Monday, May 14, 2007

It'll only happen once, I promise

In the past, I've considered going in non-sports directions with this blog, but it's pretty obvious that everyone likes it best when we stick to the fun stuff. However, since a certain grant-scamming friend of ours decided to take a long-promised crack at making a rational argument for God's existence in the comments section of the last post, I'll allow myself the luxury of entering into one of my favorite running arguments. If you don't feel like reading this kind of shit, don't go past this point, and wait until I make the promised post about "common knowledge" in baseball and how terribly flawed it is (I think that's what I promised to write about ... it's been so long). And, as always, if anyone wants to keep this going, I'm game.

Considering the density (as in volume) of Seth's comments, I'm going to do the cut-and-paste method of returning fire, though I'm taking great care to not sound snarky. Whatever I may think of Seth's argument, I certainly don't think it's worthy of derision. Just some thought, and eventually debunking.

* * *

First off, all this talk about whether or not God exists is pointless.

I know this isn't central to what you wrote, but I still take issue with it. It could be safely said that there may be no more important thing to talk about these days. In case you haven't noticed, pretty much every fucked up thing that's happening in the world today is being done by people who claim to be doing "God's bidding." Any rational person that understands that there either is no god, or at least is willing to dismiss the concept of an interventionist god, has the responsibility to fight this rampant ignorance at every opportunity.

But, I'll leave that for another day.

That's not the central question, in my opinion, because there's no way to actually know.

I don't believe this for a second. It's a common saw for theologians, who rely on our agnostic tendencies to do the heavy lifting for them. But it's a smokescreen; we absolutely can disprove the existence of god, provided we don't allow the "unfalsifiable" definition in play. Some people think it's already been done, others not so much. But to say you can't figure it one way or the other doesn't jive with the body of scientific work we've done to this point. I'll place my bet on science coming through in this regard; how confident do you feel taking the other side of that action?

Rather, I'm simply referring to the being(s) who created mankind. The only attributes I can derive about this being is that (s)he's more powerful and more knowing than mankind, but (s)he's not necessarily omniscient or omnipotent. Finally, I make no claims about his/her morality.

OK, so you're a deist. Honestly, I'm cool with that. Most of my favorite historical figures were deists, too, though in many of their cases I suspect they were really atheists trying to avoid the stigma of not buying into the supernatural. But deism is ultimately non-threatening, because you propose the existence of an irrelevant being. We're cool on this tip, because the only god that could possibly exist is like the one you propose. It's definitely a "he," though.

First, in consciousness studies, there a debate about the “Hard Problem,” which simply stated, is how does consciousness originate? Some scientists believe, incredulously in my opinion, that consciousness is merely a physical process and so they go about studying the brain hoping to make the link between physical processes and consciousness. Until they can make that link, which of course I (and numerous other scientists, philosophers, and theologians) don’t think they ever will, it’s rational to believe that consciousness is not merely yet another physical process, especially when the empirical evidence leans (if not proves) that consciousness is fundamentally different than physical processes.

Some "scientists" believe in Intelligent Design. Some "scientists" believe that the "soul" weights 21 grams. Some "scientists" propose that dinosaurs and humans lived side-by-side. I cannot worry myself with what some "scientists" say, no more than I can theologians. What we can worry about is scientific consensus (or near-unanimity, which is more common and almost as telling), and failing the availability of that, perhaps a little bit of Occam's Razor until science picks up the slack.

Riddle me this: Why anyone would be more incredulous at the suggestion that "consciousness" is the result of a physical process than they would be at the suggestion that a divine being, who exists outside of the physical realm, created the universe and the Earth and, after waiting a few billion years, decided to grab a particular group of primates and give them "consciousness" (I'm assuming that you at least accept the theory of evolution, and thusly admit that humans evolved into the state we're in today), which he didn't want any other species to have? As far as I can tell, one seems befitting a children's book, and the other just looks like a work in progress.

And tell me how your representation of god-given consciousness would be less ridiculous sounding than mine.

Awareness of a physical object and the physical object itself are two fundamentally different things, and cultures all around the world have historically recognized this by making the distinction between mind and body.

