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Saturday, November 20, 2010

What if Eve had been a trained scientist, Part 2

Today I am finally following up on a project I started much earlier this year in which I proposed the following thought experiment:  What would have happened in Genesis 3 if Eve had approached the "temptation" with rigorous methodological doubt and disciplined inquiry?  Please refer to that post for some context.    

Right away I will admit that this thought experiment goes against the grain of the story in Genesis 2-3.  The Eve in that story is remarkably incurious and suggestible.  Furthermore, the approach my Eve will employ is not natural to humans now and there is no reason from the Biblical story to think it was natural for Adam and Eve.  You will have to suspend disbelief.

This leads to an even more fundamental issue: What precisely did Eve know already by the time she encounters the serpent in Genesis 3? The story tells us very little. She is familiar with some form of the Genesis 2:16-17 prohibition, but we don't know how she learned it. She knows a language in common with Adam and the serpent. She has some awareness of what good food is and apparently has some conception of wisdom and its value. She knows enough about Adam to share the fruit with him. Presumably she heard Adam make his famous exclamation in 2:23, and if so she has some conception of marriage and at least a little experience at living as a wife. Presumably she has some experience with the garden itself and is aware that there are other fruit trees there. She accepts that the prohibition came from God. Her facility with language implies some kind of knowledge about a host of other matters, but it is diffcult to assess how far this would extend.

No traditional theology I know about is willing to stop at this minimalist account of Eve's knowledge. The Christian orthodoxies I've encountered will pull in the "cultural mandate" (Genesis 1:26-28) and knowledge of God as creator (Romans 1:20) as a bare minimum. 

"Why," you ask?

"Why not?  The narrator's economy is no license for unbridled minimalism.  He expects us to fill in the details, most of which are obvious to everyone but the intentionally obtuse."   Really?  OK then, but it never hurts to get things out in the open, even the "obvious."  Our Eve is going to ask Yahweh Elohim, the serpent, and Adam to humor her and repeat out loud in clear language all those unspoken, "obvious" assumptions.  In other words, once Eve has been confronted with the serpent's statements, she is going to seek clarification.  

But before we get too far into the matter of clarification, we need to ask what position Eve should take on the fundamental issue.  Under what circumstances, if any, will she act against the prohibition?   Like anyone else, Eve will begin her formal investigation with some prior experience.  She already knows Adam as a husband to some degree.  The only indication we are given of the amount of time they had already spent together is that Eve was not yet pregnant.  Most likely it hadn't been very long.  But even if for a short time we can assume some natural affections. 

What Eve knew of Yahweh Elohim is even less clear.  All we have to go by is what she tells the serpent in Gen. 3:2.  What she thought of or felt about Yahweh Elohim prior to the temptation is anybody's guess.  Did she "fear," love and trust him or was she already suspicious of him?  If the latter, "sin" in the Pauline sense would already have been at work in her heart.  Most versions of orthodoxy would resist this assumption , and making it doesn't further my case either.  Therefore, I am going to presume that Eve was predisposed by affections for Yahweh Elohim and Adam to obey the prohibition. 

Once confronted with the serpent, Eve's first order of business, then, would be to commit herself to continue to obey the prohibition until she had a very good reason to do otherwise.  How good would that reason have to be? 
1.  She would need to be convinced that Yahweh Elohim was wrong about the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit or that he was unjustified in forbidding it to her or that the benefits of eating the forbidden fruit were worth the price of dying.
2.  She would need to be convinced that eating the forbidden fruit would not break the bonds of affection between her, Adam, and Yahweh Elohim or that there is something very wrong with those affections and they should not be allowed to influence her decision.

In short, it would take overwhelming evidence in support of points 1 and 2 before she would seriously consider eating the forbidden fruit.  The serpent would have to convince Eve that Yahweh Elohim and/or Adam are either incompetent or lying.  This is a high bar for the serpent to get her over.  Furthermore, Eve has no prior relationship with the serpent and so no bonds of affection with it.  The serpent's odds of success appear to be terribly low.  Some people want to improve its odds by suggesting that "empiricism" or methodological doubt entails that Eve (or Adam) must eat the fruit to learn what will happen.  This  is patently ridiculous. 

Eve's second order of business would be to clear up the confusions confronting her after the confrontation with the serpent.  She should have been bothered by many of them before the encounter.   A simple start would be to present an identical list of questions to all the other major players in the story and weigh their answers.  The questions to be posed ought to accomplish the following:

1.  Clarify the meaning and purpose of the prohibition.
2.  Clarify the motives underlying the statements already made by the other major players.
3.  Provide enough information to develop some specific tests for each of the other players' trustworthiness and the accuracy of his statements.

Here is the list of questions:

  1. Explain in some detail what "death" means?
  2. What does "in the day you eat of it" mean?
  3. Why should eating from the prohibited tree result in death?
  4. Why would eating from the prohibited tree result in "knowledge of good and evil?"
  5.  What precisely is "knowledge of good and evil?"
  6.  Are any other trees in the garden of special significance?  If so, which are they and what is their significance?
  7. Why was this not all explained more clearly before now?
  8. Please describe in some detail who Yahweh Elohim is, where he comes from, and what he wants from me?
  9. Please describe in some detail who Adam is, where he comes from and what he wants from me?
  10. Please describe in some detail who the serpent is, where he comes from and what he wants from me?
  11. How is it that the serpent can talk?
  12. How is it that the serpent knows about the prohibition?

I will save the next steps for another post and give anyone who wants to a chance to really step in it with premature criticism. :^}

Friday, November 12, 2010

To argue or not to argue

That is the question.  Especially online.  A lot of people seem to think that trading comments in a blog combox with a user named "packersdude" who presents himself in the guise of a hunk of swiss cheese gives them a license to ignore normal rules of polite conversation.   Until we develop some kind of online equivalent to body language and social space, people will say things online that they would probably not say to someone's face.

