Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Evolution, providence, and the political

Again, I'm going to go against copyright for a little while and reproduce a large chunk of a really fascinating review article by James Krueger in The Notre Dame Philosophical Review. Krueger is reviewing the book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford University Press, 2007) by Philip Kitcher.

"Kitcher argues that the reason so many find evolutionary theory so disturbing is that it truly is incompatible with a certain kind of religion, what he calls providentialist religion, which involves "belief that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity" (122-123). Evolution presents two problems for such religious views. First, it makes suffering an essential part of the world. It forces us to suppose that "a providential Creator . . . has constructed a shaggy-dog story, a history of life that consists of a three-billion-year curtain raiser to the main event, in which millions of sentient beings suffer, often acutely, and that the suffering is not a by-product but constitutive of the script the Creator has chosen to write" (124). Second, all providentialist religions accept certain truths about the supernatural (for example, asserting the existence of some god). Such claims, the argument goes, are simply not subject to rational evaluation and as such there can be no reason to prefer one supernaturalist story to another. Thus the basis for accepting any particular religion disappears. Kitcher contends that these kinds of arguments are at the heart of the enlightenment critique of religion, a broader set of arguments that the debate over evolution must be situated within, and that this critique is devastating for providentialist religions.

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"It does seem apparent that no amount of scientific response will silence creationist challenges, suggesting that the mistake that drives such arguments must be found elsewhere than in the scientific detail. Here, however, is where Kitcher's approach ultimately becomes counterproductive, for like other contemporary critics of religion, he is unable to take seriously that (providentialist) religious faith could be compatible with rational discourse, that religious believers could have reasons for what they believe. All it could possibly be is a way of satisfying some deep psychological need. If the enlightenment critique of religion is correct, then there can be no rational dialogue about the supernatural, all there can be is unthinking commitment to certain truths. If that is all that is available, then religious claims must be excluded from public debate, they cannot serve as the basis for defending commitments within the context of modern democratic societies (if such debates are supposed to proceed according to reason). In this sense, modern creationists can be understood not as failing to learn the lesson of the enlightenment critique, but of learning it all too well. Accepting the absolute division of rationality and faith, the route to assuring space for religious belief becomes making all beliefs essentially based on simple commitment, not rational defense. Hence, modern intelligent design comes to take on an essentially negative form, highlighting the limits of scientific rationality. There is no longer the need to defend a positive case, for no case can be made on rational grounds. All we have is commitment. All we have is political manipulation and indoctrination. There is no rational basis for any belief, no reasoned dialogue, so anything goes (this is the source of the winks in the direction of Genesis creationism). Thus, the public focuses on evolution being "just a theory," and attention turns to public schools, political action, calls for "equal time" and the like. Kitcher is right: the arguments don't really matter, because arguments can't matter; all that remains is political activity. Religious believers come, perhaps unwittingly, to accept a kind of postmodern critique of pretensions to enlightenment rationality once they are denied the possibility of rational participation in the public sphere by defenders of such pictures of rationality. Once this happens, the prospect for a reasoned resolution to the debate disappears. All there can be is political activity.

"If this story is right, the way forward is to take very seriously the kinds of theological and philosophical arguments Kitcher takes up in his last chapter, and respond to them with careful, rational arguments defending religious faith, not to abandon rational dialogue about substantive (providentialist) religious claims. This means religious persons must move beyond unthinking acceptance and build on rich traditions of theological and philosophical reflection, and critics of religion must recognize the role of reason in such reflections and engage them on that basis. By rebuilding the long tradition of rational engagement with religion, we can give religious believers a voice that eliminates the driving force behind such ultimately skeptical arguments (exclusion from rational public discourse)."

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Integrating Davies and Weinberger

I found two interviews on Salon today that really got my brain going. Unfortunately, I can only post the chunks that inspired me. Over time I'll whittle them away so I'm not participating in copyright infringement and begin to add my own thoughts. Anyway, here are the two interviews:

Steve Paulson “We are Meant to Be HereSalon July 3, 2007. Interview with physicist Paul Davies.