I'm not mocking you here, really, because I do understand your point about how ubiquitous the mind/body dichotomy is throughout human history, and it's worth considering. But it is important to note that throughout human history, we've almost always worshipped interventionist deities, considered women to be the lesser of the genders, condoned corporal/capital punishment, and warred over religion. Just because we've shown an inability to shake (or disprove) some beliefs doesn't make them any more valid.

I’m simply suggesting that until scientists can prove otherwise, it’s rational to believe this. Of course, if consciousness doesn’t come into being through a physical process, then it must come into being through a non-physical process. So there you have the first argument: it’s rational to believe in God (as defined above) because it’s rational to believe that consciousness came into being vis-à-vis a non-physical process.

Folks, what we have here is an honest man, and that's why I respect Seth in spite of our disagreements. He is openly using the "God of the Gaps" argument as a proof, instead of trying to dress it up like most theologians. In syllogisms like this, god is immediately granted the default position, despite a complete lack of justification for that being the case. Here's a quick breakdown:

A) Consciousness exists;
B) Consciousness cannot be explained (yet) by any physical phenomena in the human brain;
C) All things that are unexplainable by known physical laws/properties must have a supernatural explanation;
Ergo: The existence of human consciousness is proof of a supernatural "creator," or at least justifies a belief in such a creator.

Your argument is logically sound, provided we're willing to accept the premises. But why should we? We hold science to an exacting standard, and any time we cannot empirically prove a scientific theory, it is discarded or brought back to the drawing board. This is the way it should be, and you're right to say that science has not resolved the issue of consciousness yet. But suddenly your evidential standards disappear when god enters the picture; despite the fact that not a single phenomena on this planet or the observable universe has ever been empirically linked to a supernatural phenomena, it is still trotted out as a potential answer. How many times does that theory need to fail before it's finally drummed out of the process?

Second, I’ll accept whatever science concludes about the origins of the universe, but then I’ll ask: what caused it?

Dunno. But lots of really, really smart people are working on it, so get back to me in a couple of years.

At some point along the causal chain, scientists will not be able to answer this.

If you have any proof of the veracity of this statement, or even a compelling reason to believe it's likely, present it. Otherwise, it might be advisable to hedge.

And by the way, if fifty years from now it turns out the universe wasn’t created through the Big Bang but through some other process, my question will remain: what caused it.

I assume that such a radical departure from a near-perfect theory would imply that, to the contrary, we've discovered the impetus for the creation of the universe and it's inconsistent with the big bang. The reason I'm willing to state that assumption is because no observable phenomena or existing (and accepted) mathematical or physical law contradicts the general principle of the big bang theory; in fact, the beauty of the big bang is that it's based on one of the most fundamental concepts in the physical world, the Theory of General Relativity. The only area of the theory we can't prove anything about right now is its impetus, so that's really the last step.

It's important to note what I've done here: I admit that the big bang might be wrong. It's possible, though so unlikely as to make for a pretty poor topic of conversation. Its perfection as a theory stems from how well it's worked with the new information we've gathered since it was originally proposed. However, its titanic flaw as a theory is that it can only give us some hints as to why we can't yet explain the problem of causation. But it has given us hints; I'll get to that in a second.

Getting back to the Big Bang, it seems to be that there are a few options for theorizing its origin: nothing caused it, God caused it, we don’t know caused it.

This is oversimplification to the extreme. First, the "nothing caused it argument" is a red herring, since no one really has legitimately proposed it as an answer. No matter the differences between theologians and non-theologians w/r/t to the beginning of the universe, the one thing we can all agree on is that something happened.

However, while your cohort may be neatly bundled in theory No. 2, you won't find that unanimity among the scientifically minded or oriented. In fact, there are lots of theories that vary in how well they stand up to observable phenomena/physical laws. Examples can be found here, here, and here. And that's what I found in about a minute.

What do all these theories have in common, besides not having been proven? None of them require any more suspension of disbelief than the sentient creator argument does. Much less, actually, since they're all hinged to some kind of scientific theory that can be proven (even if those theories alone cannot prove the extrapolated theory). God, on the other hand, is in direct violation of every physical law we know, and pretty much any other one we could possibly come up with.

