Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Premise of God (a follow-up)

My earlier post on my analogy between dark matter and God generated an interesting comment (interesting not least of all because it showed that someone is still reading). I did not think I could do justice to the substance of that comment in the space of a followup comment, so I have commenced a new post to address the arguments therein.

[your post] mistakenly assumes a creator is the simplest solution...
We start with a very slippery confusion about what it means for a designer to be the simplest explanation for the appearance of design in the universe. My reader takes issue with the notion that God (or any designer) could be simple. But that is not my point. It is irrelevant whether the actual designer is simple or complex, it is not the nature of the designer that I am calling simple, simple, it is the fact of the designer as an explanation that is simple. To repeat the argument: in every instance in this world where we see the appearance of design, there is a designer responsible for it. The ambiguity in what is meant by design has lead design theorists, of late, to speak in terms of information content rather than design. Stated another way then, my argument is that systems which contain large amounts of information are always, in our current experience, designed. Information does not generate at random by any currently known process. And the laws of physics seem to imply that we will find no such process.

This is an observation that is plain to nearly every human being that ever lived. Even to the skeptics. The search for intelligent life in outer space depends on the absence of information content outside of intelligent agency. In fact, the argument of the naturalist appears to be that life is too complex to have been designed. I am not sure how that follows: everything of sufficient complexity in our everyday experience is designed; except the most complex of all. That must, of necessity come about by accident. Or, to use Dawkins' favorite illustration, by a series of tiny, improbably steps. But there aren't enough steps, and there isn't any reason to believe in a near-infinite process of accidents as a better explanation. Unless you choose to.

So I assert again: given the appearance of design in the universe, the presence of a designer is the simplest explanation for that design.

Now to the question of the complexity of the designer. The second half of the first paragraph of the comment in question makes the point (again due to Dawkins) that if there is a designer, it must itself be so complex that it is in much greater need of its own designer. Thus begins an infinite regression of designers. Isn't it just easier to assume no designer and to cut off the regression before it begins? The answer, unequivocally, is 'no.'

The error here is one that has been made with regards to this particular argument for centuries. The argument that the world needs a designer is one of the classical arguments for the existence of God. That it has not been effectively countered is evidenced by the fact that this new generation of evangelistic atheists feels compelled to offer a new counter-argument. But the problem with the new counter is that it is, in fact, the same as the old ones. Universally, the actual argument is simplified and misstated. This makes sense, it is easier to counter an argument if it is oversimplified and missated (we all make this mistake). My commenter recognizes this flaw, but attempts to sweep it away with a joke and another misstatement.

To the point: the classical theodicy states that "Everything that is caused has a prior cause." Put another way, "everything that is created has a creator." Or again, in terms of design, "everything that we see in this world that has high information content is the result of a designer." In each form, there is a built-in, necessary limitation to the regression. In the first form, we limit the regression to those things that are caused. This is not merely a trick, or a little joke to get out of a tight spot; it is a necessary characteristic of the argument. For we cannot speak of things that are outside of our experience; we know only about the laws that govern this universe. It is true that in this universe, our experience is that all effects have a cause. But if the first cause were itself outside of our universe, we can say nothing about the necessity of its causation. It operates under rules about which we cannot say anything meaningful. Again, do not think of this as some sort of philosophical nit put in place to shore up an otherwise weak argument. In fact, this is one of the most striking differences between the God described in the Bible and the gods of the rest of mankind: the God described in the Bible is truly transcendent and separate from His creation. Thanks to the skeptics, we now understand that logic and the laws of the universe require this of Him. If there is a designer, he would have to be like the God of the Bible in this sense. For another approach to this argument, see this article.

There is no use at this point arguing that if the designer is wholly different then it is meaningless to talk about him. I will concede the point only to observe that the Bible has already made it for us. The story Jews and Christians tell is of a God so different from us that He has had to speak in symbols and analogies just to give us a fighting chance at knowing anything about Him at all. If you do not believe in any God, then the notion that one might try to talk to men is purely ridiculous. But to land on your presuppositions at then end of an argument is not logic, it is fallacy.