I gained new appreciation for this after observing and being involved in a recent series of blog comment box exchanges provoked by people's differing reactions and responses to the death of Ken Pulliam, the author of  In life Dr. Pulliam had come to reject the fundamentalist Christianity he was trained in and wrote numerous posts explaining why he believed Christianity was wrong.  His sudden and unexpected death took everyone by surprise.  People began posting condolences and remembrances of Ken on his facebook page and in the comment boxes on the posts that he had scheduled for release in the days after his death. 

A furor erupted over what most took as a hostile, contemptuous comment to one of the posts.  The commenter and his critics filled most of the combox with accusations and insults.  The criticism spread to at least two other blogs on the day Ken's post appeared.  The original commenter then posted commentary about Ken and a defense of his provocative comment on his own blog, and at least one other blog run by an associate of the original commenter posted a criticism of the critics.  People, including me, continued to post comments on all these blog sites either defending or criticizing the original blogger and each other.   I even traded some emails with the original commenter.

Reflection on this set of incidents has led me to some definite conclusions about whether to argue or not online.  If your goals are to learn something, gain and give some respect for good thinking, and persuade somebody that your way of thinking is right every once in awhile, you have to think like a rhetorician.  There has been something of a revival of interest in rhetoric in academia over the last few decades.   This renewed interest dovetails with studies in human psychology that argue emotions often help us to think better.   Usually we associate emotions with poor thinking.  True enough, especially when emotions are intense. But people are people after all, not logic machines.  Our emotions and thoughts are part of a feedback loop; the influence goes both ways and can lead to  better results than if we were merely machines.

I find it ironic that in the recent disputes the evangelical Christians, who supposedly believe we are not machines, were far quicker to dismiss the arguments of critics as "emotional thinking," whereas the atheistic critics, who are supposed to believe that humans are chemically-powered machines (according to one blogger's tendentious reading of Richard Dawkins) expressed more emotional self-awareness and more accurate assessments of the emotional effects of the language used in the exchanges.  If the evangelicals were just as self-aware and accurate they did not express it very well.

At any event, if you want to persuade people you have to take account of the whole person of your audience, not just the coherence of your arguments and the clarity and accuracy of your language.  With that in mind, here are some of my conclusions:

To argue:
  • When you and your opponent's specified intention is to arrive at the best answer to the presenting issue. One or both of you may think you already have the best answer.  That's fine.  If you believe you have already considered all the relevant evidence and arguments, or that some evidence or arguments are so overwhelmingly persuasive to you that nothing new could change your mind, then you have the opportunity to persuade someone else.   If your enemy takes that view, there is still room for useful discussion.
    • She may be willing to consider counter-arguments to some of her supporting points. Consider this example:  If an opponent is totally committed to Biblical inerrancy because giving that up undermines her faith in God, she may still be willing to consider arguments against solutions to a particular problem in the Bible.  You point out flaws in all the arguments she uses to resolve an apparent contradiction in the Bible.  She may say, "You're right.  None of my solutions work.  We will just have to wait for further light."  You may think your opponent is engaging in wishful thinking, but she did give your arguments serious consideration and you won a limited victory.  Many people have abandoned a core belief system in favor of something else after a period of repeated small defeats. 
    • She may persuade you too.  Just because a person is highly resistant to criticism doesn't mean she is wrong.
  • When something in another person's arguments really bothers you and you think the reason it bothers you is that there is something wrong with her argument or her motives in advancing the argument.  You may be wrong.  Arguing is a good way to find out.
Not to argue:
  • When you or your opponent will not admit problems in arguments even when nearly everyone else sees them and can describe them in nearly identical terms.   In this case, something else is in the way.  Better to break off the argument and deal with the interference or wait for another opportunity.
  • When you present a more elaborated and better supported version of a basically valid argument others have previously made to your opponent, and your opponent rejects your argument in virtually the same terms as she rejected the previous versions.  Clearly something else is in the way.  
  • When you or your opponent in the process of pointing out the other's errors makes equally or more egregious errors.   
    • One or both of you has gotten in over her head and need to learn more about the issue under discussion, or
    • The discussion has gotten too heated.  Break it off and give the parties a chance to gather their thoughts.
  • When you and your opponent are fighting to get in the last word, and that last word is intended to put the other "in his place."  
    • This is one of the most common tendencies in blog combox arguments.  Tit for tat is a highly successful negotiation strategy, but only if the parties are willing to engage in proactive gestures of good will at critical junctures.  Otherwise,  the discussion will inevitably become an insult arms race.  The main issue gets lost and people who came into the argument hostile leave with greater hostility. 
    • When you feel the need to criticize someone's personal behavior, you need to be able to stand in her shoes and hear your comments from her perspective.  You may not be able to do this well at all, but you should still try.  If you want the person to act differently (and if you don't, why are you criticizing in the first place?), you have to consider what is likely motivate her to change.  
    • You can awaken guilt and shame in another person and at the same time increase her self-respect.  This tends to increase the odds that she will regard your criticism as a friendly act and be motivated to change.  On the other hand, you can awaken shame in another person and at the same time humiliate her.   This tends to increase the odds that she will regard your criticism as a hostile act and strike back against you or herself.
  • When, despite your best efforts to moderate the tone of an argument and keep the main point in focus, your opponent keeps running the discussion off the rails or becomes increasingly hostile.  Something else is in the way again.  Let it go.
  • When you have been beaten.  If your opponent demolishes one of your arguments and you realize it, admit your error and move on.  If she demolishes all your arguments, maybe it's time to rethink your whole position. 
Since hardly anybody (nobody?) reads this blog, I post this mostly as a public witness against myself should I violate these guidelines in the future.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A "Biblical" way to escape methodological naturalism, Part 2

This post is 5th in a series.  To save time and effort, rather than reviewing what I've been doing in this series, I will simply point you to the previous posts:

In the last post I covered the story of Numbers 16.  Now I would like to review the story of Jesus and "doubting" Thomas found in the Gospel of John 20:24-31. 

