Saturday, September 12, 2009
Primeval Philosophical Simplicity
The Wall Street Journal has dueling essays from Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins.
PZ Myers has looked upon what Dawkins hath wrought and saw that it was good. PZ actually adds something to the debate but Jerry Coyne, predictably, acts like the toady to the schoolyard bully, proclaiming his "victory" even after his hero tripped over his own feet while trying to catch his latest victim.
The most interesting thing from Armstrong is her claim that modern Western faith made an error attempting to put belief in God on a scientific basis:
... Sir Isaac Newton had claimed that his cosmic system proved beyond doubt the existence of an intelligent, omniscient and omnipotent creator, who was obviously "very well skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry." Enthralled by the prospect of such cast-iron certainty, churchmen started to develop a scientifically-based theology that eventually made Newton's Mechanick and, later, William Paley's Intelligent Designer essential to Western Christianity. ...
But the Great Mechanick was little more than an idol, the kind of human projection that theology, at its best, was supposed to avoid. God had been essential to Newtonian physics but it was not long before other scientists were able to dispense with the God-hypothesis and, finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God's existence. This would not have been a disaster had not Christians become so dependent upon their scientific religion that they had lost the older habits of thought and were left without other resource.
In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call "God" is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.
... Ken Ham's bizarre Creation "Museum", which on the one hand repeatedly rejects the power of human reason, while on the other constantly throws up pseudo-scientific displays that mimic those of real museums, trying to illustrate the apocalyptic fever dreams of a world-destroying flood with mechanistic explanations, from floating islands of logs that carried the koalas to Australia to faux-authentic maps of the path of the tidal wave that killed everyone; the literature of creationism is also thick with 'feasibility studies' of the engineering of the Ark, estimates of how many species could have fit aboard, peculiar adoptions of physics software that, by diddling certain inputs, they use to justify such nonsense as hydroplate theory, explanations of the distribution of fossils by hydrologic sorting, etc., etc., etc.
... [M]odern religion has rushed to emulate the trappings of science, where every explanation must have an epistemological foundation in real world observations ... [inventing] natural processes that assist their enfeebled deity ...
Mystical explanations are thought to be deep; the truth is that they are not even shallow.
What is so special about life? It never violates the laws of physics. Nothing does (if anything did, physicists would just have to formulate new laws—it's happened often enough in the history of science). ...
Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information. We know, as certainly as we know anything in science, that this is the process that has generated life on our own planet. ...
To midwife such emergence is the singular achievement of Darwinian evolution. It starts with primeval simplicity (empasis added) and fosters, by slow, explicable degrees, the emergence of complexity: seemingly limitless complexity—certainly up to our human level of complexity and very probably way beyond. ...
Darwinian evolution may not be the only such generative process in the universe. There may be other "cranes" (Daniel Dennett's term, which he opposes to "skyhooks") that we have not yet discovered or imagined. But, however wonderful and however different from Darwinian evolution those putative cranes may be, they cannot be magic. They will share with Darwinian evolution the facility to raise up complexity, as an emergent property, out of simplicity, while never violating natural law.
Where does that leave God? The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God's redundancy notice, his pink slip. But we have to go further. A complex creative intelligence with nothing to do is not just redundant. A divine designer is all but ruled out by the consideration that he must at least as complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain.
I was particularly struck by Dawkins' "primeval simplicity." PZ questions what the word "spiritual" means but apparently has not a doubt about what primeval simplicity is. Well, I do. Several, in fact. Not only what it is and where it came from but whether it is subject to the laws of physics and, if so, how do they explain primeval simplicity itself?
What's more, are the laws of physics merely human constructs (as Dawkins may be implying with the supposed ease with which we can amend them) or are they real effects in the world? Are they causes in themselves, apart from matter and energy (in which case, did they create matter and energy and, if so, how), or are they just manifestations of the existence of matter and energy (and, if so, how did matter and energy come into existence without violating those inviolate laws that did not yet exist)?
Finally, if God must be at least as "complex as the entities he was wheeled out to explain," just how does "primeval simplicity" plus evolution explain everything else? Evolution is not a thing at all and, while we may find explaining it complicated, it is ultimately simple, since "evolution" itself does not exist -- it is a description of how matter and energy interact. But if the existence of primeval simplicity was all there was, how does it explain all the entities it is being wheeled out to explain?
