Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Misplaced Concreteness: The Theology of the Homunculus.

Is there an homunculus behind the scenes driving evolution?

Astronomer Otto Struve (1897 – 1963) is quoted as saying this:

An intrinsically improbable event may become highly probable if the number of events is very great….It is probable that a good many of the billions of planets in the Milky Way support intelligent life. To me this conclusion is of great philosophical interest. I believe that science has reached the point where it is necessary to take into account the action of intelligent beings, in addition to the classical laws of physics.

This statement is of IDlogical interest on several counts.

ONE: As Struve tells us sufficient trial resources (in terms of planet numbers in this case) can turn the improbable into the probable. But Struve is thinking in mere billions; this in itself is far from sufficient. For life to be generated with a realistic probability we must select one or both of two mathematical conditions: 1) An a priori physical regime which constrains the physical possibilities to such an extent that trial resources quantified with a mere 3 digit logarithm are capable of reaching life, and/or 2) A physical regime which is capable of returning trials whose number can only be quantified with a very large logarithm. *1

TWO: Interesting to note that Struve sets up an intelligence vs. physical law dichotomy –  at first sight this looks very much like the kind of thinking behind the explanatory filter epistemic of the de-facto Intelligent Design movement. But unlike the North American ID community I doubt very much that Struve was arguing from a subliminally theological position. More likely he was arguing from the point of view that “Law&Disorder” physics is a primary causal agent, whereas intelligent life is a secondary causal agent derived from physics; i.e. life is a product of the cosmic physical regime. I suspect that Struve is following the mainstream academic view that separating out physical action and intelligent action in to different categories is not a fundamental category division but one of utility: Deriving life from physical first principals is analytically difficult (if not impossible) making necessary an artificial discipline division where a higher level phenomenon like life is dealt with more descriptively by biologists.  In a similar way geologists who deal with complex geological processes don’t always work back to the first principles of physics, but cut the knot by talking about a separate category of “geological forces”; that’s not to say, of course, that geologists believe “geological forces” have any vitalistic basis. Likewise, most biologists are likely to believe that the kind of intelligence Struve is talking of would trace back to the generating power of basic physical processes. Needless to say atheists would favour this philosophy, a philosophy which doesn’t take intelligent agents as a given with all the potential there of smuggling in the divine. Of course, the de-facto IDists believe exactly the opposite; for them intelligence (subliminally, divine intelligence) must be taken as a given when reckoning up creative processes.

THREE: In the foregoing we’ve seen how intelligent action is put into a different category to “natural forces”, although for atheists this is done for utilitarian rather than fundamental reasons. It is surely ironic that this manoeuvre readily leads on to the Intelligent Design community’s explanatory filter epistemic. In this epistemic intelligent action is effectively placed on the same logical level as Law&Disorder explanations. In fact in most everyday contexts the explanatory filter of the IDists is robust; after all, something like this epistemic is used by archaeologists when they are trying to decide whether an object is an artifact or of natural origins. In short the explanatory filter is exactly the method one uses when one is faced with the possibility of action by either humans or aliens; but what about for God?

FOUR: That the de-facto ID community use the explanatory filter, a filter comfortably used by archaeologists and implicit in Struve’s statement above, says a lot about de facto ID theology.  This theology is a dualist theology where God has become an homunculus-of-the-gaps default agent of causation who acts almost within the cosmos and is invoked as an explanation when “in principle” physical explanations are difficult if not impossible to find. As I’ve complained many times before on this blog, this theology has the effect of setting up two mutually exclusive categories of causation, namely the physical and the divine. We know of course that what the de-facto ID community obliquely refers to as an “Intelligent Designer” is, behind closed doors, identified with God rather than aliens. God thereby becomes  a distinct “cause” to be lined up in an identity parade of all the other possible agents of “causation” that work within the cosmos. This has the pernicious effect of placing God very much inside creation like some super-alien, violating at a stroke both His eminence and immanence.

Moreover to talk of God being a “cause” also does an injustice to God. The notion of “causation” is itself very much a concept derived within the context of the contingent patterns of behaviour displayed by the physical universe; causation, in fact, can become difficult to define or even undefinable in connections where we are dealing with timeless patterns and/or disorderly patterns. Admittedly when talking about God it is almost impossible to do so without using metaphors based on our experience of this world, but some metaphors are not as good as others and to rank God as an agent of causation in a very literal sense is particularly insidious; the fallacy of the Kalam argument is a sign of this.

 FIVE: For myself I prefer the metaphor of the cosmos as a giant thought pattern or story created in the mind of God; it’s as if an author like Tolkien created and maintained his world of Middle Earth in his mind rather than reifying it in physical print. This metaphor satisfies to some extent the theological demand that God is both eminent and immanent in relation to the very contingent patterns of our world. We are effectively immersed in God rather than God being a homunculus who is immersed in creation as an ancillary agent of causation, occasionally turning up to do something special. The immersed human perspective on the physical workings of our world is a bit like the perspective of someone zooming in with a powerful microscope and looking at the behaviour  of individual neurons of the human mind and then wondering where the intelligence is; one only finds that intelligence at the high system level, in the big picture.

Above all, this metaphor satisfies the theological requirement for the otherness of God: The patterns of our world are contingent with no logical necessity and therefore very much other than the presumed aseity of a God who hosts them. These contingent patterns have been dragged out of platonic space and reified in an act of creative divine thought. In the sense that these patterns have a kind of immaterial platonic existence prior to reification, gives them a platonic existential status that is independent of God's existence; i.e. they are other than God. So, just as Tolkien's Middle Earth is other than Tolkien, the cosmos is other than God. God and Tolkien create in as much as they reify pre-existing platonic patterns.

It is tempting to think of the distinction between God and creation as bound up with a distinction of “substance”. But identity of “substance” is a derived concept based on our experience of the macroscopic physical world where material object integrity is only maintained by clear spatial separations and demarcations. This concept of substance breaks down, however, in the microscopic world of identical particles where it becomes clear that distinction of substance can only be maintained by clear distinction in patterns of behaviour, patterns determined by such properties as charge and mass.*2 That is, “substance” is bound up with the extrinsic properties bestowed by patterning and is not an intrinsic property.

*1.  What do you do if the universe only has a very limited number of particles, say 10^80 and therefore has very limited “trial resource” capability? Simple; you use quantum mechanics, a method whereby the possibilities open to a collection of particles are all explored at once. Individual particles are then effectively “smeared” over large volumes.

*2. Identity of “substance” is a problematical concept in the context of sheer patterning. Consider for example a binary pattern where we have two separate digits both set to “1”. Our use of common language, a language used to dealing with distinct concrete objects, tempts us to talk of these binary digits as distinct entitles, as if they had their own separate "substance"; but if this were true it would be possible to swap the digits and then claim that each separate digit has been moved. But as per quantum statistics no change has actually taken place and the "swap" doesn't count as a distinct combinatorial item. Ergo, talking about “swapping digit positions” is only a figure of speech and is otherwise meaningless.

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