Science and the possibility of belief in God and in free will
For centuries, before the ascendancy of physical science, theologians struggled with the question of predestination and free will. If God knows everything that will ever happen, in fact if God causes everything that will ever happen, how can humans be free? If God knows that you are or are not saved, there is nothing you can do about it.
With the development of modern physics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, physical determinism replaced divine predestination as the cause of all things. Many of those who believed in God saw Him as a cosmic mechanic who set up the laws of the universe, started it running, and then had nothing else to do. In this view, we humans never had anything to do either, since every event, including those in our brain, has a physical cause, and free will is an illusion.
In the twentieth century the development of quantum physics and the uncertainty principle changed the way that many scientists look at the physical universe. Chance events take place at the sub-atomic level so that the physical world is not absolutely determined. These events can affect DNA causing the chance variations that are essential to the notion of biological evolution.
As stated in the previous post, some scientist believe that statistical probability makes determinism at the macro level as firm as the old mechanistic determinism, and so they reject random events and free will. On August 1 and August 8 I posted my take on the ideas two such scientists, Sean Carroll and Kristof Koch. Here, I will look more generally at the implications of indeterminism.
The idea of indeterminacy turns the world of physics as well as the world of theology upside-down, since neither the laws of strict determinism nor the mind of God controls all that has happened or will happen. Indeterminacy neither proves nor disproves the reality of God, but it allows that, if God is real, He can intervene in the events of evolution. Similarly, indeterminacy does not prove or disprove human free will, but it allows that there could be a conscious agency that intervenes in the events of our own brains.
Unlike the closed view of strict mechanistic determinism that prevailed up to the end of the nineteenth century, a contemporary view of uncertainty allows for the possibility of spiritual agency in the physical universe. The thoughts summarized in the preceding two paragraphs are argued cogently by biologist Kenneth R. Miller in Finding Darwin’s God, Chapter Seven,
“ Beyond Materialism.”
Miller states, as did theologian John Haught, that science cannot reveal whether God is real and whether there is purpose in the universe. But Miller contends that much of the atheism and materialism associated with science results from some scientists projecting their personal view on their science and hence on the universe.
Miller sees the universe, as revealed by science, to be perfectly compatible with belief in God, and that there is no need for gaps to be filled by magic and miracles. The world is incomplete in the sense that it is still developing, but it is logically complete in structure, especially as revealed by Darwinian evolution.
Miller interprets the statement in Genesis, that God created humans according to God’s own image and likeness, to mean that our mind is fit to study science and to progress in comprehending the structure of the universe.
While Miller and Haught see contemporary science as liberating us from a mechanistic view of nature, American philosopher William James (1842 – 1910) had struggled with the notion of free will when mechanistic determinism enjoyed supremacy among scientists - before the advent of quantum physics.
The problem took on a further complication in James’s time because most of the thinkers who rejected materialism posited a notion of God as the “Absolute.” This notion included the idea that God is all-knowing and all powerful and therefore controlled everything in the universe, past, present, and future.
James recognized that this notion of reality left no more room for human agency than did the materialistic notion. In an argument that bears on the notion of the Absolute, as well as whole religious argument against evolution, James observed that God, as experienced in religion bears little resemblance to the notion of a designer who controls every aspect of creation and guarantees a neat outcome.
James describes reality as a battle ground on which our salvation is possible but not guaranteed. Facing the evil of the world, we may succumb to the nightmarish view, or even the suicidal view, that our world is evil beyond hope.
But if we take up the challenge and believe in a hopeful outcome, we make the hopeful possibility become a reality. James proposed belief in a God who could take strength from our little efforts. Although the influence of anyone of us is small, together we are integral to any outcome of the world. A world that involves danger and struggle fits our nature better than a world with no hope and even better than a world with no risk. As James sums up his view in his essay “Is Life worth Living?”
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,---as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulness, are needed to redeem; but first to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears.
For James, the notion of God and humans struggling together to create and redeem a world is more compatible with religion and with human nature than either a hopeless materialism or a smug God who creates effortlessly while we look on as spectators.
Although James’s account of God would not be satisfactory to most classical theologians, it would fit the view of some process theologians. More importantly, whatever value James’s idea has for theology, he does show that a chaotic world, in which suffering, risk, and loss are real, is compatible with historical religion.
