Monday, January 30, 2012

In the mail

1. Tyson sent me this interesting article on scientism as it relates to the attempts to apply materialism to the mind. It's an appreciative review of the book Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity by secular humanist Raymond Tallis.

2. Matko, remembering this post, points out that communism, fascism, and Nazism all share the same origin in Karl Marx. He suggests I read -- in this order -- The Birth of Fascist Ideology by Zeev Sternhell and Marxism, Fascism, and Totalitarianism: Chapters in the Intellectual History of Radicalism by A. James Gregor. I'm a little preoccupied with my dissertation at the moment, so I encourage my readers to beat me to the punch.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Quote of the Day

Considering the evident dangers of applying the adaptationist program incorrectly, why are the Darwinians nevertheless so intent on applying it? The principal reason for this is its great heuristic value. The adaptationist question, "What is the function of a given structure or organ?" has been for centuries the basis for every advance in physiology. If it had not been for the adaptationist program, we probably would still not yet know the functions of thymus, spleen, pituitary, and pineal. Harvey's question "Why are there valves in the veins?" was a major stepping stone in his discovery of the circulation of blood. If one answer turned out to be wrong, the adaptationist program demanded another answer until the true meaning of the structure was established or until it could be shown that this feature was merely an incidental byproduct of the total genotype. It would seem to me that there is nothing wrong with the adaptationist program, provided it is properly applied.

Ernst Mayr
"How to Carry Out the Adaptationist Program?"
The American Naturalist 121/3 (1983): 324-334.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Two Faiths

There's a wonderful passage in Philippians 4:6-7 where Paul writes, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." My question is, why the thanksgiving? What does thanksgiving contribute to the process? Prayer and petition I understand; indeed, I don't see the difference between them in this context. To petition God is to pray. To present a request to God in prayer is to petition him. That's another problem I won't go into; meanwhile, I'm still asking about the thanksgiving part. Is it just that to ask God for certain things requires that one is in a right relationship with him, and this requires, among other things, a general attitude of thanksgiving? I guess that's possible but I don't think that's what Paul is saying here.

Let me present my answer to this question by first pointing out that we tend to think of "faith" in two ways. The first is discussed in Hebrews 11:1: "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Being certain of what we do not see suggests that everything that one is not seeing at the present moment is believed on faith. I think we can extend this beyond sight as the author of Hebrews presumably did not mean to exclude things that we are immediately experiencing via some other sense or introspection. Even so, taken this way, faith is incredibly broad. It would mean that I have faith that the wall behind me is still there while I'm typing this. I have faith that the dinner I just had with my family actually happened. The only thing we would not call faith are those things that one is immediately experiencing at the present moment. Since the future is precisely such a thing, we are exhorted to have faith that God will keep his promises. This kind of faith is propositional in nature, it is intellectual assent, and it is not the faith by which we are saved. When people say they believe that God exists by faith they are employing this concept of faith. You have faith that a particular proposition is true or false. I have faith that the wall behind me is still there, even though it's not immediately present to my mind. This is problematic however since God sometimes makes his presence known to people directly, in such a way that we are immediately aware of him. According to this first definition, we do not have faith in God at those moments. It's no good saying, "Yes, maybe in those moments we don't have faith because we know God is there," because faith has traditionally been conceived of as a kind of knowledge. So this strikes me as a problem for the first type of faith.

The other kind of faith is also in Hebrews 11:1. This is not intellectual assent, it is essentially trust. Faith like this is not faith that God exists, but trust in him. So the statement "I have faith in God" can be taken in two ways: it can be taken as an assertion that the person believes that God exists, or it can be taken as an assertion that since God exists, the person trusts him. The presence of this second kind of faith in Hebrews 11:1 is not self-evident; it comes from asking the question, "Why should we be sure of what we hope for?" The reason is that we can trust God. It is based on what God's character is like, based on the Bible and on one's experience of him. Our experience of him does not necessarily refer to theophanies or the like; it refers to the experiences we have had in which God was faithful to us, where he showed himself to be trustworthy by bringing us through difficulties or blessing us with things we asked for.

