but because he is so lawful, he’s doing it in a way that precisely mimics the movements that it would follow if it were obeying the laws of Newton and Einstein? In a trivial way, sure, you could pretend everything is being directly manipulated by a sentient and anthropomorphic (but invisible and intangible) god, but that’s mere philosophical wanking. We certainly aren’t launching satellites with prayer, and it’s anti-scientific to propose theological excuses for processes that are accurately and entirely explained by math and physics.

My Comment: For the moment let’s forget about God (or gods) and Myers naive caricature of a homunculus god moving stuff around like a poltergeist. Whatever is keeping a satellite on its course it certainly isn't a law that merely describes that course. Myers criticism is on par with saying that the technical details of a computer programmed to successfully display a 3D simulation of orbital mechanics is irrelevant as an explanation of the ostensible law-wise display which, using Myers words, would be “entirely explained by math and physics”.  This computer simulation metaphor is not gratuitous: As we know, there are some people proposing that the cosmos is a kind of simulation thus entailing explanations that would go a lot deeper than our law-wise descriptions.

The point here is that whether you are a theist or an atheist, the striving for explanation doesn't necessarily stop once a successful mathematical description has been arrived at. Admittedly there is plenty of contention with explanations such as theism, the simulation argument and the multiverse, but in each case there is an attempt to take the explanation of otherwise fairly well understood patterns to the whole new level of the metanarrative. There is a very human instinct which abhors positing very particular states of affairs as just “givens”, such as, for example, the peculiar contingencies inherent in gravitational laws, laws that cry out for a “deeper” explanation.

Myers demand for mathematical explanation is also contentious: There is no reason why all explanations should ultimately reduce to the relatively elementary mathematically tractable patterns of law & disorder. For example, much social explanation doesn't readily reduce to mathematics; in fact in social explanation elementary events may have their explanation in very complex social factors, factors that can only be described in narrative intense terms. Genuine randomness is itself a case in point: Non-pseudo random patterns cannot be explained/described using the small space, short time algorithms we derive from physics. Humanly speaking genuine randomness can be reduced no further than complex descriptions of its pattern.

Having said all that it may be that Myers has some kind of psychology which means that for him successful description feels entirely satisfactory and therefore he has no motivation to take the explanation to a higher level of narrative. Fine, but no amount of aggressive name-calling by him is going to stop those who are motivated to seek meta-level narratives, whether they be the soft science social complexities implicit in theism or the “turtles all the way down” regresses of the simulation argument or the multiverse.

Humans are instinctively curious as to why things are as they are and seek explanations that take things to a higher level, beyond the patterns readily describable. If pressed the kind of psychology which views successful pattern description as “scientific completeness” has the potential to stultify science.

Conversely, if you believe that satellites are held aloft by god-power and Newton and Einstein are superfluous, then some astronomer or engineer asserting that the laws of physics describe and explain the motion of orbiting masses is making an anti-religious argument. We understand the forces; we have good descriptions of how they work; we have repeated, independently verified, empirical observations of the mechanisms at work; we make predictions and test them using our godless explanations, and adding a god factor to the equations does not help or explain anything.

My Comment: A good theoretical description is not rendered superfluous (or contradicted) if it is embedded into a higher theoretical context. As we well know, Newton and Einstein are good descriptive explanations of gravity but aspects of their logic more than hint that they are not the last word on the subject and that meta-theories should be sought. What Myers perceives to be godless explanations is, I‘ll hazard, bound up with what he imagines to be the self-managing, mechanical feel of explanations that employ “law & disorder” as mathematical devices. That Myers thinks taking things any further does not help or explain anything may be an indication that he has the kind of psychology whose curiosity is entirely satiated once good pattern description is secured. If this is the case there then is little point in pursuing the matter any further with him; his intellectual satiation is complete.

We have been living under a system in the US for decades, in which scientists have been bending over backwards to avoid bringing up the profound conflict between religious and scientific claims, in which public school classrooms have been stripped of solid scientific discussions of evolution by social and political pressures.