There are some obvious questions about the big bang. Can we really talk about it coming out of nothing? Don't we have to ask, wasn't there something that caused the big bang?

Many people fall into that trap. But Augustine, in the fifth century, pointed out that the world was made with time, not in time. I think he got this exactly right. Of course, most people think that there must have been a previous event that caused whatever event we're talking about. But this is simply not the case. We now know that time itself is part of the physical universe. And when we talk about the big bang in a simplified model, then we're talking about not only matter and energy coming into being, but space and time as well. So there was no time before the big bang. The big bang was the origin of time.

People want to ask, what happened before the big bang, or what caused the big bang? But in a simple picture where there's just one universe, the big bang can be the ultimate origin of space and time as well as matter and energy. So unless the universe has always existed, you're faced with the problem that time itself comes into existence. And any attempt to talk about causation has to be couched in terms of something that comes after the beginning and not before the beginning ... because there was no before.

There are some obvious religious implications to all of this. My sense is that a lot of Jews and Christians are actually quite delighted with the big bang -- the idea that the universe was created out of nothing. It seems to correspond to the story of creation in Genesis.

I think there's a misunderstanding by religious people if they think that creation ex nihilo is anything like the big bang. People misunderstand what creation ex nihilo is about. It's not that there existed a God within time who was there for all eternity and then at some particular moment, on a whim, decided, "I'm going to make a universe" and then pressed a button that made the big bang. That raises exactly the objection that Augustine was addressing: What was God doing before making the universe? If the universe was a good idea, why wasn't it made an infinite time ago?

I might also say that it's always a bad idea for people to decide what to believe on religious grounds and then to cherry-pick the scientific facts to fit, because these facts are likely to change. And we may find that the big-bang theory goes out of favor at some point in the future. And then what? Religious people will have backed the wrong horse. So it's fraught with danger to seize on these cosmological ideas. But I personally think we can draw the conclusion that we live in a universe that's deeply imbued with meaning and purpose.

You want to stay away from God.

I want to stay away from a pre-existing cosmic magician who is there within time, for all eternity, and then brings the universe into being as part of a preconceived plan. I think that's just a naive, silly idea that doesn't fit the leanings of most theologians these days and doesn't fit the scientific facts. I don't want that. That's a horrible idea. But I see no reason why there can't be a teleological component in the evolution of the universe, which includes things like meaning and purpose. So instead of appealing to something outside the universe -- a completely unexplained being -- I'm talking about something that emerges within the universe. It's a more natural view. We're trying to construct a picture of the universe which is based thoroughly on science but where there is still room for something like meaning and purpose. So people can see their own individual lives as part of a grand cosmic scheme that has some meaning to it. We're not just, as Steven Weinberg would say, pointless accidents in a universe that has no meaning or purpose. I think we can do better than that.

Do you think one reason the multiverse theory has become so popular in recent years is to keep the whole idea of God at bay?


Because a lot of physicists seem to be at a loss for how to explain this cosmic fine-tuning. But with the multiverse, you can say there are an infinite number of universes and we just happen to be lucky to live in one that supports life.

There's no doubt that the popularity of the multiverse is due to the fact that it superficially gives a ready explanation for why the universe is bio-friendly. Twenty years ago, people didn't want to talk about this fine-tuning because they were embarrassed. It looked like the hand of a creator. Then along came the possibility of a multiverse, and suddenly they're happy to talk about it because it looks like there's a ready explanation. Only those universes in which there can be life get observed, and all the rest go unobserved. Notice, however, that it's far from a complete explanation of existence. You still have to make a huge number of assumptions. You need a universe-generating mechanism to give you all these universes. You need a set of laws that can be scattered across these universes, distributed in some way, according to some algorithm. You're no better off than saying there is an unexplained God.