The above arguments intend to show that, contrary to naïve theists and atheists, belief in God is compatible with a Darwinian world-view with it slowness and with the intermingling of good and evil. Biblical religion does not portray God as a designer who makes the world easily out of his own substance. Rather, God can be hoped for as a Creator drawing the world out of nothingness, through all-in-division, toward a harmony whose fulfillment is up ahead. Scientists can continue to explore the world and bring it into ever more general laws, whether the scientists believe that all reality is a random arrangement of things in the vastness of time and space, or whether they believe that there is a rational purpose leading the way.
While the former view would seem to call for a philosophy of the absurd, the latter view is more hospitable to the project of science. James contended that theism is a more rational view than any of its opponents. Of course, we cannot assume, without circular argument, that the more rational view is true.
My very first post outlined the opposition between a spiritual worldview in which consciousness precedes nature, and the materialist view in which consciousness is a small and relatively insignificant product of matter.
For the spiritual view, evil presents a major problem. For the materialist view, evil does not constitute a metaphysical problem, but merely consists in our subjective discontent with the way things are. The spiritual view assumes the primacy of what we call ‘the good.” The materialist view sees the good as our subjective approval of some situations. The next post will explore the idea of good in a world shot through with evil.
Stop Blaming Free Will
(I was originally going to place the following paragraphs as an aside in the section on evil. But it might fit better after the recent posts defending the reality of free will.)
I will briefly address an argument from theodicy used by some theists to explain evil. Without necessarily affirming a literal interpretation of Genesis or denying evolution, they affirm the theological tenant that God created the world good, but that evil resulted from free will. To express this idea in popular terms, God could have kept the world good, as He intended it to be, but in order to have a creature who could love Him freely, He endowed us humans with free will and we misused it bringing evil into the world.
I maintain that we should stop blaming free will for evil. The most obvious reason for asserting that this explanation falls far short is that it does not address the chaos, suffering, and horror that abound in nature apart from any human agency. But it even fails to explain human moral evil. If free will were the cause of all evil, we could expect that the “default” mode of every human being would be good, and that evil acts would require an act of will.
But as William James had pointed out, free will takes effort, whereas following our impulses does not. James argues that “attention with effort” constitutes the essential meaning of an act of free will. “The essential achievement of the will, in short, when it is most ‘voluntary’ is to ATTEND to a difficult object and hold it fast before our mind (emphasis in the original).
Without free will, or if we fail to develop our ability to attend to difficult ideas so that they may govern our actions, we sink into evil behavior. It does not take a firm resolution or any special discipline to be greedy, lustful, lazy, or envious. By contrast, it takes a life-time of training to develop our free will and to become virtuous. So free will stands as one of the good things that we need to take account of rather than an explanation of evil.
The Key Question of Free Will
The issue of free will is closely linked to the meaning of consciousness because the whole question of free will asks whether consciousness can determine matter without being completely determined by matter. Put more specifically, can the conscious subject decide on particular brain events without the decision having been predetermined by other brain events?
For example, consider a person who resolves to improve his or her fitness by taking up running. It seems, from the person‘s point of view, that the resolution causes the mind to focus on health and fitness so that physical changes takes place. The person now devotes time and energy to running on a road or track, time that would otherwise have been spent on some sedentary activity such as playing with a computer. But was the origin and continuation of the resolution caused by some other physical brain event of which the person had neither awareness nor control?
I will compare my thoughts with those of Christof Koch in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. (Koch is a highly respected neuro-scientist, protégé, collaborator, and friend of Francis Crick).
Koch offers as a definition of free will: “You are free if, under identical circumstances, you could have acted otherwise. Identical circumstances refer to not only the same external conditions but also the same brain states” (Koch, 92). He considers debates on the reality of free will to be futile since we cannot go back and do things differently.
I think that his observation about the futility of debates on free will stems from his definition rather than on the real possibility of free will. His definition looks backward, “Could you have acted differently?” This definition sets up a sure failure for free will since, to the best of my knowledge, no free will theory would say that we are free to change the past. What’s done is done.