For my purposes in this post the commonalities in these two texts are more important.  Here is a short list:
  • God's servant -- by extension God himself -- is questioned or doubted.
  • One of God's servants proclaims in advance the occurrence of a feat that will put beyond doubt the credentials of the one quetioned/doubted (Moses announces that earth will swallow his opponents/"Scripture" predicts Jesus will rise from the dead).
  • The feat occurs as predicted.
  • Manifest evidence of the feat is witnessed and the witnesses express their conviction that the feat has occurred.
  • The text of the story expresses, directly or indirectly, that the proper
  • reaction of a witness was/should have been conviction that the feat occurred and that God's servant is vindicated.
For the purpose of this post I am foregoing any discussion of whether seeing people swallowed alive by a sudden fault or seeing alive and touching someone you know was crucified, dead, and buried 3 days ago, both of which events were predicted to occur more or less as experienced by people claiming to speak for God -- whether such events produce enough evidence to believe 1.) the events took place and 2.) the alleged spokesperson does indeed speak for God.   Instead, I'm going to assume that they do.

Both of these stories conform to a standard argument found in numerous Biblical narratives that goes something like this:
1.  If  someone claiming to speak for God predicts that God will bring about the occurrence of an event that is
   a.  highly improbable and unknown to the experience of most/all human beings
   b.  beyond the capability of the speaker or any other individual or group of humans to bring about
2.  the predicted event takes place as described by the speaker and at the time predicted by the speaker,
3.  God was speaking through the speaker and he caused the event to take place.

IOW, God demonstrates his existence and intelligence by predicting his performance of deeds out of our ordinary experience and then performing them as predicted.

To save time and space I am simply going to assert that many instances of this type of argumentation can be found in the Bible.   You will find it abundantly in narratives about the wilderness wanderings, the stories of conflicts involving prophets in the books of Kings, narrative portions of the Book of Isaiah, the entirety of the Book of Ezekiel, the Gospel of John, the resurrection stories, etc.  This fact partly invalidates claims that the authors of the Bible and their audiences were epistemologically naive.  The authors would not have resorted to this argument unless they felt the need.  They encountered scepticism in their target audiences and fought against it by marshalling evidence in favor of their claims.  They found this type of empirical argument useful.   How many Thomases were there in the communities amongst which the early Christians lived?  More than one or two, I'm sure.  Likewise, I suspect the stories of the wilderness wanderings take on a hostile, confrontational tone toward the people of Israel because many of the actual early hearers of these stories did not respond in awed credulity.  The "orthodox" Yahwist priests/prophets met a rough reception and paid their audiences back in kind.  Or alternatively, God and/or the human author anticipated the scepticism the story would encounter and provided an empirical argument to forestall rejection and stimulate belief.  The Thomas story puts this tactic on display big-time. 

But we must not skip over a huge qualification.  The Thomas story and all the other examples we can find in the Bible are about empirical evidence shown to characters in the story.   The characters are convinced by the evidence, but the hearing/reading audience doesn't get to experience it; we get to participate in the story by the use of our imaginations.   As a piece of scientific method, this stinks.  I can stand there with Thomas touching a thousand different apparitions in my imagination and learn absolutely nothing about their existence.

The author of the Gospel of John is apparently aware of this; he tries to finesse his way around it by providing us with Jesus's famous follow-up line:  "Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."  (John 20:29 NIV)  This statement tells us that John's audience should not expect to be given the kind of empirical evidence provided to Thomas.  Second, it implicitly casts aspersions on Thomas's scepticism.  Thomas demanded and got empirical evidence for Jesus's resurrection.  By doing so he missed out on a blessing available to the members of John's audience who believe without it.   We are not told what blessing Thomas missed out on.  We are told quite plainly throughout John's gospel what the blessing of having faith in Jesus is:  eternal life.  Putting these things together, we are presented with a clear choice:  Believe in Jesus without solid empirical evidence for the resurrection or miss out on eternal life.

We should pause to point out that in Thomas's case one may question whether his scepticism is warranted.  As one of Jesus's travelling companions Thomas witnessed the miracle at the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5000, and the raising of Lazarus.  With all that accumulated evidence prior to the resurrection, the story told by the women and the other apostles should not have been so unbelievable.  But the readers of John's Gospel are not in Thomas's shoes.  We didn't get to see any of those miracles.  Are we nonetheless open to criticism for being unreasonably sceptical if we doubt the stories of the resurrection?   
Yes, according to John, because we have the books of the Bible!  So we have to add to this empirical argument the premiss that we know the books in which the evidence is presented are telling the truth.   Once again to save space and time I am going to simply assert that the Biblical authors stake their argument on this premiss or something similar.  Note the many times in the Book of Psalms that the psalmist mentions how he learned about Yahweh's deeds from the stories passed down from his ancestors.   There are so many examples in the NT of confidence in the truth of the Hebrew Bible that it hardly needs citation.   That the writings of the apostles were also to be granted this high degree of trust is one of the points made in 2 Peter 2:16-20, a classic text on this topic.

Here I think we can make a better case for epistemological naivety on the part of the Biblical authors.  The sceptic asks, "Why should I trust these writings to tell me the truth any better than any other ancient writings?"  They apparently did not think to provide sufficient evidence to convince sceptics raising these questions hundreds of years after they had died.    Mind you, providing the kind of case that can survive the depredations of time would be difficult in our day.  As difficult as it would have been back then, they could have secured some confirming testimony from enemies of their faith that was not embedded in their own documents and could be verified not to have been doctored by later Christian scribes, etc., etc.

But this is not their approach at all.  Instead, their strategy is to blame the victim.  The real reason sceptics don't have a high degree of confidence in the truthfulness of Biblical authors is that 1.)  they hate God, and 2.) they have already rejected abundant evidence for the reality of God and the truthfulness of the Biblical writings that testify of his existence, character, purposess, and deeds.  There is already sufficient empirical evidence to satisfy someone who was really open to persuasion and for that reason God has determined not to provide any more. (See Luke 16:31)

This strategy is still widely employed by defenders of orthodoxy.   It is also deeply flawed.  If somebody is dead-set against a belief the surest way to reveal his prejudice and defeat him is to present him with a massive amount of evidence.  Instead, this strategy attempts to blame the sceptic for the lack of greater evidence.  This will only make the sceptic more certain that he is right.