My Comment: It is certainly true that in the US Biblical literalism is rampant and goes out of its way to contradict much of the the hard won content of established science. These literalist communities are at once both anti-science and anti-academia - at least academia of the publicly funded kind. In contrast, merely seeking meta-explanations doesn't in and of itself entail a necessary conflict with scientific content since it is a case of embedding established science into a higher level explanatory narrative without gainsaying that content.

What I guess to be at the bottom of Myers problem is, once again, the philosophical hang up of Western dualism. This dualism instinctively superimposes a Nature vs. God dichotomy on the origins debate (Expressed in my quote from Myers as a Newton/Einstein vs. God dichotomy). This dichotomy is implicated as the cause of a profound conflict in Western thinking because this thinking only offers up a choice between what are putatively two mutually exclusive categories; namely, impersonal natural forces embodied in law & disorder objects and God. Dualists cannot think round this dichotomy and feel sure it is a one size fits all binary choice.

The excuses don’t help. The creationists are angry at us because they’re not stupid, and they recognize what is obvious that the accommodating scientists try to deny: that accepting the mechanical and unaware nature of the forces that have brought us into existence directly contradicts their paternalistic idea of a benevolent universe that loves them and created them with conscious intent. I can see through that bullshit, and so can they.

My Comment: The mechanical nature of law & disorder explanations proves little in and of itself: Third person observations on brains yield no more than the apparently insentient and mechanical processes of neural activity and yet that is no reason to rule out the presence of the first person perspective of conscious cognition; in fact implicit in those third person observations is a first person perspective that does the observation

The “creationists” Myers refers to are likely to be those who have a dualist theology like himself and perceive the origins question to be a stark choice between so called natural mechanical processes thought to be completely unconscious vs. the interventional activity of a sentient God. As I have identified many times before on this blog the North American ID community are right behind PZ Myers in this respect and so it is no surprise that Myers should acknowledge that as far as their theological choices are concerned he and they are singing from the same hymn sheet.

Final Comments
The discovery that nature has such a remarkable organization that it can be rendered using the mathematics of law & disorder seems to have two opposite effects on people:  For types like Myers the significance of an organized nature is found in his gut reaction (and it’s no more than a gut reaction) that nature must be self-managing, perhaps even self-explaining. The North American ID community agrees with Myers on this point to the extent that they can only see the origins question as a choice between Natural forces (as typified by Law & Disorder) and God. It is this which leads the North American IDists to stake all on the negative science of trying to disprove OOL and “Evilution”. But ironically for many theists the significance is exactly the opposite: The organization of nature, particularly if it can generate life, based as it is in no mathematical necessity, is evidence of God’s ongoing sustaining providence.
The coherence of nature which makes it humanly intelligible is not a good enough reason for Myers to proclaim a profound conflict between science and theism. All Myers has shown is that his concept of theism is very much at odds with his nihilistic interpretation of the cosmos, an interpretation which itself is tantamount to being a metanarrative; paradoxically Myers is attempting “to make sense” (if such it can be called) of the lack of cosmic sense that he perceives. What is really eating Myers, I submit, is bound up with his feeling that the cosmos looks to be neither the work of sentience nor the ongoing operation of sentience; to Myers cosmic forces, though highly organized, are thoroughly impersonal and ruthless. With this feeling of Myers, which is related to the problem of suffering and evil, I have both empathy and sympathy. In contrast I certainly abhor the approach of the Biblical literalists who misread chapter 1 of St Paul’s epistle to the Romans as a direct condemnation of atheism. It is ironic that the polytheistic Romans regarded Christians as atheists. In fact Romans 1 is not about atheism but instead it is about idolatry, the misrepresentation of God in religions such as we find practiced by the highly religious Romans.

But be that as it may I essentially disagree with Myers’ brand of atheism and see it as a defeat in the face of The Riddle of the Sphinx.

* For Myers post see: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2014/02/19/nyeham-postmortem-the-apologists-for-religion/

* Relevant links:

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