But free will takes on a different meaning when we apply it to the future. The question of free will can be restated as: “Can I, through ‘attention with effort,’ make my future different from what it would be without such effort.”
The phrase, “attention with effort,” flows from William James and his notion that ideas control action and that through effort we can determine which ideas control our action. This understanding need not slip into futility since it has a real impact. Suppose a young person heard this idea from someone whom she respects and tries to apply it to her life. Would this notion not make a difference in the way she lived? The practical significance of this question can best be understood by reviewing William James’s description of free will.
According to James, every idea has some bodily expression and ideas either instigate or inhibit muscular movements. Since we generally have several ideas at any one time, some contradicting others, we act on the most dominant one. We are free if and only if we can, by effort, make a chosen idea dominant by deliberately attending to it.
For example, a person who has a plate of fried chicken in front of him may eat it without effort since the dominant idea is how good it tastes. But if the same person turns his attention to the desirability of clean arteries and a healthy body weight, he may, through effort, make this healthy image dominant and so change his eating habits. The whole question of free will comes down to whether “we,” our conscious selves, can determine the ideas that we attend to and the amount of effort that we can exert to maintain the attention.
If the materialists are right, then the whole process of “attention with effort” originates in molecules of which we may not be consciously aware, and “we” are mere spectators of a process over which we have no control. We cannot prove that the materialists are right or wrong. However, it is reasonable to believe that we can, perhaps to a very small degree, choose what we think is good, pay attention to it with effort, and thereby make our lives different from what they otherwise would be. If this assumption is true, then we have a free will and consciousness has a degree of control over matter.
Koch offers two reasons to doubt that consciousness can exert control over matter. The first reason is based on the conservation of energy. Anything that happens in the physical world depends on the existing energy. Nothing happens without using some amount of energy that constitutes the physical universe. So the neural correlates of thought, the physical conditions necessary for any thought, depend on some physical event. They cannot originate from any non-physical entity, even if there are non-physical entities.
Koch leaves an infinitesimal crack in the closed neuro-physical system that may provide an opportunity for free will, but he considers the degree of freedom to be insignificant, and on a practical level, indistinguishable from mere chance. In describing the one opportunity for free will, Koch refers to the view of Karl Popper and John Eccles, advocates of free will, that “the conscious mind imposes its will onto the brain by manipulating the way neurons communicate with each other in the regions of the cortex concerned with the planning of movement.” According to the Popper-Eccles view, the mind need not supply the physical energy for the movement of the chemical signals, but it can “direct traffic” by promoting activity in theses neurons and preventing it in those.
But Koch argues that such influence is possible only in quantum-mechanical states in which there is a certain probability that a synapse will or will not switch. According to his argument, the mind cannot change the probability, but it might determine what will happen on any given event. Control over a single event does not change the probability that the person will act this way rather than that way. But, we may ask, if the mind can control this one event, might it also influence the next one and the one after? Could this type of influence, over time, not change the probability?
Koch follows up with further arguments against the feasibility of free will (Koch 105-105). He cites and describes experimental evidence that brain activity that instigates an apparent act of will, actually begins before the actor is aware of making a decision. In Koch’s example, a person indicates the instant that he or she decides to move an arm. The actual movement of the arm coincides with the moment of their awareness, but EEG information shows that the process has started prior to the decision. This experiment implies that what we feel is a free choice is, in fact, the result of brain activity of which we are unaware.
However, free will is not about a single action but about a life-time of habit formation. In the case of the arm movement experiment, it might be just as well if unconscious neuro-physical events choose the moment to move an arm. But there are many human activities in which it is crucial to choose a particular act at just the right moment. Such examples abound especially in sports.
For example, if a baseball player is deciding to steal second base, he must pick the right moment. If he leaves a second too early he might get picked off; a second too late and he will be thrown out. So an unconscious physical brain event, which occurs before the actual steal attempt, might serve him better than slower conscious deliberation. But a baseball player has spent a lot of time deliberately developing the habit of running bases. He has chosen to develop these habits, therefore he has chosen the neural pathways that enable him to seize the moment without deliberation.