Why use this strategy then?  Maybe the Biblical authors weren't so epistemologically naive.  Maybe they knew they couldn't provide stronger confirming evidence because they didn't have any.   Hence they fall back on arguments from authority, character assassination against sceptical critics, and carrot/stick arguments such as that in John 20:29.

To sum things up, then, we see that whatever theoretical promise the "Biblical" method to escape methodological naturalism may have, it is fatally flawed in execution because it hasn't provided any real evidence, only questionable testimonies that somebody else long ago and far away had this evidence.  As a Christian, I find this conclusion disconcerting and frustrating.  IMHO, the only proper responses are 1.)  to rebuild Christian theology from the ground up from within the framework of methodological naturalism or 2.)  give up on Christianity altogether.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A "Biblical" way to escape methodological naturalism, Part 1

For those who have come upon this post from elsewhere, this is 4th in a series.  Look here, here, and here for the previous posts.  I would now like to discuss how the Bible deals with the relationship between data detectable, observable, and measurable by humans and human knowledge of God.  I have never encountered a survey of the type I am planning to undertake anywhere else.  This is most likely just another illustration of my miseducation and/or laziness.  In any case somebody somewhere with real scholarly credentials has probably written on this already.  If you know about any of these resources, please let me know!  

Let's start with enough of a review of orthodox Christian epistemologies to get us oriented to the Bible.  Epistemology is a tortured subject for Christians; there are significant areas of agreement among them, but the controversialists on the various sides usually argue that the distinctives of the opponent destroy the ability to justify one's knowledge of anything.  I am going to stick with things about which there is general agreement and leave areas of controversy aside for the most part.  OK, so from an orthodox Christian viewpoint, how do we know things?  We can start with the classic distinction between reason and revelation.

Reason here is much more comprehensive than just logical thinking; it is the set of tools and methods humans have available to learn about the world and God apart from God's specific "revelations."  It includes the use of our senses, the sciences, mathematics, intuitions. 

Revelation is typically broken up into two categories:  natural or general revelation and special revelation.  Natural revelation is what God reveals about himself in the existence, structure, character, and history of the physical universe around us and ourselves.  This has to be distinguished from our apprehension of God by experiencing ourselves and the world.   Natural revelation is an objective fact, regardless of whether any human beings have learned anything about God from it.

Special revelation is specific information not included in the categories under natural revelation that God communicates to specific human beings in one of several ways:  dreams, visions, auditory messages, miracles, via the media of prophetic messengers and inspired writers, and finally in the entire life, words and deeds, of Jesus of Nazareth.  Typically, theologians insist that God's revelation, even when miracles are involved, has a verbal component.  God "speaks" to us.    There are disagreements about how and in what forms God is still revealing himself, but there is at least general agreement among orthodox Christians of various traditions that the Bible is a revelation from God.  If we want to know what God has to say to us, we need to read or hear the Bible.

In my description of reason I managed to avoid the entire history of disputes over epistemology.   I did so intentionally.  Orthodox Christians believe that mathematics, logic,  and the empirical sciences are legitimate means to know the world, so long as they are employed under the overarching authority of God's revelation.   They believe the Bible teaches this.  I do not intend to question any of this now.  We will operate on this basis in our survey.

Natural revelation will play a relatively minor role in our survey, so I am foregoing further discussion of it.  Regarding special revelation, I would like to point out that there are two components here:  the medium and the message.  Did you happen to notice that all the means used in special revelation are empirical?  Even the most direct -- a message planted directly in the human mind by God -- has an empirical component.  I am now admittedly bringing in modern brain science, but why not?  Are we to suppose that when God revealed his laws to "Moses" or told Paul what to write that it made absolutely no difference in the pattern of their brain activity?   In other words, every act of revelation has a detectable, observable, measurable effect.

This leads us to consideration of the message.  Does the content of special revelation have a detectable, observable, measurable component?  Of course!  This is a commonplace admitted by all sides in regard to Christianity.  The Bible makes all kinds of at least theoretically testable claims about the past, present human experience, and the future.  The question I am interested in is more precisely this:  In what ways do the authors of Biblical books use their assertions of testable claims to convince readers to believe them?

For this purpose I want to look at the stories of Korah's rebellion (Numbers 16:1-50) and Jesus's post-resurrection appearance to Thomas (John 20:24-31).  I picked these stories because they include specific statements about their evidentiary value; otherwise I think they are pretty typical.   (For the story in Numbers, we can safely ignore disputes over whether it is a conflation of separate stories about a dispute over the position of the non-Aaronide levitical priests with Korah leading the pro-levites side and a dispute specifically about Moses's leadership led by Dathan and Abiram.)   In the former story a group of dissatisfied Israelites led by the Levite Korah and the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram confront Moses and Aaron with the accusation that they have usurped authority over Israel.  Moses tells the rebels to assemble themselves the next day.  The key text in Numbers reads (Num. 16: 28-34 NIV):
 Then Moses said, "This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt."  As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart  and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah's men and all their possessions.  They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.  At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, "The earth is going to swallow us too!"
 According to v. 28, the people will know God sent Moses when they see the earth split open and swallow the households of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.  We note that Moses pronounces the coming event and its interpretation in advance.  We also note that the event itself takes place immediately after Moses's speech and takes away all those and only those against whom Moses said it would be directed.  The text provides us with the eyewitnesses' terrified reaction to the predicted demise of the rebels and  their households and their later (vv. 41ff) assessment that Moses and Aaron are somehow to blame for the deaths of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, their followers and their families.

In sum we see that the eyewitnesses of this series of events were left in no doubt that Korah, et. al.  died.  We do NOT see them expressing their belief that Moses is a true prophet of God.   Instead, they blame the deaths on Moses and Aaron.  Their comment in v. 41 is not elaborated upon.  Did they think Moses and Aaron could summon God to perform murders?  Did they think that Moses and Aaron had inherent powers over nature?   The point of the text seems to be that the people were wickedly obtuse.