As for the third option, the one that most scientists profess, if we don’t know what caused the Big Bang, then it’s perfectly rational to believe that it was caused by a being. After all, it was either caused by a physical process or a conscious process, and since, according to option 3, we don’t know which, then it is perfectly rational to believe that a conscious being was responsible.

As was the case with the consciousness argument, the supernatural does not get the benefit of being a default position. Furthermore, you offer us only a binary decision — it's either physical or god/consciousness — without justifying the elimination of other options or the presence of god as a choice. This is Science 101: No one rides for free. If anything — a theory, idea, law, proof, concept — wants to be included in the scientific process, it must justify its inclusion. At no point in time has the god hypothesis proven, scientifically, to be any more valid than theories regarding the existence of wish-granting genies, UFOs, lesbians who don't carry grudges against men, demons and Mike Hargrove's excellence as a baseball manager. The only difference between the god hypothesis and the others is that you're considered a fucking lunatic by the vast majority of people if you believe in the latter grouping, and you're a de facto dead man walking as a political candidate if you admit to not believing in the former.

When you say that we can't show a physical process that served as the impetus for the big bang, you're doing so based on the fact that many people have proposed that it was created by a certain physical process, and then tested those hypotheses in an open manner, ultimately concluding that the theory (at least in its state at that time) does not pass muster. That is an intellectually honest process, which encourages progress and criticism (the backbone of knowledge). But when you (or others) say that the other alternative is a conscious process, there is no willingness shown to actually test such a theory. What weak "science" has been done on creationist theories is never open for examination, and even then nothing of note has come out of those rigged processes (most religious leaders criticize the efforts of some to lend scientific credence to theistic beliefs because it's usually nothing more than another opportunity for ridicule from the opposition). Despite the fact you're willing to use the scientific process to eliminate the possibility that a physical process is the underpinning of the creation of the universe (or at least claim that it's not (as?) rational to believe in such a thing), you claim that the alternative cannot be held against scientific standards. To borrow a hackneyed phrase, what's good for the goose is good for Jesus.

(Yes, I know, you're not arguing for the Abrahamic god; it was just meant to take the edge off)

Actually, I’d go so far as to say it’s the more rational choice, because if the Big Bang were caused by a physical process, then it’s unclear why scientists have no epistemic access to this information.

No sarcasm: This is a joke, right? It's one thing to allow that there's justification for deistic tendencies, but it's another to say that it's more rational than the alternative, which is simply dealing with the facts and waiting for those we don't have yet to come in. And of course it's clear why scientists have no access to this information: Our instruments and known theories, if not our brains, are not sophisticated enough to figure it out. String theory, the rock star of theoretical physics, has hit a wall in recent years after a long period of exponential gains. But the vast majority of people within the field believe that it's just a matter of time before someone or something allows us to break through that wall. If that's the case, string theory is our most likely candidate to explain the origins of the universe. But right now, considering where string theory could take us is to still operate in the abstract.

Furthermore, you betray some ignorance of the big bang theory in some of your statements to this point. The big bang posits of a singularity, or the generally agreed-upon point of origin for the universe, based on the theory of general relativity. But while general relativity can bring us to the singularity, it can't make us drink: GR breaks down at the point of the singularity because the values are infinite (if I'm wrong about any of this, please correct me ... I'm no physicist). And, if we've got a breakdown of one of the most fundamental physical theories at the beginning of the universe, it's completely rational to expect that the rest of them aren't applicable either. Now, this doesn't yield much in terms of positive content: Just because we can prove that a bending, or breaking, of our universe's physical laws took place at its inception point doesn't mean we know which laws did apply, or how the laws we live by were altered in that state. As the years go by, however, our guesses are becoming more educated, if not bolstered by evidence or theoretical probability. The one thing most people in the field will tell you is that the answer is probably mind-bending, since it could potentially involve the introduction of three times as many dimensions, or a metaphorical super-universe in which our universe is like a bubble floating through space. Does all of that sound totally, utterly, super-crazy? Sure! And so does believing in a sentient creator. The only difference is I won't believe in branes until they're proven; you believe in god until its proven otherwise.

