Tuesday, July 1, 2008

More theistic special pleading

There's an interview up at Salon that starts off well enough, from a seemingly-intelligent person, that veers off into mush about halfway through.

The interviewee, Karl Giberson, has a new book out called "Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution." I should note as an aside that evolution isn't really something that requires belief in the same way that religious dogma does... but given the current culture-wars climate, that's often the way it's spun. Giberson, by the way, is a professor of physics... at a Nazarene college. So that probably explains a lot about where he's coming from.

The promising beginning:

Why does Darwin need to be saved?

He has been vilified in American evangelical culture and even more broadly than that. Yet his important contribution to science reaches into theology and religion....

Why do misconceptions about Darwin persist?

Because in the latter part of the 20th century, evolution became identified with negative social agendas, and some very effective polemicists like Henry Morris and Ken Ham convinced people that evolution was responsible for the breakdown of the family and drug abuse and all manners of evil... In their eyes, Darwinism destroyed belief in God the creator.

Darwinism became associated with repugnant beliefs like Nazism and eugenics. But...evolution doesn't make judgments, it merely describes.

Right. There's an important distinction between a theory that tells us the way the world is and a theory that tells us the way it ought to be.... Conservatives don't want homosexuality to be perceived as something natural because that would force them to reevaluate the way we treat it from a moral perspective....

Aren't some people threatened by evolution because they can't reconcile biblical literalism, or "young-earth" creationism, with the fact that the earth is not 10,000 years old but billions?

Yes, but young-earth theory is an interpretation of Genesis that requires that you bring a certain set of suspect assumptions to the text. The early chapters of Genesis do not read like history.... They have a different sort of character to them. People who read Hebrew and understand the ancient Near Eastern worldview, and the cosmology that informed it, have given us ample reasons why you would not read Genesis that way, even if you weren't worried about reconciling it with a billion-year-old planet.

Yet Americans do.... You write that the strength of creationism in the U.S. "has more to do with American culture than biology or Christian theology." What is it about our culture that has led to creationism's popularity?

In short, intellectual laziness. We're not prepared to do the hard work to make our culture more sophisticated....

Many Christians insist the Bible is the literal word of God.

Yes, that's widespread and again it's because of a certain lack of sophistication from a literary point of view. Many people translate "the word of God" into the "words of God." They don't recognize that when you talk theologically about the Bible being the word of God, you mean that it contains an important message.... But it's a distortion to say the Bible contains the words of God as if God had dictated these things....We can't just pull all of this into the 20th century as if it was just recently written down by God for our benefit.

So far, we're discussing religion as a historical phenomenon. And I'd tend to agree with much of what he says. When you take the King James version as the ultimate correct version, believing that God dictated it to a secretary and ignore issues of translation (the oldest versions of the gospels, the versions in Aramaic and Hebrew, describe Mary as "a young woman," not necessarily a virgin, to take just one example), then you get all sorts of screwy interpretations. People understood the world much differently 3000 years ago than we do today; the scriptures aren't written as literal history, they weren't intended to be an objective record of facts, etc.

Notice that he's bringing the tools of modern scholarship to bear on problems of authorship, translation, intention of the authors, etc.

He also has little time for creationists or so-called "Intelligent Design:"
I don't think the intelligent design movement does anything useful. Its poster children for God's intervention are things like the clotting of blood or the propeller on the back of a bacterium. These aren't interesting features of the world, and the fact that they seem complicated and hard to explain through evolution doesn't suggest for one second that we ought to invoke the supernatural finger of God.
And actually, they're not as hard to explain as some think. The Dover trial demonstrated that.

Unfortunately, having laid down the law and said we don't need to invoke God to explain things, he then starts laying the groundwork to do precisely that:
I think there's a reckless extrapolation from what we know about evolution to an all-encompassing materialism. Evolution has so much of its data missing in history that to look at the whole thing and say we know for sure that despite all the stuff we can't find, and have never seen, has purely naturalistic causes -- and we know this with such certainty that we insist the knowledgeable buy into this idea -- goes way too far.
Pay attention, now. The ID crowd makes a mistake in invoking God to explain complicated things because it's completely unnecessary. BUT, because we don't know soooo much stuff, we CAN'T say it's all materialist. There MUST be a magic sky-fairy behind it all somewhere!

Is that what he's really saying? After all, he goes on to say, we can't use the gaps to argue God (even though he just did):
But I think the difference is that we need to know more than we know to make certain claims. And I would claim that what we know historically about the closing of these gaps suggests that we are always going to be able to close them. That we have gaps now in our understanding of how the blood clotting mechanism arose doesn't puzzle me at all. I just say, OK, there's more work to do.
So... we don't need to invoke God. But we do. Isn't that a contradiction? Why, yes. Yes, it is.

But you reject the idea that God tinkers and has his hand in day-to-day processes, so how do nature and God interact?