The basic argument of the text is abundantly clear to the reader.  The Israelites may not get it, but we do.  If someone announces a miraculous and highly improbable event is about to take place in order to verify his claim to have a word from God, the speaker has given no evidence that he possesses any independent power to bring this event to pass, and this precise event takes place immediately afterward, it is reasonable to conclude that the speaker is telling the truth about himself and God.  Were we there, we would conclude Moses is a prophet and reject the arguments and leadership of any survivors of Korah's ilk.

I will continue with the story of Thomas and Jesus in my next post.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is human finitude a reason to abandon methodological naturalism?

Before I get into the meat of the post, just a reminder to someone who happens not to have read the previous posts that I am continuing a series about methodological naturalism.  As mentioned in a previous post, I will not be using that term in favor of the terms "detectable, observable, and measurable" to describe the requirement in standard scientific method that theories be supported/confirmed by "detectable, observable, and measurable" data.  

Human finitude complicates the issue of detectability. If somehow we had made everything ourselves and had the design plans in hand, we could account for everything, even things we could not detect with our senses and instruments.  In fact, the world we know existed before us and will continue after we perish, we had no hand in devising the rules by which it operates and can control almost nothing that happens in it, and we find ourselves continually frustrated, surprised, and puzzled by the things we encounter in it.  In short, we are finite, derivative, and accidental.  Given our situation, many entities, events and processes are 
1.  in fact undetectable given our current limitations, or
2.  in principle undetectable given our derivativity, accidence, and/or finitude.  
Consider the following scenario:  The entire expanse and history of the cosmos we inhabit is encapsulated in the oscillations of a sub-atomic particle in a drop of coffee falling from the cup of an inhabitant of the outerverse sitting at her kitchen table getting ready for work.  The immensity of this outerverse is such that our cosmos's transition from big bang to thermal stasis happens while the drop is still falling.  Entities, events, and processes in this outerverse caused directly the initial conditions which led to the "big bang" starting off our cosmos.  Oscillations of nearby particles in the atom, molecular interactions in the drop of coffee, the gravitational forces pulling the particle and everything around it in the drop of coffee toward the surface of the table -- all contribute indirectly to the forces and entities we experience, and given enough time, some entity, event or process in the outerverse could lead to the sudden destruction of most or all of our cosmos. It must be kept in mind that the outerverse's scale of time and distance is so great relative to our own that even the approach and passing of another sub-atomic particle in the outerverse would take longer than the entire history of our cosmos. 

The immensity of this outerverse makes it undetectable.   There is simply not time enough in the entire history of our cosmos for us to accumulate enough evidence to be able to grasp the makeup of the outerverse or even detect its existence.  Furthermore, the laws of physics familiar to us do not hold in the outerverse's scale of time and distance, just as Newton's laws were found not to hold at the sub-atomic level. Finally, the inhabitants of the outerverse are just as unable to detect our existence or send us any kind of communication or message that we would be able to receive.

I bring up this scenario so that I can remove the issue of religion from the discussion of detectability and scientific method.  Believers in non-physical, non-natural, "spiritual" entities will object that this scenario leaves their perspective on the nature of the cosmos out of the loop.  To show what a nice guy I am, let's bring God into the picture big-time.  Since I am most familiar with and still favorable to Judeo-Christian theism, we will add the following:
1.  The outerverse is a direct, immediate creation of God.
2.  Although our cosmos developed entirely as a direct effect of natural causes, once human beings appeared God began to intervene via miracles (theists can add miraculous elements arbitrarily to this picture).
3.  Even though some kind of evolutionary process led to the appearance of life in this cosmos, including human beings, theists are free to add initial conditions that would preclude objectionable aspects of the evolution theorized to have occurred in our world -- parasitism, predation, sexual competition, etc.
4.  Humankind fell.  Theists are free to assign the same cognitive effects of this fall as they believe occurred in the "fall of Adam."
5.  God provided specific direct revelation about our cosmos via whatever mechanism theists want to propose.   He told humankind that He created the cosmos and everything in it.  But he specified no mechanisms, spoke nothing about the existence of the outerverse and left no instructions about what humankind could or should do to try to find out how He did it.

So here we have a thoroughly "supernatural" reality.  We  have one case, the outerverse, which meets only the minimum requirements of the correct defnition of supernatural:  entities, events, and processes in the outerverse are undetectable, unobservable, and unmeasurable.  In this case, immense time and space are sufficient to render the outerverse supernatural according to Arthur Strahler's definition.  On the other hand, we have a personal, "spiritual" God.  He fits the minimum requirements for being "supernatural" but in addition has the characteristics of intelligence and purpose.

In this kind of universe human science would always be incomplete in principle, not only in regard to an explanation of the human condition but even in regard to the origin, nature and history of the natural world.  Those outerverse entities, events, and processes would keep breaking the regularities proposed by scientists working purely with data discoverable in our cosmos.  Not that all scientists would accept this view of reality.  Some would strive for complete explanation of the history of the cosmos anyway, but their theories would inevitably  fall victim to discovery of anomalous data.   Religious thinkers from other traditions would almost certainly seize on the opportunity provided by the inability of scientists to explain major features of the cosmos by providing their own explanations.  These explanations would almost certainly be incorrect and if subject to falsification by scientific methods would also fall victim eventually to anomalous data.  The position of those holding to God's revelation,  principled agnosticism, might gain strength over time.

It is possible that the scientific community would eventually arrive at a consensus that it had "hit a wall" regarding an explanation of the history of the cosmos.  Further theoretical progress would not be possible unless the community found a way to gather new types of evidence that can help it penetrate the mysteries it keeps bumping up against.  In the past scientists have been able to overcome this type of barrer by developing new instruments and methods.  That could happen in this case too, but under all but the most optimistic and unlikely outcomes it would only put off the day of reckoning.   For example, if humans found a way to break out of our cosmos and survive in the outerverse the previously unaccountable mysteries could come under examination.