And now we can see why we should present our requests to God "with thanksgiving." We are being told that, when we ask God for something specific, we should reflect on the times when God showed himself to be eminently trustworthy. This doesn't mean that he will do everything and anything we ask for. It means that we can trust him to carry us through whatever happens. We can trust that he has our best interests at heart. Jesus said it: "Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?" We may think our best interests entail a particular state of affairs and pray that God bring about that state of affairs. God has a longer view than we do, and in all likelihood knows a few things about what we're asking for that we don't know. But he also loves us and loves to bless us. Regardless, when we ask God for something, we should do it with thanksgiving, thanksgiving for how he has carried us through the fire in the past. The point being that this should impact our confidence in asking for God to give us something in particular. In fact it should do more than impact it, since Paul tells us what the result will be of presenting our requests before God with thanksgiving: "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

That's all I need to say about the Philippians passage, but I have more to say about these two concepts of faith. They are closely related. When I was a kid I had faith that my mother wouldn't deliberately hurt me or allow me to come to harm. This is clearly the second kind of faith. But just as clearly, it can be formed into a proposition that I believed, since I just did so. So I can have the first kind of faith that the proposition "My mother won't hurt me" is true. I can also just trust my mother based on my experience of her as a loving, gentle woman who loved me dearly.

Here's another point: neither kind of faith is incompatible with evidence or proof. If I had been intellectually sophisticated enough, I could probably have provided plenty of evidence attesting to my mother's character and that hurting her child is incompatible with this character. I could even have constructed this evidence into an argument demonstrating it. Did I have evidence? Yes. Could I have proven it beyond any reasonable doubt? Yes. Did I have faith? Yes. The only point where faith would conflict with evidence is the point mentioned above regarding the first kind of faith and something immediately present to the mind. But this is because my belief in something I'm directly experiencing -- that I'm looking at a computer screen right now, or that I have a headache, or whatever -- isn't really a product of evidence. I don't weigh the evidence for or against something I'm directly experiencing. I don't formulate an argument like: "via introspection I discover that my head hurts; introspection about what one is directly experiencing at the present moment cannot be mistaken; therefore I believe that my head really does hurt." My belief is not based on evidence or argument at all. Of course, this brings us back to the claim that God can and does reveal himself directly to our minds. This would then imply that we do not require evidence or argument to believe in him either. As mentioned above, this would seem to conflict with the first type of faith. But perhaps we can comfort ourselves in those moments by settling for the second.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The benefits of science-fiction in Christian ministry

I found an interesting statement by Frederik Pohl, one of the great science-fiction authors, in the afterword to his story "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" in Dangerous Visions (published in 1967).

Between the time I wrote "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" and now, I met a minister from a small town in Alabama. Like many churches, not only in Alabama, his is torn on the question of integration. He has found a way, he thinks, to solve it -- or at least to ameliorate it -- among the white teen-agers in his congregation: he is encouraging them to read science fiction, in the hope that they may learn, first, to worry about green-skinned Martians instead of black-skinned Americans and, second, that all men are brothers ... at least in the face of a very large universe which is very likely to contain creatures who are not men at all.

I like the way this man serves his God. It's a good scheme. It ought to work. It better work, or God help all of us.

Of course, I hope that if there are intelligent aliens out there that we can recognize them as brothers and sisters. But I like the use of science-fiction to show that we should start that process by recognizing other human beings as brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Islam and Terrorism

Here is an excellent article by a Muslim denouncing terrorism. He doesn't pull his punches at all.

All of these attacks have been conducted by people who call themselves "Jihadis", this they claim is their struggle in the path of God. One cannot imagine to what extent the minds and the hearts of these people have become poisoned that in the month of Ramadan when even frowning is undesirable, they chose to murder and maim indiscriminately. The most incomprehensible aspect of these atrocities is that a vast majority of their victims are the very people on whose behalf these wars are waged!

If they want to fight and die for God, they are welcome. There are over 200,000 American soldiers, in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are there specifically to oblige them. Why not go and fight them?

These cowards, who call themselves Jihadis, run and hide from soldiers seeking to fight them and instead target helpless and unarmed civilians. They repeatedly confirm that they have no regard for social order, for law, for human life and even for the sacred injunctions from the God whose pleasure they seek through violence.

If they really wish to wage a Jihad (struggle) in this holy month of Ramadan, then their first target should be their own cowardice and the profound Jahiliyyah (ignorance) that disables them from seeing what is right and what is wrong.