That's the tough question. You should rewind the tape and erase the question because I don't really have a good answer....
He tries at one, though. You see, we're different:
We don't know how we interact with the world. Somehow you got it into your head that you were going to call and talk to me about this book. Some kind of vague intention, purposeful agenda emerged in your mind, and it got translated into a whole set of actions, and now we're talking on the phone. We don't understand that.
[sigh] Yes, we're back to the ghost in the machine argument. He then goes completely off the rails:
Consciousness is a very deep mystery. All of our models say consciousness shouldn't be possible, that it should just be atoms and molecules in your brain randomly doing things. Nothing that we've developed for a model of how human intentionality works makes sense of our own experience of the world.
Actually, the models we have say more than that. Are there parts of it we don't understand? Yes. But before, we said we were sure the gaps would be filled in. There's work to be done. But now, suddenly, nope, it doesn't make sense, it can't make sense, we know now that we can never ever figure it out without invoking invisible sky-men.

How do we know there isn't some similar mechanism by which God interacts with the world, that God can be understood as a spirit, that God is more like consciousness than a material object?
This would get a failing mark in a freshman-year intro-to-philosophy course. "How do we know it isn't there?" is MUCH different from saying "there it is." But he doesn't see that, apparently. He's posed a rhetorical question, noted the absence of a soundbite answer, and declares himself the winner of the debate; said debate only existing in his own mind in the first place. He's the one postulating the existence of God; he has the burden of proof. Saying "You can't prove there isn't one" is no proof at all.
So I'd say to Dawkins, until you explain to me how human beings interact with the world, don't tell me that God couldn't interact with the world in the same way we do.
This is incomprehensible. He obviously means something by "interact with the world" that goes beyond things like eating, sleeping, thinking, observing, enjoying, having families, etc. What, precisely, does he mean? He never says. I wonder if even he knows. Or maybe he does mean just that... Again, falling back on consciousness as some magic property that can't be explained materialistically, because, well, it just can't, because he said so.

Now, God doesn't have to step in to make consciousness occur, but something that we don't understand at all is occurring. I don't think it's supernatural. I think that someday we may understand this. There's something going on that when the neuronal networks reach a certain level of complexity, something appears that maybe is brand-new and that is consciousness. But that's just a guess about how we'll eventually be talking about that phenomenon.
No, I guess that's not it. Consciousness can be a natural phenomenon after all. So what are we left with?

You criticize the creationists for questioning the gaps in the fossil record and call it a "fool's errand" because over time, scientists usually find evidence that fills these gaps in. But aren't you engaging in the same sort of intellectual maneuver, by saying that because there are some aspects of nature and evolution that we don't understand, therefore God exists?

Right. That's an extremely fair criticism.... You're absolutely right.
I think we will never have some sort of model that says, "OK, here's how God gets his agenda across in the natural order. Here's how the will of God gets realized in nature -- we won't ever have that. But we might have insights into possibilities about how we could think about that. These insights will be rich enough that they will accommodate religious experience and some of the things that have long been a part of religion.

Okay...so... we won't have a model that directly includes God. But we may have insights into possibilities about how we might have models that include God. And those insights about possibilities will include God.

Okay, then. God as a hypothetical counterfactual. Maybe I'm in agreement after all.

But you can see why people like Dawkins and Dennett say that science seems to be functioning perfectly well on its own and we don't need to fall back on an explanation of God?

Yes, absolutely. And that has never been the way that people come to God.
Okay, so now we're back to non-counterfactual. God is now being accepted axiomatically. On what basis? None that's presented... though jumping back up a little, we find this:
But I believe in God, I believe God is personal and that God exists and cares about the created order. I think it's a very reasonable belief that God interacts with creation and that experiences people have of interacting with God are profound and deeply meaningful.
Well, you believe it. Because....? Oh, right. When we're talking about magic sky-fairies, no proof is needed, simply saying "I believe it and I think it's reasonable" is all that's necessary. Actually stating those reasons isn't.
People are far more likely to have certain experiences that overwhelm them and don't seem like conclusions of rational arguments, but seem like a kind of momentary contact with something genuinely transcendent. You say there's something more to the world than the atoms and molecules. Out of that experience comes a religious commitment. And that has characterized human experience forever.
And, once again, the feelings of the heart trump any sort of evidence or experience. People do experience altered states of consciousness, and sometimes feel the subjective experience of merging with something much larger than themselves; they often interpret this experience in religious terms. BUT. Those states are associated with certain specific electrical states in the limbic system of the brain. The subjective FEELING of being Touched By An Angel doesn't mean there's anything actually there. We're back to special pleading (all the rules of logic and evidence should be held in abeyance when we're talking about my beliefs) and the fallacy of crowds (lots of people have these experiences, so they must be right, even though many many more people DON'T have those experiences or anything coming close to them).

I used to think Dawkins went too far, that he was intemperate and exaggerating. But I'm beginning to think he got it right. Religion really does poison everything it touches. If I were to say I believed the moon was made of green cheese, I may be asked why I believe that. In response to that question, I would be expected to produce facts and reasons why.

But if we're talking about religious belief, saying "I believe it" is supposed to settle the question. Reasons can be incoherent, facts can be cherry-picked and inconvenient facts ignored. Because, well, religion is just different, and that's all there is to it.


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