Tag Archives: science

Queen of the Sciences

vasili-belyaev-sofia-the-holy-wisdom-of-god-spasa-na-krovi-st-petersburg-rf-undated-1890s-640x336Anyone interested in the relationship between science and theology should find this passage by atheist Paul Davies interesting:

The orthodox view of the nature of the laws of physics contains a long list of tacitly assumed properties.  The laws are regarded, for example, as immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that transcend the physical universe, and were imprinted on it at the moment of its birth from “outside,” like a maker’s mark, and have remained unchanging ever since… In addition, it is assumed that the physical world is affected by the laws, but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe… It is not hard to discover where this picture of physical laws comes from: it is inherited directly from monotheism, which asserts that a rational being designed the universe according to a set of perfect laws.  And the asymmetry between immutable laws and contingent states mirrors the asymmetry between God and nature: the universe depends utterly on God for its existence, whereas God’s existence does not depend on the universe…

Clearly, then, the orthodox concept of laws of physics derives directly from theology.  It is remarkable that this view has remained largely unchallenged after 300 years of secular science.  Indeed, the “theological model” of the laws of physics is so ingrained in scientific thinking that it is taken for granted.  The hidden assumptions behind the concept of physical laws, and their theological provenance, are simply ignored by almost all except historians of science and theologians.  From the scientific standpoint, however, this uncritical acceptance of the theological model of laws leaves a lot to be desired… 

-Paul Davies, Universe from Bit

This is simply an extension of Hume’s problem of induction. All of science, if one is secular, seems to be a massive logical fallacy that works for no reason at all. It is only theists who have offered an explanation for its working (more than one actually—some are much more sophisticated than the version Davies names here).

One can always debate theism as an explanation. But it makes no sense at all to declare, without giving a secular response to this problem, that atheism is somehow the “scientific” way of thinking. Rather, modern science was invented by theists, for theological reasons, and was only later crowbarred into an atheism that has no concept at all as to why this strange, and acutely theistic, method of inquiry works.

Materialism vs Reason

NO THANKS!Let’s assume for a moment that the imagination is physical. That is, let’s assume that Thomas Nagel is completely wrong in his famous argument that qualia (sensory experience as it feels to the person doing the sensing) cannot possibly be reduced to brain-functions without seriously altering the definition of brain-function (and even science).

Of course, I think Nagel’s argument is obviously true, but I’ve argued that point elsewhere. For now, I’m interested in a different aspect of the mind: intellect.

People who haven’t thought about the subject, and even too many modern philosophers, conflate the imagination and the intellect. It is easy for people to simply assume that rational thought and picturing things in one’s mind is the same thing. But a little rational thought shows this to be false.

Take, for instance, the classic example of geometry. It is perfectly obvious, even to a child, that the concept of triangularity is different from any particular triangle one can imagine. An imagined triangle, after all, will be either isosceles, scalene, or equilateral. It will be of a particular color. It will be either hollow or filled in. And so on it goes.

But the rational concept of a triangle is not like that. It is not particular, but universal. It applies equally to any triangle one can picture.

In addition to this difference, there is a precision in rational thought that isn’t present in the imagination. It probably isn’t possible to produce a mental image of a crowd of 10,000 people that is different than a mental image of a crowd of 10,001. But the rational mind has no trouble understanding the difference.

What this shows isn’t that there is no connection between the imagination and the intellect. Of course there is. Rather, it shows that they are different things.

And this is problematic, because it is even harder to show that the intellect is material than to show that the qualia of the imagination are material.

Before I get to the reasons, I do want to interject with something that can’t be said often enough. This is not because science hasn’t been able to do this yet. It is because it would contradict science to ever do this. To argue that future science will answer the problem of intellect is no more rational than arguing that science will one day overcome the need to do math. This argument, as in other places, is borne out of a misunderstanding of science.

As to the intellect, there are at least two problems for the materialist:

First, all materialist takes on thought, matter, brain-function, etc. have failed to account for the universality of rational concepts. Even given the dubious claim that they can account for this or that imagined object, they can only account for a particular instance of a thing. Actual universal abstraction is a completely different kind of thing from qualia.

To grab a quick illustration, what counts as a valid response from a computer program depends entirely on what the programmers and users of the computers want it to do. (Some eccentric person, after all, could build a computer that is meant to melt its wiring, and to respond to every input with “5”.)

There is simply no fact of the matter about what counts as proper computer functioning apart from the human minds that design, build, and use computers. And this is because physical systems (like computers) don’t reference abstract, universal concepts. They merely operate in patterns that humans interpret as representing universals.

And this has, it seems, drifted into the second reason why the intellect is not material: there is absolutely nothing about the physical facts of a system that make it about anything in the way that thoughts are about things.

We may say that the aforementioned computer is adding, but that is only because we take certain symbols and patterns of electron movement to represent adding. The idea that what it is doing counts as adding is an arbitrary decision made by computer engineers and accepted by computer users.