Even the scientific explanations for the universe are rooted in a particular type of theological thinking. They're trying to explain the world by appealing to something outside of it. And I think the time has come to move beyond that. We can -- if we try hard enough -- come up with a complete explanation of existence from within the universe, without appealing to something mystical or magical lying beyond it. I think the scientists who are anti-God but appeal to unexplained sets of laws or an unexplained multiverse are just as much at fault as a naive theist who says there's a mysterious, unexplained God.

You say in your book that there's another explanation for how the universe is structured. You suggest we may actually live in a fake universe. We could be part of an "ingeniously contrived virtual reality show," as in the "Matrix" movies. Do you really think that's a possibility?

Clearly, it's a logical possibility that this entire universe could be a simulation, if we imagine that in a hundred or a thousand years we'd be able to make computers that are sufficiently powerful to simulate consciousness. You need only to believe that consciousness is ultimately a physical process, which in principle we can mimic. Then we clearly have the possibility of building a machine and feeding in electrical impulses to produce this or that sensation. So this raises the obvious question, is there a real world out there? And how do I know that it's not all a gigantic virtual reality show, with my own mental experiences being created by some super-duper computer, so that I'm just living inside this machine? Now, there are a number of philosophers who are enamored of this idea. How would we know from within the simulation that it is a simulation and not the reality? If it's a good simulation, we couldn't know. So we must be open to the possibility that this whole world is in fact a gigantic simulation.

Near the end of "The Cosmic Jackpot," you say that all these explanations about the universe are probably wrong, and "Perhaps we have reached a fundamental impasse dictated by the limits of the human intellect." Do you think future scientists will ever resolve these questions?

If future scientists are human beings, they may be stuck with the same problems that we have. The way we think, the way we like to analyze problems, the categories that we define -- like cause and effect, space-time and matter, meaning and purpose -- are really human categories that cannot be separated from our evolutionary heritage. We have to face up to the fact that there may be fundamental limitations just from the way our brains have been put together. So we could have reached our own human limits.

Scott Rosenberg, “Delight in disorderSalon May 23, 2007. Interview with David Weinberger, author of Everything is Miscellaneous.

You've described your book as an "argument with Aristotle." Here you are, it's a book about "the new digital disorder," and we're arguing with the ancients. How did that happen?

Our culture's been arguing with him for a long time. The argument is, whether there is a right order of the universe -- one right order. Aristotle didn't come up with the idea, but he was the person who articulated it so forcefully that for 2,000 years he was simply believed. This is an order in which everything has a place, and to know what something is is to know that place, and in knowing it you're seeing what makes it what it is. That's why it can't be in two places on the chart, on the diagram -- because then it's two things, and that's chaos.

You also need to know within a category, things are different from the other things in that category -- this is the genus/species idea. It's a deep and fascinating notion -- that to be something is to both be like something else and be unlike it. And it works really well -- it allows you to construct a universe. And it allows you to keep some things implicit. We know this is a bird without also having to think, oh, bird, that's a type of animal, oh, and animal therefore is a type of thing, and things all have these properties. That's one of the mysteries of knowing -- that we don't know everything simultaneously all the time.

So we have this definition, and it's clear and it's precise. The entire system is beautiful and balanced and harmonious. And this is the vision that we carried with us for a long, long time. But we've been shaking it off for generations now -- it's not like, the Web came along and suddenly we were free of Aristotle.

Multiculturalism, relativism, postmodernism -- all these things are disputing the notion of a single order. The Web just slaps us in the face with the fact that there's lots and lots of ways of slicing up the world.

But how we slice it up, how we cluster it, how things connect, depends on what we're trying to do. It's an amazing tool for consciousness to have, to be able to see the world according to the relevant attributes based upon a project -- that's what lets us survive, and do more. But that places the clustering of the universe, to some large degree, on our interests and our cares. Which is, from the Aristotelian point of view, to put it in the realm of whim and madness.

This is also why it seems to me so important that we're doing this socially. One of the mistakes that we've made in our history is to think that if there isn't a single order that's right, then it's up to every person to make it up for herself. And that's what we call madness.

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