But the far more likely outcome is what we are interested in here.  Faced with apparently insurmountable roadblocks to theoretical progress using standard scientific methods and procedures, what alternatives, if any, would the community consider?  We have already ruled out revelation.  Deductive reasoning has already been thoroughly discredited. 

What non-empirical methods are left?   Transcendantal argument?  "Unless we assume the existence of an outerverse we have no way to account for the phenomena we encounter in our cosmos."   This is really just a sloppy, vague, and untestable variant of standard scientific method.  When the argument is provided with a mathematical form and proposes specific tests using detectable, observable, measurable data that can confirm/disconfirm it, it would get promoted to a genuine theory and no longer be an alternative to normal scientific procedure.  Otherwise, it is a cheap substitute and scientists would be likely to say, "Interesting but unhelpful." 

Would there be a divide between "believing" and "unbelieving" scientists over this matter?   I can't come up with a reason why there would be.  What would either party gain by opening up science to non-empirical methods?  Do they offer a new kind of evidence that can stand up to critical scrutiny, that will inspire greater confidence in the theory by friend and foe alike?  No.  This would be enough for the vast majority of the community, "believer" and "unbeliever" alike, to reject them.

In the end, the scientific community would be more likely to insist that their theories stay tied to detectable, obvervable, measurable data and live with incomplete theories than they would be to change their requirements so that they could have complete explanation.   In the next post I would like to begin an examination of approaches to "methodological naturalism" in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Further Reflections on Methodological Naturalism as Detectability

In a previous post I suggested that sometimes theists and "naturalists" may, in the heat of their disputes, confuse the issue of "methodological naturalism."  Anti-theistic philosophers and scientists share with theists a tendency to fixate on  their differences over teleology, "supernatural" intelligence or design in nature and may more or less often drag this issue into disputes over "methodological naturalism."  In fact there is no necessary connection  between "methodological naturalism" and any position on the existence of design in nature, for example.  "Methodological naturalism" is short-hand for insisting that scientific explanation confine itself to entities, processes, and events that can be detected by human beings, whether by direct sense experience or the use of instruments.

I think it is possible that some of the folks with whom I've disputed over this matter made this confusion.     For that reason I plan to abandon the term "methodological naturalism" for the duration of this series of posts and talk about "detectability" and scientific method.

In her article on methodological naturalism Barbara Forrest quotes Arthur Strahler to the effect that introducing a single "supernatural" -- i.e, undetectable -- cause anywhere in a chain of causes making up a scientific explanation invalidates the entire explanation.  Is this single invocation of an undetectable cause really so devastating?  I think Strahler overstates the case, but qualified properly it still raises a legitimate issue.

Let's say, for example, I am sitting down to eat a stack of blueberry pancakes for breakfast and I suddenly have an overwhelming sense of deja vu.  In my mind I am carried back to a memory of breakfast at a summer camp.  I was at summer camp last year, but the camp in my memory is not the same as the one I actually attended.  In fact, the location and the people sitting next to me don't resemble those at any summer camp I can remember attending.  Joe psychologist explains to me that the smell and look of the pancakes triggered associations in my mind.  The unrecognized location and visitors come to me by way of reincarnation.  In a previous life I attended that very summer camp and sat with those very people for a breakfast of blueberry pancakes.

Strictly speaking, the event of reincarnation is unobservable.   Sure, I can detect one of its supposed effects, the apparent memory of people and a place I otherwise don't recall, but the event itself is beyond reach.   Nevertheless, for argument's sake let's say Joe psychologist is right.  Furthermore, let's say  that my experiences all conform to his diagnosis.  I have repeated, striking experiences of deja vu, vivid dreams or nightmares, and always they include things that I have no memory of otherwise.  Furthermore, let's say that all unrecognized details of these experiences can be traced to things experienced by the person I supposedly once was.

I can invoke several other undetectable causes to account for all the same phenomena, such as the presence of a demon who stole all these experiences from the other person and is planting them in my mind, or the existence of a post-mortem psychological memory "field" that radiates from the deceased person to another individual who can receive the memories on that "frequency."    To the extent that these and other possible undetectable causes can account for all my experiences, past, present, and future, it doesn't really matter which one is correct.  In fact, any and none of them could be correct, which means that Joe psychologist's explanation really amounts to "I don't know."  This is one way Strahler may be thinking that invoking an undetectable cause invalidates scientific explanation.  It amounts to an admission of ignorance. 

I've already hinted at a qualification to Strahler's argument.  Even undetectable causes can generate specific predictions about future observable events.  Assuming the predictions following from various undetectable causes differ, one can falsify one or more of them if predictions fail.  In this case the invocation of a specific undetectable cause is at least an implicit rejection of its undetectable competitors.     

On the other hand, Strahler is on to something genuinely pernicious about invoking undetectable causes.  Now that I have become convinced that Joe Psychologist is right, I am no longer driven to figure out where these apparent memories came from.  I ascribe them all to my past life.  With my critical faculties lulled to sleep I miss the clues, subtle or not,  leading to a simple explanation that does not invoke an undetectable cause.   To this someone will say, "Hey, the problem with reincarnation is not that it is undetectable, but that it is wrong!"

It certainly is wrong.  Strahler may be drawing from historical experience here.  Humans have often resorted to undetectable causes to explain the world, and in most cases their explanations were just plain wrong.  But the invocation of the undetectable cause, wrapped in religious language and delivered with divine authority, became an obligation.  To question it became a sin. 

The appeal to an undetectable cause often discourages scientific research at precisely the point we would otherwise expect it to intensify.   It is routine for scientists to encounter anomalies in their data, focus research on the anomalous situation, uncover new data, and use it to craft theories that resolve the anomaly.   Reincarnation may explain my apparent memories, but further research may uncover more mundane causes and obviate the need to invoke reincarnation.  This has happened often enough in the past, as Forrest points out in her articles.  And it is this historical experience that grounds statements like those of Lewontin.  The "a priori" refusal to allow undetectable causes in scientific explanation is really a lesson learned.  Religions make many claims about undetectable causes for what appear to be anomalous events in the world but on further investigation it turns out that detectable causes fully account for them.
Does this mean that a scientist who happens to be a believer should pursue research that could lead to the falsification of his beliefs?   Damn right!  I will work this out in detail when I get back to my series on Eve as a scientist in the garden of Eden.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Case of Rupert Sheldrake Illustrates how Some Evangelicals May Misunderstand Methodological Naturalism

Lately it seems I haven't been able to stick with multi-post projects on this blog.  This post may appear to be part of that pattern, but I'm hoping to link it in with my planned thought experiment on Eve in paradise.  The stimulus for this post was a series of exchanges I had with Steve Hays et. al. on Triablogue here and here regarding methodological naturalism in scientific investigation.