A useful fiction, indeed. But it is a fiction all the same to say that the computer is adding simply by virtue of its physical properties.

Real thought has intrinsically what computers have only by convention. And this, as above, is not because our current technology isn’t yet sophisticated enough. This is a difference of kind–rather than degree.

But the real point here isn’t about computers. It is about rational thought: it is something altogether different from what we find in the material world (as science defines the material).

And then, of course, there’s this irony:

Demanding that rational thought is nothing more than physical processes is, for the reasons mentioned above, demanding that there is no good reason to trust one’s thoughts. After all, saying that thought is nothing but chemical reactions in the brain is to say that there’s no place for rationality to be involved in the process.

Materialism vs. Science

science-vs-pseudoscience_box-300x125“Now they [DNA molecules] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

– Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

“Now they are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.”

– Denis Noble (in response to The Selfish Gene)

The point Noble was making, and one which even so staunch a materialist as Dawkins was willing to concede, is that there is no scientific test to decide between these two views. These both speak to the facts as they stand, and no amount of extra empirical data could alter this situation.

Unfortunately, Dawkins seems to have missed the larger point here.

That is, this shows that there are at least some (and probably a great many) questions that are about subjects other than science. Like many (but by no means all) scientists, Dawkins tends to assume that only those methods he’s personally comfortable with and trained in is the only means of getting at truth.

He seems to have no idea that this assumption is, itself, a philosophical (rather than scientific) position.

This is the basic contradiction of scientism: that it is, itself, not established by science. But there is another point to be made here. One that is, in my view, much deeper and more significant.

For those that know a bit about metaphysics, Noble’s description of genes is vaguely aristotelian, whereas Dawkins’ is basically cartesian. This is significant in that it illustrates, contrary to popular opinion, why talk of aristotelian teleology isn’t answered by appeals to science. Science simply has no way of testing whether or not teleology exists in a particular system.

That is, whether or not a thing in the universe “points toward” something else (say, a match pointing to the creation of fire or a day-dream pointing toward Paris) is basically ignored when doing science. It has never been genuinely ruled out as a possibility.

But I say “basically ignored” rather than simply “ignored” because science (at least as it has been practiced in the last four centuries) tends to presume teleology in the same way that it presumes math and logic.

That is, as David Hume pointed out, the modern materialist has no basis whatsoever for believing that science works. Inductive reasoning is, to such a person, simply a kind of magic that has created all the wonders of the modern world.

Induction, and therefore science, assumes that there are patterns to reality: that like situations will produce like results. This is perfectly explicable in terms of teleology: all things have particular effects that they “point toward”.

The idea that science opposes teleology (and the rejection of materialism it implies) is more an accident of history than anything like a rational argument. Like so many things, it enjoys credibility by a vague association to the mythos of science without actually having been supported by evidence.

And when people begin to assert that teleological systems (such as our minds and wills) can be explained away by science, the fact that scientism is being confused for science becomes all the more obvious. Dawkins is simply a relatively recent example of those who have fallen into this trap.

What is less obvious is that this would be science “explaining away” its own foundations. And, for this reason, real science will never do this. Science is, and always has been, anti-materialist.

Theology and Science Aren’t Rivals (In Other News: the Sky is Blue, Water Wet)

touchingthevoid4601Continuing on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we come to the thorny and emotional issue of arguments from design.

Mackie himself opens with Hume’s Dialogues, which contain several lines of argument (nicely summarized by Mackie). The first to be discussed is Hume’s idea that the entire universe cannot be said to be designed, because we cannot check that hypothesis with additional information (as we’ve included the whole of our information in it).

Because he tends to be very fair-minded, Mackie criticizes this argument in that it a scientific hypothesis or theory often goes beyond the available information–and is not useless for that (indeed, many have been put to amazing use). Still, he agrees with the basic formulation on the grounds that “the theistic hypothesis” does not explain why we observe the specific phenomena that we do.

Of course, the main thing to be said here is that it is simply wrong-headed to speak of “the theistic hypothesis” at all. Not only does this assume that there is only one form of theism (a falsehood that atheists are keen to reject in other contexts), but it is simply wrong to say that theism is a hypothesis in the first place.

Those beholden to materialism are constantly in danger of treating every topic as if it were science (save, it seems, when it is their personal views we happen to be discussing). No one dismisses a literary theory, a moral code, or a proposed law on the grounds that it is not a scientific hypothesis–that the results can’t be mathematically modeled or make predictions about the particular phenomena of stories, morals, or laws.

This is because these things are not science. More specifically, it is because they deal with free agents (writers, lawmakers, and so forth), and it is impossible to give a deterministic proof regarding the acts of such agents.

But this is what Mackie is demanding of theism. And it is to grossly misapply standards.

I’m coming to agree with those who maintain that there is a current tendency in philosophers to be consistently over-impressed by Hume. I enjoy his works, and he was clearly brilliant–but his arguments against theism were mostly directed at the easiest targets.

To insist that they had much, if anything, to say about all forms of theism is to deeply misunderstand what theism actually is.