The deliberate development of habits applies to all sports, music, dancing, cooking, hunting, and many other activities. We may freely choose to spend time developing these skills. When time sensitivity is not an issue, we are free to the extent that, over time we can choose how we develop our habitual behavior. The habits serve us well when we must act “in the blink of an eye.” While the above description does not “prove” free will, it does provide a feasible belief in free will that survives Koch’s argument against it.
A further look at Koch reveals that he himself believes in free will. He affirms a "compatibilist” notion of free will, which means that you are free if and only if you can follow your own desires and preferences. For example, smokers who wish to stop smoking are free or not free depending on whether they are able to follow their desire to stop. Some can and some can’t. But even in the case of those who successfully follow their desire, the desires themselves stem from biological and psychological events over which the person has no authorship. (93).
The person who wishes to smoke would be free if he were allowed to smoke without limitations and prohibitions. The same holds true of those who wish to express their preference for unlimited acquisitions, sexual encounters, or physical expression of anger. In Koch’s case, he not only wants to be able to express his desires and preferences without coercion or prohibition, but also specifies what he wants his desires to be. (I assume that this is also true of Dennett, Carroll, and most other materialists in spite of their theory).
It is worth quoting Koch at length to show his position regarding free will.
After rejecting both classical determinism that sees the future as already fixed, and also rejecting the notion that an immaterial “soul” can influence matter, he concludes:
“I’ve taken two lessons from these insights. First, I’ve adopted a more pragmatic compatibilist conception of free will. I strive to live as free of external and internal constraints as possible. The only exception should be constraints that I deliberately and consciously impose upon my self, chief among them constraints motivated by ethical concerns; whatever you do, do not hurt others and try to leave the planet a better place than you found it. Other considerations include family, health, financial stability, and mindfulness. Second, I try to understand my unconscious motivations, fears, and desires better. I reflect deeper about my own actions and emotions than my younger self did” (emphases added).
Who or what is the “I” that “strives,” “deliberately and consciously imposes,” and “tries?” It seems that if consciousness has no autonomy, we can only hope that our molecules will do these things or, depending on the molecules, hope that they don’t. A dogmatic materialist may argue that Koch has gone soft in the paragraph quoted above. But, on the contrary, the hopeful resolute paragraph may simply show the limitation of materialism.
Sean Carroll, in his brilliant book The Big Picture, calls his view of reality “poetic naturalism.” He means that there is one reality, the natural world as defined by contemporary physics, but there are many ways to talk about it. The many ways of talking constitute the poetic part of poetic naturalism.
One of the best ways to explain what he means, as well as to relate to these posts, is to take the issue of free will. Now in his view, events at the atomic level, which he refers to as the level of the quantum wave, determine everything that can and must happen. These include events in our brain including those that we commonly attribute to free will. He rejects any randomness in the physical world as well as anything being influenced by a non-physical entity. Therefore, our notion that we make choices constitutes an illusion. But the poetic side of his view allows us to talk about events as if they were chosen.
For example, he writes: “It’s up to you and me and every other person to create meaning and purpose for ourselves. We can decide that what we want to do is to devote ourselves to something larger—but that decision comes from us.” (p. 390)
And: “ The upshot is that getting things right---being honest with ourselves and others---facing up to the world and looking it right in the eyeball--doesn’t just happen. It requires a bit of effort.
The emphases were not in the original, but highlighted here to show that he speaks the language of free will.
According to poetic naturalism, what we talk about as decisions and exertions of effort are in reality determined by events at the level of quantum waves. We could not do otherwise, for better or worse, than what we do. In fact even the “we” is an illusion, but according to the poetic side of Carroll’s view, we can talk about “us.”
To give a more simplified, but I believe fair, example of poetic naturalism, take a person who has been out in cold weather. She may say, “Jack Frost is biting my toes and fingers.” Now we all know that what is really happening is a transfer of heat form her extremities to the surrounding environment. But we know what she means by Jack Frost – we can talk about her experience in this way. I think that for poetic naturalism, free will is on the level of Jack Frost.
The only way that a person can say my example of Jack Frost is unfair, is if free will in fact constitutes something more that just a way of talking about physical events.
I will write about free will in a future post in relation to Kristof Koch. My next post will be on Sean Carroll’s view of consciousness.
Musings on consciousness.