When I asked him for examples of scientific investigation that avoided the pitfall of methodological naturalism, he directed me to Rupert Sheldrake and Stephen Braude.  I took some time to learn about Rupert Sheldrake.

Reflection on Sheldrake's views and the controversy they have generated clarified a few things about the accusations some theists make against methodological naturalism in science.  It led me to do a little more digging and I found two  helpful articles by Barbara Forrest here and here along with some criticism. I would like to review this issue a bit again using some of the insights from the Forrest articles and criticisms before I tackle Sheldrake.

In the course of the discussion on Triablogue, one of the critics of methodological naturalism suggested that the real issue is not so much "natural" vs. "supernatural" as "designed" vs. "non-designed."   Some proponents of methodological naturalism might seem to agree.  For example, consider these words of Paul Kurtz:  "First, naturalism is committed to a methodological principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce a supernatural or transcendental cause within science is to depart from naturalistic explanations. On this ground, to invoke an intelligent designer or creator is inadmissible. . . ."  Or how about this from Steven Schafersman: “except for humans, philosophical naturalists understand nature to be fundamentally mindless and purposeless. . . ."  On this interpretation methodological naturalism betrays its precommitment to metaphysical naturalism by excluding in advance intelligent purpose, plan, or design from its theories about the operation of the world, except in the case of human endeavors -- and those of intelligent "aliens," assuming any are discovered.  "Supernatural" is the naturalist's code word for "deriving from a transcendant intelligence, especially God."  Another way to put it is that on this interpretation disputes over methodological naturalism largely resolve to the dispute over teleology.

Even after all this I think it is a fundamental mistake to confuse methodological naturalism with a resistance to teleology.  There is no necessary connection between them.  In fact, "naturalism" or "materialism" does not refer to an entity's lack of consciousness or purposive activity.  Instead, methodological naturalism is primarily a commitment to incorporating only what can be experienced by human beings into scientific explanation.  Forrest quotes Arthur Strahler to this effect:  "[S]upernatural forces, if they can be said to exist, cannot be observed, measured, or recorded [emphasis mine] by the procedures of science--that's simply what the word 'supernatural' means.  There can be no limit to the kinds and shapes of supernatural forces and forms the human mind is capable of conjuring up 'from nowhere.' Scientists therefore have no alternative but to ignore the claims of the existence of supernatural forces and causes."  Only if we can detect and measure a phenomenon can it play a role in scientific explanation. 

I believe this is the proper place to bring into play Richard Lewontin's notorious statement in his review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World that scientists embrace materialism "a priori" and cannot let a Divine foot in the door.   He sums up as follows: "To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen." It sounds like Lewontin is complaining about God's apparently arbitrary intentionality.  But that is not the issue.  He hints at the real issue in the title to his review:  "Billions and Billions of Demons."  Demons, angels, fairies, aliens with superior technology, God himself all have the capacity, according to at least some of their devoted followers, to become totally undetectable at will.  They inhabit the world of human experience and an alternate world totally beyond human reach and can step in and out of that other world any time they want.   This convenient ability allows those who believe in them to dismiss scepticism because the inhabitant of that other world simply decided to hide herself from the sceptical inquirer.  This was a common tactic in the witch trials of the 16 and 17th centuries.  With that kind of argument you can spawn an arbitrary number of theories of arbitrary complexity populated by an arbitrary number of undetectable entities -- "billions" of demons.   Now replace the personal entity with a mystical experience such as reincarnation.   If a believer in reincarnation defends the belief with the same type of argument -- the evidence is simply hidden from the sceptical inquirer -- he runs afoul of methodological naturalism without making any teleological claims.   

This brings me to Rupert Sheldrake.  Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance raises a lot of questions in my mind.  Perhaps reading his books would answer some of them.  For now, though, I just want to point out the following:
1.  The two critics of Sheldrake I heard from (Lewis Wolpert and P. Z. Myers) both stated clearly that they object because Sheldrake can present no good evidence for his theory.  Neither of them complained about Sheldrake's claims of divine intervention or supernatural powers, because he makes none.
2.  Sheldrake himself insists that he is working on accumulating evidence to back up his theories.  The experiments posted on his website are meant to gather data that will support the idea that there is some kind of collective "memory" or "field" shared by all members of a given species and that information gathered by one member is shared with all via transmission through this "field."  Steve Hays pointed to Sheldrake's experiments as an example of how one could do science without relying on methodological naturalism.  In fact, Sheldrake's experiments do no such thing.  His theory may be wacko mystical nonsense, as Wolpert claims, but his intent is to accumulate enough data to build an explanatory framework that conforms to the requirements of methodological naturalism.  He appears to believe, for instance, that we will eventually be able to detect and measure "morphic fields" directly.

Detectability is the real issue in methodological naturalism.  But detectability is a tricky issue on its own.  I reserve further discussion for another post.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Theologians have a lot to answser for

Rant warning!

I was reading Consilience by Edward O. Wilson. Happened to switch over to Augustine. It struck me, as it does from time to time, the sudden change. Wilson is reasonable, balanced, fair, clear. He argues and explains without making threats. He treats the reader with respect. Augustine is quick to condemn. Even when not specifically condemning someone or other, the very subjects he addresses and the way he addresses them drip with implied condemnations of someone or other. And on what basis? Because this passage or that passage from the Bible tells him so. Respect for the reader? No. The reader is to be bludgeoned into acknowledging his truth. I say "his" intentionally. The man was swimming in unacknowledged, unrecognized ignorance. He appeals to God to give him knowledge, confesses his dependence on God to provide him with knowledge, and then proceeds to make pronouncements on dozens of matters about which he knows next to nothing and press upon the reader the necessity of adopting his opinions or perishing.