The second paragraph begins by misstating the purpose of my post. I do not care one whit that science is using a plug, they are welcome to their plug. When you run up against the end of all you can observe and there is something missing, you have no choice but to guess about what else is there. Rather, my point in my post is that science is being less than forthright when they complain that the hypothesis of a transcendent designer is not scientific. I believe that the design hypothesis is of the same sort as the dark matter hypothesis: it is a good fit, given the data we have, for explaining a phenomenon which we cannot otherwise explain, one which produces causes which appear, to our instruments, to be uncaused.

It is a vast overstatement of the current science to say that dark matter conforms to the laws and structures of the universe: the actual form, composition and distribution of dark matter is so completely unknown that it exists only in the equations of relativity and quantum mechanics. There is no single, widely accepted interpretation of these equations; to say that dark matter follows the laws of physics is to say that the laws of physics follow the laws of physics. Dark matter is an interpretation of the laws, naturally it follows them. Except, of course, when it doesn't, and then the theory is neatly modified to make it fit. This is not dishonest, it is the nature of cosmology. What is dishonest is trying to make it more than it is.

The comment asks why not state that magic is the cause of the phenomena now attributed to dark matter? From what I understand (and I admit to only a layman's understanding) that is not far from the truth. There is little difference between magic and dark matter. Dark matter and energy are nothing more than the remainder of a sum that has yet to be completely solved. It may be the right remainder, or it may not (it is looking like a good candidate though). But an honest look at history will recognize that it began its life not so different from magic.

Finally, as the comment winds down, we encounter another one of Dawkins' favorite analogies: comparing the hypothesis of God to the hypothesis of a mysterious, unseen teapot encircling the earth (or perhaps orbiting the sun in the same orbit as the earth). If we carefully define the teapot, goes the argument, then we can never disprove its existence. For every counter-point made to the teapot hypothesis, its defenders cleverly devise a new explanation, each more inaccessible than the last, so that finally there is no evidence that can be brought to bear against the teapot. The problem with this analogy is that it only acknowledges one side of the issue. The teapot in question explains nothing outside of itself. Those who reject the existence of the teapot have a simpler, neater world. This is not the case with God. The analogy ignores the fact that God answers certain nagging questions that remain intractable in his absence, design being only one of them. And while it is certainly fair for the skeptic to say "convince me," it is not an argument, it is a request. I believe that the evidence says that God explains a good deal more of our experience as humans than does naturalism. Lewis makes this point in several of his books; and I have yet to see convincing arguments against him. Again, for a different spin on this point, see this article.

The comment states that magic is not on an equiprobable footing with dark matter; I contend that atheism is not on an equiprobable footing with theism. At least, none of the neodarwinist atheists that I have read so far have managed to make it so.

9 comments:

Andy said...

You say “It is irrelevant whether the actual designer is simple or complex, it is not the nature of the designer that I am calling simple, simple, it is the fact of the designer as an explanation that is simple.” Assuming the corollary of the second law of thermodynamics that a cause will always be simpler, given an event y, the possibility of x being its sufficient cause is entirely dependent on the nature (complexity) of x; that is the whole point of the corollary(!), yet you assert in this case that an inquiry into the cause of y can ignore the nature (complexity) of x. That is absurd.

You say the naturalist says “life is too complex to have been designed” and you are “not sure how that follows...”; it is clear this is because you have a deficient understanding of evolution. Evolutionists say life around us has been designed—by evolution by natural selection. It most certainly did not happen by accident, as you mistakenly suggest.

It is much easier for me if you wish to subscribe to the statements with the “built-in, necessary limitation to the regression,” i.e. “everything that is caused has a prior cause” etc. because by doing such, you have shot yourself in the foot and no longer have cosmological or design arguments; you have rather redundant statements about causality. Of course everything that is caused has a cause(!); that's like saying everything painted green by green paint was painted by green paint—it does not make the point (to translate the discussion into this example's terms) that all green things are painted by green paint which is exactly what the design and cosmological arguments try to establish. You say later “to land on your presuppositions at the end of an argument is not logic, it is fallacy.” I could not agree more—and that is precisely what this argument does.

You say “ I believe that the design hypothesis is of the same sort as the dark matter hypothesis: it is a good fit, given the data we have, for explaining a phenomenon which we cannot otherwise explain.” In fact the explanations are in two entirely different categories: one posits a physical explanation while the other posits a metaphysical explanation. And metaphysical explanations have been consistently overrun by scientific physicalist ones (e.g. consider the god of fertility or the god of the wind—neither of which we need anymore now that we understand microbiology and meteorology) and, to me, this puts metaphysical explanations on much less probable footing than physicalist ones.