I want to finish with what troubles me the most about theistic arguments: They almost never have positive content. I have yet to hear a single theory as to how god created the universe, or even why it's rational to believe that it's possible that god created the universe, that isn't based entirely on the "gaps" argument (both of your defenses fit this description). And, truthfully, it is only in the land of the gaps that theists have a leg to stand on, since it only requires a willingness to accept one faulty premise (God is an acceptable explanation for anything that can't be explained by science) for it to be logical. That I, and other atheists, are unwilling to accept that faulty premise is where the line in the sand is drawn.

However, worshipping within the gaps, metaphorically speaking, is an unenviable situation. Those gaps get smaller every day, and even within those gaps there is no real evidence that god is an acceptable answer; it's only that god has yet to be ruled out completely. Plus, there's always the footsteps of science coming; to borrow a metaphor, your cohort is betting the under on the growth of scientific understanding of the universe. Every advance that is made in knowledge brings us closer to the day you lose your bet, and once you've lost your money it's lost forever. That doesn't sound like a wise gamble to me.

* * *

I know I've already written a lot, but I don't want to end without making this a fair fight. Right or wrong, you were willing to place on digital paper a thesis, and it would be wrong of me to think that by simply picking your argument apart that I've accomplished anything. I remarked earlier that my beef with theistic explanations is their lack of positive content, but I have yet to offer much in return.

So here's my philosophy, wrapped in the kind of rheotrical question historically adored by theists: What's the point in believing in God if he is what you say he is? You've eliminated the idea of god as intercessor, which removes the primary motivation for most of his worshippers in the world. And, despite the fact that I think believing in this sort of deity to be equivalent to worshipping the Easter Bunny, at least it makes some sense as to why someone would waste his or her time bothering. Every kid in the world believes that it's entitled to get things for no better reason than simply desiring those things; those who pray to god in hopes of some kind of divine favor strike me as never having grown out of that phase. Nevertheless, I see at least a motivation to maintain this form of supernatural belief, much like I understand why people who make money by "contacting the dead" are best off if they believe in ghosts.

But it's you deists who truly confuse me, and I'm writing this knowing that almost all the people who regularly read this blog fit into this category, even if you still claim to be Christian. You tell me that god is nothing more than an ambivalent chemist, who stirred up the universe, baked it in the oven, left it to dry on the counter and then promptly left for a tennis match and forgot all about it. Well, OK, but who cares? If god has no active role in our world, our lives, or universe, what's the point of even believing in him? This does not, to me, sound like the kind of god who comes with a heaven, so I can't imagine it's because you expect some kind of reward in the afterlife. This does not, to me, sound like the kind of god who can provide someone with peace of mind, or a better understanding of self, or a moral code to live by, so I can't imagine it's because of the myriad benefits religious apologists attribute to spiritual belief despite reams of evidence to the contrary (OK, maybe that's unfair ... it does have that effect for some people, and more power to 'em). And this does not, to me, sound like the kind of god that gives a flying fuck if you believe in him or not, so I can't imagine any motivation to even bother mentioning him.

Furthermore, why is it preferable to attribute a phenomena to "god," as opposed to "igorance?" Most of the things that have been attributed to supernatural phenomena in historical civilizations have been proven today to be completely explainable. It seems ludicrous today to think that drought serves as a message from a scorned deity, yet we seem to forget that such an explanation was as "rational" in the time of the Roman Empire as believing that a supernatural being kicked off the big bang is today. Haven't we learned better by now than to think that such ignorance is a permanent state? It seems that anyone who has studied history would be prone to at least lean toward the side of science, which has racked up every single victory over theistic mythology since pretty much the dawn of time.

Lastly, the reason I bristle at the idea of god as the impetus is that it encourages us to just put down our stupid beakers and accept the divinity. You may not feel that way — I hope not, at least — but that's certainly the way most of the people you're in league with feel. I have no desire to censor certain beliefs — I don't care if you think that we should worship the snail darter as the most advanced species in the world, provided you do so on your own time — but I certainly don't think ideas as such should be introduced in science classes, where students are supposed to be introduced to the factual world. If a student in science class asks what caused the big bang, the appropriate answer is that the jury is out, but a few hours on wikipedia will likely surface some interesting theories of varying levels of probability. And that's the end of the discussion, because there's lots to learn that we know is based in fact. If someone wants to learn about god, go to church or take theology classes; no other subject in the academic cannon can suffer the indignity of speaking of unfalsifiable theories as if they exist on the same plane as hard science.