Consciousness stands as a necessary condition for purpose and free will. (For now, I will leave aside the questions of the reality of God and human immortality.) But the notions of purpose and free will require that consciousness has real effects in the natural world. Otherwise we are ineffective spectators of the results of natural processes that take place at the micro level. Many scientists hold just that, namely that free will is an illusion and what we think are free acts are the result of electro-chemical processes going on in our brain.
Among those scientists who hold this view are Kristof Koch with his “Romantic Reductivism,” and Sean Carroll with his “Poetic Naturalism.” Other prominent scientists who hold the naturalistic reductive position are the late Stephen Hawking and Francis Crick. Maybe the majority of scientists hold this view, but that does not matter. Although I respect scientists and scientific consensus, the question of consciousness goes beyond science.
Sean Carroll believes that physics has explained consciousness, and in this he joins the old “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that consciousness cannot be reduced to an object of physical science; Kristof Koch, neurobiologist and protégé of Francis Crick, admits that science cannot yet explain consciousness, but believes that it has the capacity to explain it in the future. I want to analyze and explicate the views of Nagel, Carroll, and Koch, but first I will present my own take on the problem. (Not that I imagine myself to be in the same leagues as the fore-mentioned).
Most of the attempted explanations of consciousness explain the neural conditions necessary for human consciousness. But they leave out the unique subjective experience of humans including the physicists and philosophers who do the analysis. Carroll dismisses this problem while Nagel and Koch grapple with it. From the point of view of the physicist, the question can be framed: How can something that is not physical move something that is clearly physical, such as the electrons that compose our neurons? The answer of the reductionists is simply that something non-physical, even if it exists, could not move something physical. Such movement would contradict the law of conservation of energy.
I see the major premise of the reductionist argument to consist in this: Whatever exists can be an object of physical science; and whatever cannot be an object of physical science cannot exist. So a common position of reductionism holds that consciousness cannot be anything apart from properties and processes of the brain. Furthermore, consciousness cannot exert a physical effect on the brain, and therefore our thoughts, choices, and values depend on physical activity in the brain, these conscious experiences can only be the effect of physical event, never the cause. As Kristof Koch sums up the reductionist position. “No matter; never mind.”
I join those who contend that consciousness is unique and not reducible to physics. When scientists study the brain you can think of at least three distinct aspects of the study. There is the object of scientific knowledge gained through instrument-aided experiments; the physical processes going on within the brain of the scientists; and the consciousness of the scientists of their knowledge. Physicists can reduce biology and chemistry to physics. The reduction includes the structure and processes of their own brains. But what about consciousness including their own. It is unlike any object of physical science.
In my next posts I will consider the reductive arguments of Sean Carroll and Kristof Koch.
An evolutionary view of creation
John Haught fully embraces the insights of science and especially those of Darwinian evolution. He contends that these scientific insights are not only compatible with the experience of biblical faith, but that they nourish a theology that is richer than pre-Darwinian religious thought.
Scientists begin with the commitment to the belief that the world is to some extent intelligible and that truth is worth the hard work of science. These faith commitments of scientists do not prove anything about the ultimate nature of reality, but they are more compatible with a religious vision than with a materialistic one. Unlike the materialist interpretation of reality, the religious view sees the work of the scientist as part of a larger cosmic narrative characterized by a hopeful outcome.
Haught shows the weakness of naïve theism as well as naïve atheism both of which find a world that grows from random events, as depicted by Darwin, incompatible with belief in God. These theists therefore argue that the events happen by design and the randomness is illusory; the atheists affirm the randomness and declare belief in a Creator to be the illusion. Haught grounds his view of creation in the religious insight that God’s love is self-emptying, which allows creation to develop on its own as something other than the Creator. As Haught writes:
An unrestrained display of infinite presence or “omnipotence” would leave no room for anything other than God, and so it would leave out any evolutionary self-transcendence on the part of the cosmos. It is a humble “retreat” on God’s part that allows the cosmos to stand on its own and then to evolve as a relatively autonomous reality distinct from its creative ground. In this sense, creation and its evolutionary unfolding would be less the consequence of an eternal divine “plan” than of a humble and loving “letting be.”
The crucial meaning of Haught’s insights shows that a slowly evolving and chaotic universe does not necessarily lead to a materialist view of reality. Theists and atheist alike cannot get by with a simple choice of affirming or denying design.