Science’s Fortuneteller

4186-1537In defending scientism (the belief that science is the source of all knowledge) Alex Rosenberg insists that he doesn’t actually need to deal with the arguments showing his position to be wrong.

Scientism isn’t required to figure out what is wrong with these proofs that experience can’t be physical, so minds can’t be brains. That’s the job of science— neuroscience in particular. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 228)

It’s already been pointed out that this is a category error–that science simply cannot, by definition, explain the mind. In fact, that is precisely what many of the proofs Rosenberg mentions show. So, to say that science will explain it is to assume, without giving a reason, that these proofs are somehow flawed.

But there is more going on here than circular reasoning. Even granting for the sake of argument that science can inquire into metaphysical objects like minds, this is no defense of materialism. This is because Rosenberg has absolutely no reason why, in order to explain the mind, neuroscience won’t need to propose metaphysical properties or substances very much like those believed in by theists.

Of course, one might object that “Of course neuroscientists won’t propose such things; they wouldn’t be doing science if they did that”. And that is exactly the theist’s point. Science doesn’t propose or test for the metaphysical, and so cannot even in principle explain things like mind or experience.

Essentially, we can’t have it both ways. We need either to see that science doesn’t test for the metaphysical, or (falsely) claim that it does. But, if we do the latter, we shouldn’t be making bold predictions that science will never find it.

But there is still the more the more modest view that, while there is no reason (at all) to think that science will show that the mind is physical, there is no reason to think otherwise. This approach is less presumptuous about what science will do, and only suffers from the fact that it is demonstrably false. Science simply doesn’t test for the mind. And, I hasten to add, is no less amazing for that; it has a very different, equally necessary job.

So, in Rosenberg, we run into one of modern culture’s more curious paradoxes. As one of scientist’s most passionate supporters, he seems to know very little about how science actually works–and it is precisely his love affair with science which, like an infatuated teenager, keeps him from seeing the real person through the illusion that he’s found the answer to all of life’s problems.

Rather than make a goddess out of science, however, we need to see it for what it is: an astonishingly useful tool for revealing physical truths, which achieves such power by ignoring (not disproving) the non-physical. Prophesying that science will one day save the materialist from proofs of the non-physical is anything by scientific.

And this is key. Scientism is not merely not science; it is positively anti-science.

Speaking for Science

pseudoscienceIn laying out his philosophy, atheist philosopher Alex Rosenberg makes quite a few bold claims about what science has shown.

Science provides clear-cut answers to all of the questions on the list: there is no free will, there is no mind distinct from the brain, there is no soul, no self, no person that supposedly inhabits your body, that endures over its life span, and that might even outlast it. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 147)

I’ve encountered this general sentiment many times, and my favorite response is simply to ask which experiments verified these claims. I know of no experiment which has tested these theories–or even a scientific way to test these claims, leaving me to conclude that science has established nothing of the sort.

It is scientism, not science, that has led Rosenberg to think these things. Much like the fundamentalist preacher who claims to speak for God, he is quick to tell us that science endorses his personal view, whether it does or not.

But this isn’t simply attempting to pass off a philosophy as science, it is a positive undermining of science. For, if there is no free will, no person, and no way that we can actually think about things, then there is no reason to trust science.

Of course, science does seem to work rather well.

There are those who would say that this is simply a brute fact. Usually, this is coupled with the statement “I’m okay with not knowing”.

But, for those of us interested in advancing inquiry, stopping here is not good enough. And, once we start to explain how science can actually work as it does, we’re back on the path to theism.

Choosing The Best Answer

CareerChoicesProbably the most significant difference between my approach to answering life’s biggest questions, and the approach of the materialists I know, is that I’m interested in the most reasonable option on the table–as opposed to proof or disproof of a single idea.

Essentially, I agree with such people that no position is perfect. While we try to get as close as we can to the truth, it will always be possible to attack positions. But it is for this very reason that I think the fact that we can attack a view does not give us cause to reject it. Rather, one needs to present a more plausible view for consideration.

This has a clear parallel in science, of course. It is not enough to make criticisms of, say, relativity. Even very good criticisms (such as the claim that, as it is, it cannot be unified with quantum mechanics) is not enough to dislodge it as the standard theory until a better view is presented.

This is of great relevance to the question of God’s existence, of course. The fact that human reason is finite seems to mean that we can’t prove anything beyond all criticism. But, that is not enough to reject all knowledge. Rather, it must be shown that there is a view which is more probable than theism before belief in God should be rejected.

Of course, much of this blog has been dedicated to the idea that materialism (which is the position of the overwhelming majority of atheists) is not as good a fit with reality as theism is. In starting it, I’d meant to address the arguments in favor of materialism, but have found very few.

And this is significant. If there are no good reasons to accept materialism, then it cannot be said that it is a more realistic approach to life than theism. Rather, it seems that theism is more in line with reality as one experiences it.

That being the case, the interesting question is not “Is there a God?”, but “Which God is there?”.