Now I agree with PZ that, when trying to solve our real problems here in the material world, science is the right way to go about it. But, ultimately, Dawkins' philosophical naturalism is every bit as mystical and separated from evidence-based rational thinking as Armstrong's transcendence -- which is, as she says "different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words."
Surely, "primeval simplicity" doesn't even come close.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the right solution involves drawing a distinction between theory and world-view in some non-arbitrary fashion. But I haven't yet come up with a way of doing so.
True. Even when we come up with a theory that seems to apply across every board we are aware of, there is room for doubt that Dawkins, et al., (in much the same fashion as traditional theists) simply refuse to acknowledge. That, in turn leads them to assert "truths" about the world that the evidence does not support. The closest I can come to a non-arbitrary distinction between the two is that a worldview doesn't recognize that there is any distinction.
I don't believe that they even suspect that there is a difference between science and their philosophies.
Is Scientism the correct word?
They're correct and anyone who disagrees with a jit or a jot of what they say is a delusional moron (though they may not always be open and say so) suffering from cognitive dissonance or a fractured psych.
I think I understand what drives myrrh, being faced with IDists all the time could drive anyone to extremes and a hardening of their mental defences, not sure from whence Dawkins derives his contempt.
That's one name for it. It's sometimes also called Positivism (but distinguished from Logical Positivism).
... not sure from whence Dawkins derives his contempt.
He has been a lightning rod for the crazier creationists for decades, far longer than the others.
Dawkins always writes so brilliantly about science - I think that's why his failure at philosphy is obvious. And disappoining.
A thought, though. Dawkins still doesn't seem to engage sophisticated theology. In this essay, he leaps from basically fundamentalism to (I think) something like Buhdism. Is there anything by him that takes on more enlightened views? I get the impression that he's just pretty dismissive of these efforts without really engaging them.
But what if I recast the Nietzsche quote into:
Philosophical explanations are thought to be deep; the truth is that they are not even shallow.
Just as some people argue that Dawkins has no need to analyse deep theological thought because of its elaborate pointlesness, some people could argue that he has no need to analyse deep philosophical thought. There are plenty of schools of philosophical thought, there is little fundamental agreement between them, and they mostly seem to arise separately in distinct geographic areas - just like theology.
If so, you could take the extreme view that the best way of understanding everything is science (methodological naturalism), and that religion and philosophy add nothing of importance beyond fashion.
Of course no religious believer or philosopher is likely to go along with this, and they will start arguing about what 'best' means to who, and what meaning means, and so on. But does further debate, which merely multiplies the conflicting conclusions, add any value?
*** End of Contrarian Thought Experiment ***
Not without engaging in philosophy ... in that case, by assigning value to various human activities. How do you arrive at such valuation? Arguing that science is better because it is empiric is either illogically circular (empiric evidence is better because empiric evidence says so) or self-defeating (my philosophy says that science is better than philosophy but all philosophy should be ignored).
You have chosen to stake out an area of human experience as requiring philosophy. But just as theists argue that nothing makes sense without an acknowledgement of God's existence (therefore all atheists are morally deficient), I could argue that declaring philosophy 'necessary' to make value judgements is just as blinkered.
Yes, I am being deliberately contrarian in an effort to explore the religion/philosophy/science interactions.
But there are people who live their lives as atheists, and aphilosophers, and even ascientists. They may be happy, they may not be happy. They might have values, or not.
My suspicion is that religion/philosophy/science are all activities that tend to categorise and formalise knowledge, yet real life experience is rather more fuzzy. It is this disjoint between categories and fuzziness which fuels the arguments of the deep thinkers.
and that is a philosophical statement ;)
... they may be vegetable or mineral but not so much cogent animals. If you have enough awareness to be anything close to a thinking person, you'd have to make a choice to be without philosophy of some sort (even if you don't know the name of it), which would, itself, be a philosophy.
I think philosophy is inescapable whether or not you know the name to call it by.
If it quacks like a duck ...
There are, of course, different levels of "philosophy" and they go by various names: "worldview," "religion," "politics," etc. There are primitive, undeveloped philosophies and sophisticated, well-thought-out ones. Unless your reaction to life and everything else is totally incoherent, however, there has to be some way you've organized your reactions to it. It is a philosophy-in-fact if not in name.
and that is a philosophical statement ;)