Haught’s process theology takes a different approach to the notion of God as designer. He maintains that the universe is allowed to grow as something independent of the Creator. He contrasts the understanding of God in process theology with the portrayal of God in naive theism and atheism:
A coercive deity---one that immature religiosity often wishes for and that our scientific skeptics invariably have in mind when they assert that Darwin has destroyed theism---would not allow for the otherness, autonomy, and self-coherence necessary for a world to be a world unto itself.
A non-coercive creator allows not only human freedom, but also the pre-human spontaneity that allows for the formation of the universe and the evolution of life and of species. Haught concludes that God is the source not only of order, but also the instability and disorder that are necessary for novelty and for life itself.
While John Haught approaches the issue of evolution as a theologian with a deep understanding of science, Kenneth R. Miller approaches the same question as a cell biologist with a rich understanding of theology. In his book, Searching for Darwin’s God, Miller begins by demolishing the array of Creationists theories including Intelligent Design. These theories, while claiming the label of “scientific,” deny the validity of much well-established science, and they present a diminished notion of God.
In chapters 3, 4 and 5, Miller shows that Creationists present God as: first, a charlatan who created the earth only ten thousand years ago, but through fakery, made it look older; second, as a magician who made living things appear out of thin air; and third, as a mechanic who tinkered together the intricacy of the living cell. Miller then demonstrates that the origin of life as well as of species can be accounted for by the scientific study based on Darwinian natural selection.
The conflict that still endures between some religious thinkers and some scientists
stems partly from the notion that religion can answer questions better left to science, for example, questions on the origin of life and origin of species. But the controversy is fueled by many evolutionists who contend that evolution makes mechanistic materialism triumphant to the point that any religious or spiritual ideas are superfluous and irrational. Those evolutionists hold in common with the creationists the premise that evolution and religion are mutually exclusive.
Creation and Chaos
In my last two post I presented the notion that the universe does not look like the work of an all-good and all-powerful designer. I agree with this assessment. Here I want to express an idea of God as seen in the light of evolution.
The notion of God as a designer who controls every event in creation rules out the notion of evolution by natural selection; conversely the acceptance of evolution by natural selection rules out the possibility of belief in God the designer.
Religious thinkers who welcome the findings of evolution understand God differently from the theists and the atheists who think of God as a Designer. Theologian John Haught, for example, contends that the discoveries of Darwin open up the possibility of a richer notion of God than had ever been know before. Religious understanding, specifically the understanding of Christianity, does not portray God as an all-controlling designer, but as one who empties Himself to allow the world to be itself. As Haught sees it:
God’s creative love constitutes the world as something ontologically distinct from God, and not as a simple extension of divine being. Consequently, the indeterminate natural occurrences that recent physics has uncovered at the most elementary levels of physical reality, the random events that biology finds at the level of life’s evolution, and the freedom that emerges with human existence are all features proper to any world that is permitted and even encouraged to be distinct from the creative love that underlies it.
(I am aware that some scientists including Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture, and the late Stephen Hawking, probably the best known physicist of our time, believe that the probability laws of quantum mechanics are as deterministic as the older mechanistic view, and they reject the notion of random events and freedom. I will try to deal with these issues later, but for here I will go along with those scientists who accept randomness and freedom.)
In Christian belief and experience, God reveals Himself in the form of a poor man, of no political or economic consequence, who suffered death by execution on a cross. The trust in an incomprehensible God, in spite of unbearable sorrow also runs deep in the history of religious Jews from their early days of exile up through the Holocaust.
This notion, of course, has no appeal to those who do not accept it, but it shows that God as experienced in Christianity and Judaism bears no resemblance to the powerful but prissy god whom anti-evolutionists affirm, and atheists reject. God as experienced by religion is quite compatible with evolution by natural selection.
As expressed by the renowned Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) “Even to a mere biologist, the evolution of life resembles nothing so much as a way of the cross.”
The key issue, as John Haught argues, is not whether the universe is the work of an Intelligent Designer, but whether the universe has purpose. The two questions are different although both sides often run them together as, “The world is either the product of Intelligent Design or it is pointless.”