I'm always encouraged by this kind of thing, because I believe that the repudiation of Islamic terrorism has to come from within Islam in order to have any effect. Of course, as he points out, since the vast majority of the people being killed and maimed by Muslim terrorists are Muslims -- and since the terrorists have not exactly demonstrated a high level of rationality -- it's doubtful that being condemned by other Muslims would have any influence on them.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Brubeck on Chopin

I've never been much of a fan of jazz music, but some of the greats just amaze me. Dave Brubeck and the way he plays with meter is incredible. The only Brubeck CD I have -- really the only jazz CD I have -- is Jazz Impressions of Eurasia. One of the songs on there, "Thank You (Dziekuje)", barely qualifies as jazz at all: it's a tribute to Chopin that sounds like an original piece by him. I'm not exaggerating, it's just stunning.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Living overseas (or as I call it, "elsewhere") means that I'm out of the loop for a lot of the cultural phenomena that take place in the United States (or as I call it, "civilization"). While I don't experience such phenomena, however, I sometimes still learn of it via the Internet. So I hear about Denver quarterback Tim Tebow and how he is a polarizing figure because he constantly drops to one knee to thank God for his athletic abilities after plays. One of the frequent objections I keep hearing is that he's just not a very good quarterback: he's not a good passer, he does a lot of the running himself, etc. Tebow's defenders point out that Denver was having a very bad season before he was made the starting quarterback, and since then they not only managed to get a winning season, they went on to the playoffs and even managed to pull out a surprise upset last week. So by what standard are his detractors saying he's not a good quarterback? He doesn't complete a lot of his passes, sure, he just keeps winning instead.

Now I have no idea whether Tebow is a good quarterback or a bad quarterback. But these claims reminded me of a passage by Dallas Willard in Hearing God where he discusses the 19th century evangelist D. L. Moody.

In his day Moody was a constant source of wonder precisely because the effects of his ministry were so totally incommensurable, even incongruent, with his obvious personal qualities. He was a man of very ordinary appearance, unordained by any ecclesiastical group and quite uncultured and uneducated -- even uncouth and crude to many.

At the height of Moody's effectiveness, between 1874 and 1875, Dr. R. W. Dale, one of the leading nonconformist clergymen in England, observed his work in Birmingham for three or four days. He wished to discover the secret of Moody's power. After his observations were completed he told Moody that the work was most plainly the work of God, for he could see no relation between him personally and what he was accomplishing. A smaller person might well have been offended at this, but Moody only laughed and replied that he would be very sorry if things were otherwise.

Perhaps that's an explanation of why Tebow is so successful despite not being a good quarterback (assuming, of course, that it's true he's not a good quarterback). God sometimes reveals himself this way. And I suspect if someone told Tebow the same thing Dale told Moody he would respond the same way Moody did.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thought of the Day

I told my father that Nietzsche said God is dead. My father laughed, then said, "I don't think Nietzsche's going to win that particular fight."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Breaking news from the heliosheath

Last month Voyager 1 passed two important milestones. Voyager 1 is currently 120 a.u. or 16 light-hours from earth, and is travelling at over 60,000 kilometers (38,000 miles) per hour. It is the farthest and fastest spacecraft yet built. Even so, it will take another 14,000 years before it travels a single light-year.

First, it detected the Lyman-alpha radiation from the Milky Way galaxy for the first time. We detect Lyman-alpha radiation from other galaxies no problem, but the radiation from our own sun drowns out our ability to detect it coming from our own galaxy. So Voyager 1 is far enough away from the sun that sun's radiation is no longer overwhelming the Lyman-alpha radiation. I find this pretty amazing.

Second, scientists have been estimating that Voyager 1 could break through the heliopause any day now, almost certainly by 2015. This is the point where the solar wind stops pushing outward from the sun because the radiation from nearby stars, the stellar wind or interstellar medium, becomes more powerful than it. The heliopause is usually considered to be the boundary of the solar system. In other words, Voyager 1 is on the verge of entering interstellar space. A month ago, they announced that it had reached a stagnation region or "cosmic purgatory" where the solar wind was starting to turn inward. The interstellar medium is beginning to force the solar wind to turn back toward the sun. Again, I find this pretty amazing.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Eliminating Reductivism

Bill Vallicella has a couple of great posts on the attempt to avoid eliminative materialism while still maintaining a reductive materialist stance. His first post engages Jaegwon Kim's Physicalism, or Something Near Enough, a book I desperately want to read, and his second post clarifies some issues. Good stuff.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Multiversial Musings

The multiverse, or many worlds hypothesis, is the idea that there is a trans-universe universe which is constantly giving birth to little universes, of which we are one. Its relevance for science and religion is that it is an attempt to obviate both cosmological arguments and teleological arguments. It obviates some cosmological arguments by saying that our universe's beginning with the Big Bang was not an ultimate beginning, but merely the beginning of one of many universes, brought about by natural processes (where "natural" is defined in reference to the multiverse). It obviates teleological arguments by saying that, given an innumerable or infinite number of universes, there is bound to be one that has the right conditions for life and in which life originates and evolves. I discussed the multiverse hypothesis before here and here.