I know this is probably overkill on the subject, but it was just too much fun to get into. Also, I offer you a posting account on the site, so you're not stuck leaving responses in the comments section. Lastly, come harder.



1 comment:

Colin E. Laisure-Pool said...

First of all, props to all three of y'all for some pretty scintillating subject matter. Connor, I just want to make a quick comment on one of the subjects presented in this post. This is NOT a rebuke of your post. Rather, this is a (weak) attempt at shedding a little light on some of the more technical aspects of the science involved in this debate. Also, prepare for some bad grammar and spelling!

I wouldn't be so quick to trust the conclusions of string theory (brane cosmology, in particular) if I were you. I feel that your analogy of the theory of superstrings being the rockstar of physics is a little off...String theory may be more of a one-hit-wonder that is bound for insignificance in the near future.
Mind you, multi-dimensional analysis and the mathematical foundation for string theory makes for very elegant and brilliant theory based upon quite reasonable premises. I am sure that I have explained to you (poorly) the gedanken experiment of the ant walking along a helical path on a telephone wire as an explanation of quantum mechanical phenomena (electron tunneling, for example) via a multi-dimensional consideration of the universe.

The founders of string theory are amazingly talented human beings with intellectual ability far beyond my own, but there are still major holes in the essential theory and quite a bit of in-fighting among various camps of string theorists themselves. And I'm not talking about the usual process of review/modification, I'm talking about wildly divergent and mutually-exclusive models.

But all of this is secondary to my (and most proponents of the Standard Model) primary beef with string theory: it appears to be fundamentally unable to be experimented upon physically, and, by extension, unfalsifiable. As an engineer and wanna-be experimental physicist, this is an unforgivable flaw that presents a major problem. It would be one thing if the specifics of the theory were beyond our technological capability to prove (this is currently the case with many theories in the Standard Model), but the basis of the theory (depending on who you talk to) seems to have a built-in uncertainty involved with it. In other words, even if we were able to build a powerful and precise enough instrument to work at the level of these infinitesimal, vibrating, little closed-loops, the theory itself cock-blocks any direct observation (or direct observation of the evidence) of their existence. Heisenberg uncertainty principle applies, sure, but the confounding ability of these strings to 'hide' or be obscured by these extra dimensions (11 or 16 depending on who you talk to).

In a nutshell, I take issue with a theory that seems to exclude itself from experimentation, as experimentation is the backbone of the verification process. In my opinion, string theory is closer to philosophy than science and is, at best, and elegant mathematical exercise. However, this does NOT mean that multidimensional anlaysis is unimportant. Much as the invention of the number i (imaginary number) and residue calculus have patched up gaps in Maxwellian and Laplacian formulae, so too may aspects of string theory be co-opted into the Standard Model (when I say Standard Model, think relativistic quantum mechanics: Einstein/Minkowski + Schrodinger/Dirac/De Broglie = Standard Model).

So, as a conclusion, string theory may not be as cool as people think it is, but this does not mean that science is in any sort of trouble. Incredible advances are being made at an exponential rate; quantum computing, efficient fusion energy, and complete genome mapping are just around the corner. Further on the horizon is an understanding of gravity waves and the true role of antimatter as it relates to symmetry in the universe. Cosmologists have almost completely figured out the processes involved at the infancy of the universe (google quark-gluon plasma), and evidence is mounting on the existence of former life on Mars. It is a good time to be alive, for sure.

I hope that this was constructive, Connor. I share your assertion that betting on science is prudent; It is absolutely staggering to contemplate the advances that we have made even over the last 100 years. As a socialist atheist who believes that the universe is deterministic, science is the only way to go.

One last thing; I want to know everyone's take on the definition of consciousness. Does consciousness = intelligence? Is consciousness a result of self-awareness? If so, I would posit that it is absolutely a physical process. Another one of humanity's pending breakthroughs is artificial intelligence vis-a-vis the ability of a machine to make decisions based on external stimuli without the aid of pre-programmed solutions. If consciousness can be re-created, then it is certainly a physical entity.

-Big C out.