Advocates of Intelligent Design, invoke the complexity and beauty of design while atheists claim that the design is sporadic and explainable by randomness over vast periods. Haught’s rejection of design is similar to the argument of the atheists in that he contends that evolution does not look like the work of a designer.
But Haught, rather than looking back for an original design, looks ahead to an evolving purpose. He further argues that the religions that sprang from Abraham consist primarily in hope for the future.
The question of purposefulness in the universe cannot be answered by science. Scientists can and do express opinions on the issues of purpose, but in doing so they base their judgments on whatever factors cause a person to accept or reject faith in a purposeful universe. Haught compares the fatalism of some scientists to that of the Greek tragedies.
Fate for the scientists as for the tragedians moves on with remorseless indifference to human aspirations and comes to a bad conclusion. Shakespeare’s Mac Beth expressed this powerfully on hearing of his wife’ death:
Life’s but a brief shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Of course, the scientists who think of the universe as pointless may or may not feel their own life as tragic; they might be quite content with their “hour upon the stage.”(Sean Carroll seems to fit this description.) But regardless of how scientists view life, their view is not part of their science.
As Haught argues, science is not equipped to find the value of things. Such questions are metaphysical, and although metaphysics must be consistent with science, a metaphysics of promise is not less scientific than a metaphysics of despair.
Evolution, the problem of evil, and a challenge to the idea of good
The argument from evil stands out as the strongest case against belief in God. If an all good and all powerful Creator produced a world, the argument goes, that world would reflect the Creator’s own goodness. But a close look at reality presents something quite different from what we would expect.
Life on earth is violent, terrifying and excruciatingly painful for its inhabitants. Except for those at the top of the food chain, animals must seek food for themselves and their young under the constant threat of being eaten by a predator. Their lives are likely to end with a few minutes of terror as they try to escape and then the horror and physical pain of having the claws and teeth of death tear into their flesh.
Psychologist Ernest Becker writing about how our fear of death, which we try to suppress, describes an absurd nature in which the horror of human death constitutes a small but typical part:
What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to tear others apart with teeth of all types---biting, grinding flesh…bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating the essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue?
Becker argues that if we can remove all of the illusions that constitute our culture and look at life as it is, we realize that nature mocks the poet. In the context of these posts, we might conclude that nature mocks the idea of the good.
Why did the Creator not make us all vegetarians like the animals in the “Peaceable Kingdom?” Since plants lack the awareness and the nervous system to feel pain, eating them would not involve inflicting cruelty. Or better, yet, why not endow all creatures with the power of photosynthesis and skip eating all together?
But since eating constitutes such a pleasure, why did the Creator not grow lobster tails on trees so that we could enjoy them without throwing a live lobster into boiling water? And why can we not enjoy all sorts of steaks and roasts without the pain and horror of the slaughterhouse? Scientists today are working on growing meat from stem cells. Why didn’t an omniscient Creator think of that?
The contrast between reality and our fantasy of what a benign all-mighty being would have created constitutes for many an airtight argument against belief in God. Atheists like Dawkins do not posit an evil god, but simply an absence of any creator or source of good and evil. The universe including the process of evolution is, in their view, unconscious and pitiless. Atheists have a strong case to show that the world including living things does not flow from an intelligent designer.
What happens to the idea of the good?
The self-sufficiency of nature and the case for atheism
The discussion in the Comment section of the previous showed that there are some ambiguities in the use of the terms God, Atheism, consciousness, and Being. I will continue to work on clarifying my take on these words, but in the meantime I will continue to post the ideas that I have been working on, knowing that some improvements will be called for. I have purchased and begun to study Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture,” at Ted Drange’s suggestion. This will also lead to some further development of my thinking.
But in the next several posts I am going to use the name “God” to mean Creator, knowing that there is a lot I don’t know about the meaning of Creator and creation. My assumption is that a Creator is conscious and purposeful. Let us continue.
The case for no Creator:
The first argument, mentioned in the previous post, that evolution renders the need for a Creator superfluous, rests on the premise that, in the vastness of time and space, anything that could happen will happen somewhere at some time.