I am not picking on Augustine; this is a pattern generated, not by failings in his personality or character, but by the nature of his beliefs. Judeo-Christian "orthodoxies" do this to people. They are a baleful influence. In short, as a professing Christian I think Christopher Hitchens is on to something: religion ruins everything. I can't speak about other religious traditions, since I don't know them well. But I can speak about Christianity from long personal experience. Orthodox Christian theology is poison in the well of the human heart. There is good in orthodoxy, but it is ruined by foolishness which invariably accompanies it. I am not saying religion is the ultimate cause of human evil. The ultimate cause is our own nature. Evolution has endowed the human heart with very destructive, malicious passions. Nobody escapes this. The problem with orthodox Christianity is that it masks its own malice in holiness. The consequence? The God clung to by the orthodox becomes a monster.

For a start, consider the prophets. Ancient Israelite society was no paradise on earth. The prophets testify to many "sins," some against God himself, some against fellow Israelites. But according to the prophets, God has a very limited set of remedies, almost always consisting of an invading army followed by devastation of the land and atrocities against the people. This God of the prophets is supposed to be superior in wisdom, mercy, and power to the evil Israelite aristocracy, but in practice he does nothing except destroy, destroy, destroy. Why? The prophets were realists; if Assyria, Babylon, or Egypt wants to overrun Palestine, what are the kingdoms of Israel and Judah going to do about it? But in order to get their message accepted they have to turn necessity into a virtue. Voila! God WANTS the foreign invader to succeed in order to punish the evildoers among his people. Never mind that the people most likely to suffer are the people already victimized by internal injustices. They have to suffer twice? So what? They deserve it; they're idolaters!

And then, of course, God avenges his people eventually. How? By really giving it to the invaders! But not the invaders that caused the problem in the first place. Their descendants get it, the ones unfortunate enough to live when the foreign empire's vitality is ebbing away and competitors start ravaging the homeland. But we can be more specific about this. The vast majority of those who suffer from this vengeance are peasants, people who most likely profited little or nothing from the devastations wrought by the ancestors of their overlords. And how does this help those Israelites who originally suffered injustice?

Are you a theologian? Fix this problem with orthodoxy. Tear the God-damned prophetic theology apart and put it back together so that it stops slandering God.

Friday, February 12, 2010

What if Eve had been a trained scientist?

This essay is a brief thought experiment meant to explore the implications of an alternate version of the story of Adam and Eve found in Genesis 2 & 3. In the alternate version Eve practices the forms of reasoning employed in modern sciences to decide what to do about the serpent's "temptation." Using these techniques the "scientific" Eve either falsifies the serpent's claims without any human being eating the forbidden fruit or, depending on how Adam and God respond to her, falsifies many of the theological/anthropological/cultural constructs underlying the Biblical version of the story. If Eve had been a trained scientist, there would have been no "fall."

I attempted a simpler form of this experiment many years ago. At that time my primary purpose was to dispatch to my own satisfaction a variant of Calvnistic/Reformed orthodoxy known as Van Tillian presuppositionalism. One of this position's claims, based on its own approach to Genesis 2 and 3, is that modern scientific ways of knowing the world are inherently prejudiced against true knowledge and love of God. Primarily, this is due to the fact that the modern scientific way of knowing does not accept the already self-evident knowledge scientists have of God from the inerrant Word of God in the Bible, the creation around them, and their own being and constitution. All of these things speak to them very clearly, and in being exposed to them scientists encounter God himself. But scientists fail to respond properly to this knowledge. Instead, they suppress and deny it; they doubt things they know deep down to be true. Or, more exactly, they doubt the One they know deep down to be Truth.

In other words, consistent methodogical doubt is sinful and disastrously counterproductive when confronted with the God of the Bible. I don't accept this at all. But I was not happy with the idea that presuppositionalism would go one way and I another and the two would have nothing to say to one another. I would press reasons and arguments starting from my set of givens and they would press reasons and arguments starting from their set of givens (primarily the Bible), and we would talk at one another but make very little progress. Ah, I thought, if I can show that the use of scientific methods by Eve would rule out the "fall," the entire presuppositionalist position is overthrown. That was my initial intent. Whether this thought experiment achieves that intent knowing readers will have to judge for themselves.

In any event, that is no longer my primary intent. I have broader goals now. For one thing, writing out this experiment is more fun for me and anyone who happens to read the posts. For another, I think the contrast between the two versions of the story will make some features of the Biblical version clearer and easier to evaluate. These are good things, no matter what your beliefs about Genesis 2 and 3.

Next post in the series coming soon!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The right response to Pat Robertson on Haiti

Had to break from the usual themes to address the earthquake in Haiti. This catastrophe hits close to home because my wife spent time there and we knew some good friends who were missionaries in Haiti. The scope of this disaster takes one's breath away. Christians across the board have already begun mobilizing to lend assistance to relief efforts -- as we should be. If you are a Christian, odds are great that your denomination/local church has already taken some steps to help, perhaps through direct relationships with co-workers in Haiti or through general relief efforts.

Everything I am about to say must be understood in this context. Pat Robertson recently put his foot in it again with his statement about how the catastrophe is part of a curse on Haiti due to some supposed pact with the devil that resulted in Haiti's liberation from France 200 years ago. This is ridiculous.

So, what to do about it? Ignore his worthless speculations about what Haitians are supposed to learn from this disaster and concentrate on the clear implications of the event for us, such as "do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith," "Pure religion and undefiled is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress." In short, if you want to silence the critics of Christianity, outdo Robertson and his followers in loving the churches and people of Haiti. Robertson is thinking in Ezekielian terms: God brings a huge catastrophe, and shows everyone he is God. Jesus had a different idea for us: "by this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another." Let's get to it.