The multiverse is certainly a very clever idea. However there are a few problems with using it to avoid these theistic arguments. Before I get into them, though, I'd like to make two points that aren't objections so much as interesting postulates. First, as I point out here, the multiverse can be used to obviate the argument that the occurrence of evil is incompatible with God's existence just as much as it can be used to obviate cosmological and teleological arguments. So if we use it to take away some reasons for believing in God, we can also use it to take away some reasons for not believing in God. Second, the multiverse hypothesis, if successful, would negate cosmological arguments based on the universe having a beginning and all teleological arguments. Yet these arguments have been around for millennia and I'm unaware of anyone employing a multiverse concept to get around them. Of course this doesn't mean it's false, but perhaps it should make us a little suspicious.

Anyway, here are the problems, as I see them, with using the multiversial to avoid theistic arguments.

1. The multiverse is just as metaphysical an explanation as the claim that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Appealing to the multiverse's natural processes in order to account for our universe's origin does not make it a physical explanation, since those processes transcend the processes of the matter, energy, space, and time that make up our universe.

2. No one has yet been able to produce a model for a multiverse that does not itself have a beginning. So it doesn't really remove the necessity of an ultimate cosmic origin, it just pushes it one step back.

3. At any rate, cosmological arguments did not originate with the discovery of the Big Bang. They have been defended for millennia based on the mathematical problems that arise if we posit an actual infinite amount of things. In order for the multiverse to not have a beginning itself, it would entail an actual infinite number of cause-and-effect events, and so the mathematical problems are still applicable.

4. Ockham's Razor plays havoc with the multiverse. This is the claim that we should prefer simpler explanations that posit fewer entities over complex explanations that posit more entities. Ockham's Razor is one of the most important principles in science. In order to account for one universe having the right conditions for life the multiverse posits trillions or an infinite number of other universes. In contrast, the theistic explanation requires us to posit one further level of reality to this universe. If we have to choose between these two options, the claim that God created the universe wins hands down.

4.1. It may be objected that the God being posited, as the creator of the universe, would be enormously complex, and so Ockham's Razor, which prefers simpler explanations, would point us to the multiverse. This, however, misunderstands two things: first, in Ockham's Razor, "simple" does not mean ontologically simple, it means numerically simple. To put it another way, it is not a matter of qualitative complexity but of quantitative complexity. The Razor claims that, all things being equal, we should prefer explanations which posit the fewest number of entities. The multiverse posits innumerable other universes in order to explain this one. Theism posits one other realm of reality in order to explain it. We should prefer the latter over the former according to Ockham's Razor. Second, traditionally the God of theism has been conceived as being the simplest of all beings. This is known, not very imaginatively, as the doctrine of divine simplicity. So, even if we ignore the first point, theism is not positing a more ontologically complex explanation of the universe than is the multiverse.

4.2. It may be objected further that the multiverse is not really positing all these other universes as distinct entities, but as outgrowths of a single all-encompassing ur-cosmos. There are two problems with this: first, we can do the same thing with the theistic explanation. Our universe is a part of reality; the whole of reality includes God and everything else he has created. As C. S. Lewis put it in Miracles, atheists "have mistaken a partial system within reality, namely Nature, for the whole." Second, at any rate, this is not a viable strategy, since any charge that something conflicts with Ockham's Razor could be explained away by saying all the other entities being posited are just parts of a larger singular entity. In other words, if we say that the multiverse doesn't conflict with Ockham's Razor, nothing else does either. Ockham's Razor is defunct and empty. This is not a reasonable conclusion.