Advocates of this idea depict biological evolution on earth as just one small instance of physical evolution by which the universe takes on the structure of elements and molecules following patterns that we call laws. When writers such as Daniel Dennett speak of “vastness”, they do not limit themselves to the 13.7 billion years or so that mark the progress of our universe since the big bang. Rather they posit a vast if not infinite number of alternate universes that may have no spatial temporal or gravitational relationship with our universe. Every universe that could exist probably does exist and we are part of one that happens to have a structure that supports life and consciousness.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow offer an atheist explanation of reality in their 2010 book, The Grand Design. The title is ironic, I assume deliberately so, because theists have traditionally argued that design implies an Intelligent Designer.
But Hawking and Mlodinow posit a design without the need for a designer. They contend that the laws of physics can create new universes out of nothing. As Hawking and Mlodinow describe the universe producing laws:
Any set of laws that describes a continuous world such as ours will have a concept of energy, which is a constant quantity, meaning it does not change in time…One requirement any law of nature must satisfy is that it dictates that the energy of an isolated body surrounded by empty space is positive, which means that one has to do work to assemble the body.
It is not clear whether these laws and concepts, which dictate what energy must do, are aspects of reality or “merely” the brain products of very intelligent physicists, at this stage of human evolution. In the first chapter of The Grand Design, the authors stipulate that they are employing a “model dependent realism,” which means that our brains must employ a model to interpret the sensory data received by our senses from whatever is real. So there will always be a gap between what even our best physicists know and what really exists.
For Hawking and Mlodinow, and perhaps for all atheistic scientists, the laws constitute an uncaused cause, and given the vastness of time and space, there is no limit to the number of universes that exist, have existed, or will exist. In the view of self-creating universes, each universe may have its own local laws. We are lucky to live in a universe whose laws allow for planets like earth to exist and for life and a degree of intelligence to evolve.
But the process that provides for a countless number of universes requires a basic law of energy and gravity that creates from nothing. The nothingness consists of negative energy. Neither atheists nor theists can imagine or think of nothing, so we all posit a kind of reality that enables something to come from “nothing.”
For theists, the reality is a conscious Creator, for atheists the “creative” reality consists of unconscious laws. (No one can think of nothingness, because if there were nothing, there would be no thinking. We may not be able to go as far as Descartes and posit a thinking substance, but we could not deny that there is thinking.)
Not only do materialists believe that, in a universe such as ours, 13.7 billion years allows for random events to produce life and consciousness, but also that the enormity of time supports the belief that the evolutionary process occurs randomly. The slowness of the process is compatible with randomness, but not with a purposeful Creator.
Atheists see the ten billion years from the big bang to the beginning of life on earth, and the 3.5 billion years from the beginning of life to the emergence of human scientists, as a prodigal waste of time. The god in whom atheists do not believe would have been much quicker and more efficient.
Musings on theism, atheism and consciousness.
My next planned post is going to continue the discussion of theism and atheism.
But my friend Ted Drange pointed out in comment section (please read these and jump in if you like) that my use of the terms theism and atheism may involve some equivocation – using the same term to mean two different things.
The term “God” is sometimes used to refer to a being who thinks and performs actions. Others use the term “God” to refer to “some aspect of reality like creativity or the essence of love, or ‘the ground of being.’ ”
A person who believes in God in the first sense is clearly a theist.
A person who rejects the reality of god in both senses, is clearly an atheist.
But how do we describe the person who believes in God in the second sense but not the first?
The influential Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich used the term “ground of being” to denote “God beyond the God of theism.” This statement reminds me of Plato who wrote in The Republic that “The Good” is beyond being.”
When we push these ultimate questions, we get so far from ordinary experience that our language becomes inadequate. I think the key question is whether or not fundamental reality is conscious and purposive and hence whether there is purpose in the universe. I am striving to contrast a materialist view with one that is purposeful or teleological. I am not looking to construct a dualism, but rather a view of reality that is infused with purpose as its essential constituent.
I am going on the premise that consciousness constitutes what we mean by “Being,” what Aristotle and St. Thomas meant by “God,” and what is the source of what scientist mean by natural laws. When we write about that which stands beyond our experience, we can use analogies, that is, we can compare things that are not exactly alike but have something in common.
I don’t know if “consciousness” is the best word that we have to describe the most fundamental reality, but it is the best one that I can think of.