Finally, you make a good point that the teapot analogy is flawed because belief in the teapot doesn't really solve anything. Very well, I propose a new analogy: a rogue faction of jellybean-composed unicorns in neverland got together, sneezed at the same time, and the universe was created. Why is that any less probable than the traditional understanding of God? As I am fondly in the habit of saying, absurdity survives only for familiarity.

Dr. Don said...

Your third paragraph makes a compelling argument for the existence of an outside editor! I re-read that section multiple times, and never paid attention to what I wrote. The actual argument states "everything that begins to exist has a prior cause." Here the tautologic nature of the argument is no longer present. Thanks for noticing.

Dr. Don said...

In the fourth paragraph, you contend that physical explanations are preferable to metaphysical ones because metaphysical ones are always being overrun. Of course they are, but so are physical explanations, I have my own long list: the interstellar ether, the planet inside the orbit of Mercury, every form of the big bang up to the current models, etc. The truth is that all human explanations run up against the simple fact that the universe appears to be much more complex than our brains can handle, so our explanations fall short. You may prefer non-metaphysical explanations, that is your prerogative. But they are not better. The best explanation is the correct one, not the one that meets some arbitrary external criterion.

Dr. Don said...

I was not dodging the question of the complexity of the designer. I was simply responding to your assertion that my analogy had anything at all to do with the complexity of the designer. I spent a part of my post discussing the issue of the complexity of the designer. However, the 2nd law of thermodynamics only applies to physical systems; I say that God is not a part of the physical system, so we cannot say whether the 2nd law applies to him in the same way. As I said before, this is a necessary part of his nature; if he exists, he must be this way.

Dr. Don said...

Evolution designs nothing.

I understand that the literature about evolution, both technical and non-technical, uses design language pervasively, but the use of design language proves nothing except that the evidence of design is pervasive in nature. There is no mechanism proposed to explain how it is that evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics, especially its form as stated by information theorists.

Dr. Don said...

The final paragraph proposes a new teapot. Unicorns do not explain such issues as the universal human experience of what Lewis call the "numenous"; they cannot explain why people search for meaning beyond themselves; they do not explain the development of ethical systems that run counter to issues of self-preservation. These are the issues that God explains that pure naturalism does not.

As for absurdity surviving only for familiarity, this is true of neo-darwinist evolution as much as it is true of anything.

Andy said...

lol, I could use an outside editor for my blog, too; no worries—I won't hold it against you.

I admit my distaste for metaphysical explanations comes close to being merely intuitive, but I feel it is justified nevertheless. You say that physicalist explanations have been overrun—this is true, but never by metaphysical ones. Physicalist explanations are always “overrun” by other physicalist explanations and phenomena attributed to metaphysical explanations are being overrun by physicalist ones all the time. (And no, dark matter is not in any way a metaphysical explanation.)

You advanced the argument (if only indirectly) that God is a simpler explanation and hence is at least qualified to be a viable cosmogony according to the second law of thermodynamics. However, you also (rightly) assert that the second law applies only to physical systems; you must recognize then, that by definition, the law can say nothing meaningful about the veridity of a non-physical claim. Therefore, once again, while we cannot disprove the God hypothesis, this method of invoking him is invalid.

American Protestant Christians are funny when it comes to evolution. It is one of the most documented theories in the history of science, and yet they bumble about nitpicking at it because they are conditioned to hold on to literal interpretations of their holy book. Of course this is nothing new; there is no significant difference between the American Protestant Church's current rejection of evolution and the Catholic Church's historic rejection of heliocentricity; both are scientifically valid but not immediately supported by literal interpretations of Scripture.

If you'll forgive me: Let us propose a third version of my analogy. Two omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly reasoned unicorns composed of jellybeans residing in neverland simultaneously sneezed to create the Christian God. The Christian God then went on to do all the things you think he did. I could also write a fourth version of this analogy by copying the entire text of the Bible and replacing instances of “God” with jellybean-unicorns. Such propositions are not disprovable but would provide (according to you) an adequate explanation for our ethical nature, search for meaning, etc.

Why are either of these versions of the unicorn story wrong or improbable?

Anonymous said...

So are you going to respond to him?

lijialefw said...
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