5. In addition to flying in the face of Ockham's Razor, the multiverse commits the inverse gambler's fallacy. This plays on the much more famous gambler's fallacy. If someone sees a coin being flipped a hundred times and it comes up heads each time, he commits the gambler's fallacy if he bets the coin will come up tails on the next flip because he thinks it's due. The inverse gambler's fallacy says that, regardless of the merits of the bet, the gambler is essentially assuming that if there were innumerable coins being flipped, one of them was bound to come up heads a hundred times in a row. Yet this would only be a viable explanation if the gambler had actually witnessed all these other coins coming up with all their other results. Without such observation, you're best off thinking that the coin-flips are fixed somehow. Similarly, if we find ourselves in a universe that meets just the right conditions for life, we're best off thinking that the game is rigged: the universe was made that way on purpose.

6. The multiverse hypothesis, by itself, is not sufficient to avoid the cosmological and teleological arguments. We must specify a multiverse of a particular type and character. This is problematic because the more conditions one has to add to the bare-bones multiverse, the more contrived or ad hoc it is; and the more ad hoc an explanation, the less likely it is true.

6.1. Having an infinite number of universes will not lead to one having the requisite conditions for life if they're all identical, or only vary within set limits. Why think this is not the case? Why assume that the universes spawned by the multiverse are sufficiently random so that they exhaust all possibilities -- or at least the possibilities that entail one universe being hospitable to life?

6.2. For that matter, why assume that the multiverse spawns an infinite number of universes, or a number sufficient to make a biophilic universe possible? What if the multiverse only spawns 5,000 universes? Or 50? Or five? We have to specify a number of universes large enough to neutralize the incredibly high probabilities against a universe allowing the possibility of life, but we have no reason for assuming that a multiverse would have produced such an incredible number of universes.

7. Finally, given the multiverse, we should expect to find ourselves in a vastly different cosmos than the one in which we do, in fact, find ourselves. Roger Penrose points out in The Road to Reality that the odds of a universe having the low entropy condition that ours has is one in 1010(123). The odds of our solar system coming together by the random collision of particles is one in 1010(60) -- enormously improbable, but "utter chicken feed" in comparison to the odds against the low entropy condition being met. In other words, a universe that consisted entirely of our solar system is vastly more probable than the actual universe we have. Or, alternately, solar system universes would be much more plentiful than universes like the one in which we live, so, given the multiverse, we should expect to find ourselves in a much different, a much smaller universe.

7.1. Let me put this another way. Some of the anthropic coincidences are necessary because of the effects they produce. Universes in which those effects are met directly rather than through an anthropic coincidence are, at least in some cases, more probable. For example, when the universe sprang into existence, the property of dark energy (the stretchiness of the space-time fabric) had to be precisely what it is in order for the universe to expand at just the right speed so that gravity didn't overpower it and collapse the universe but not so fast as to prevent stars and galaxies from forming. This property has to be fine-tuned to one part in 10120. But a universe that just cuts to the chase and is created fully-formed with just one earth, one sun, and one moon would not need to meet this condition. So, all other things being equal, a smaller, simpler universe would be more likely than the universe we actually find ourselves in. Yet, superficially, such a universe would seem to be designed, moreso than ours. In fact, some people argue that if God really created the universe, we wouldn't expect it to be as expansive as it is; we should just expect the earth, sun, and moon (I think Stephen Hawking makes this point in A Brief History of Time, but I'm not sure). Such a universe, which would seem to bespeak of divine design, would be a much more likely product of a multiverse than the universe we actually have. In other words, our universe is much less plausibly explained via the multiverse hypothesis than a universe that critics of theism suggest would convince them of God's existence. This strikes me as a pretty big deal.

Now, all of this may suggest that I'm hostile to the multiverse. However, I'm only hostile to it as an alternate explanation of the universe's origin and apparent design. One of God's characteristics, at least the God of Judaism and Christianity, is that he loves to create. So it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that there is more to reality than just two levels. To quote C. S. Lewis again: man was, I suppose, ever so mad as to think that man, or all creation, filled the Divine Mind; if we are a small thing to space and time, space and time are a much smaller thing to God. It is a profound mistake to imagine that Christianity ever intended to dissipate the bewilderment and even the terror, the sense of our own nothingness, which come upon us when we think about the nature of things. It comes to intensify them. Without such sensations there is no religion.

So I have no problem with the claim that there are other universes, other realities, than our own; indeed, I would be surprised if there weren't (think of the Wood between the Worlds). Since this belief is rooted in my belief in God, however, it cannot be used to write him out of the picture. If God does not exist, I no longer have a reason for thinking there are other realities. But then the problem of the universe's origin and fine-tuning re-present themselves.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)