Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Assuming that God Obeys the Laws of Physics and Chemstry

 
John Pieret admires a recent posting by Steven Novella on NeuroLogica Blog where he (Novella) writes about More on Methodological Naturalism.
This methodoligical approach also deals with the problem of whether or not science can deal with God. The answer is - yes and no. If a supernatural (meaning inaccessible to science) power were meddling with our universe (with stuff science could access), science could detect it, document it, and even describe it. We could say that something was happening.

However (by the premises of this hypothetical situation) if the ultimate cause of these physical effects were beyond scientific methodology, the best science could do would be to describe anomalies. Science comes across anomalies all the time, and the typical approach is to assume (because we really have no choice) that the anomalies are due to either errors in observation, errors in our current theories, or incompleteness in our current theories, meaning there is some new phenomenon to discover.

So far the scientific approach (assuming anomalies will lead to a deeper understanding of reality) has worked out pretty well. This is the best evidence we have that our universe if mostly rational and does not include “supernatural” (by my definition) forces that will remain forever “mysterious.” If it did, then we would run across anomalies that we could never explain scientifically. All we could do would be to describe them, but we could never come up with a testable theory of mechanism.
I pretty much agree with what Steven Novella says here, although I note that he gets a bit fuzzy in other parts of the same posting. The basic point is that scientists are capable of detecting things that are not explainable by naturalistic explanations. In other words, if something isn't obeying the laws of physics and chemistry,1 then we''ll know about it, even if we have to put it down as an unexplained anomaly.

The fact that there aren't any known mysteries that fall into this category means that there is no evidence for a God that acts in a supernatural manner. This is not the God of Francis Collins. Collins is a scientist who presents "evidence" that God exists.

The fact that most other scientists do not find such evidence is not proof that all types of God don't exist. It merely defines limits to the types of God that are possible if you use scientific reasoning.

John Pieret seems to knows this since in his posting Natural Method he asks:
I would quibble that divine action would not necessarily produce anomalies. For example, how could we tell the difference between a random mutation and a miraculous one?

Claiming that we can see no pattern in mutations, or the evolution it powers, does no good because that requires that you make an assertion about what God wants to do and how he, she or it would go about it -- and how could you know that?
John is doing exactly what he says is wrong. In light of the fact that several testable hypotheses about God have been refuted, John then speculates about what God might be doing to get around the conflict between science and religion. He imagines that God could, if he so wished, disguise his actions so that they were indistinguishable from actions that were entirely natural.

None of us can refute that possibility but I note that the goalposts have moved just about as far as they can go. We're left with a God who is so careful to avoid revealing himself that he might as well not exist. What's the point?

Why in the world did anyone start believing in such a God in the first place?2

If we weren't talking about religion, this kind of "logic" would be quickly dismissed. Imagine, for example, that someone claimed the stock market was being manipulated by clever gremlins. Pointing out that there was no evidence of such manipulation provokes the response, "These are very clever gremlins who go to extraordinary lengths to disguise their manipulations. That's why we can't detect them."

Since we can't disprove the existence of such gremlins, is that a reason to believe in them? Should we treat the gremlin-believers in the same way that we treat everyone else or are we right to be a little concerned about their psychological well-being? Is it okay to tentatively conclude that they are deluded?

Why does belief in God always get special privileges that we never grant to any other superstitions?


1. It's a metaphor, John, not the be taken literally.

2. The answer, of course, is that nobody ever believed in such a God. This sort of God is merely the last refuge of those who used to believe in a personal, interventionist God but now find that they can't defend such a belief in a modern skeptical society. It's also the fallback position for those strange people who call themselves true agnostics. They have almost as much at stake in trying to show that we can't "prove" the nonexistence of God. They desperately want to avoid being a non-believer (atheist).

11 comments :

  1. We're left with a God who is so careful to avoid revealing himself that he might as well not exist. What's the point?

    The point is two-fold:
    - Saving face; "there is still god, hahaha, you did not prove me wrong!"
    - Since "atheist" is basically a dirty word in some countries (e.g., the USA), a lot of people are afraid to admit they are atheists and either cling to a god that is 100% meaningless or call themselves agnostics.

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  2. John is doing exactly what he says is wrong. In light of the fact that several testable hypotheses about God have been refuted, John then speculates about what God might be doing to get around the conflict between science and religion. He imagines that God could, if he so wished, disguise his actions so that they were indistinguishable from actions that were entirely natural.

    Not even close. In your rush to pound your own philosophy, you've missed the point. There are no testable hypotheses about god(s). There are observations that can be made that will test the truth of auxillary assumptions about at least certain versions of god(s), however -- such as that god(s) created the world 6,000 years ago. Any god that requires that the earth is only 6,000 old is made less probable than its negation by the abundant evidence that the earth is more than 6,000 years old, i.e. Pr(O/H1) is less than Pr(O/notH1), or the probability of making observation O if hypotheses H1 is true is less than the probability of making observation O if H1 is false.

    However, if you are going to try to test the hypothesis of a god fiddling with evolution against the hypothesis that evolution is a purely natural process powered by totally random mutations, you're into a likelihoodist scenerio, which is comparative. Let's make H1 the hypothesis that god wanted to develop life through evolution powered by mostly random mutation with a relatively few interventions by causing "miraculous" mutations at "critical points." H2 is the hypothesis that life on earth is the result of evolution powered solely by random mutations. The question I put was what auxillary assumptions would you make that are empirically testable that would make one of these hypotheses more probable than the other? That is, what testable auxillary assumptions A would make Pr(O/H1&A) distinguishable from Pr(O/H2&A)?

    This isn't an issue of whether there is or is not such a god or whether anyone consistently believes in such a god. It is an issue of what counts as evidence and what we can logically deduce or induce from that evidence within the framework of science.

    That's all I can address at the moment but I'll try to get back to it tonight.

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  3. @John:

    Personally I do not see why we even want to assume the existence of such a being. We just add unnecessary complexity to our understanding of the processes involved.

    Further, H1 would not just be "the hypothesis that god wanted to develop life through evolution powered by mostly random mutation with a relatively few interventions by causing "miraculous" mutations at "critical points." You would have to add that God always intervenes whenever random mutations occur: in nature and in the labs. So I am thinking: Occam's Razor anyone?

    Why introduce an unexplained unobserved all powerful and all knowing omnipresent supernatural entity that fiddles with mutations ALL the time, instead of just saying: "hey, it's just a random thing".

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  4. Imagine, for example, that someone claimed the stock market was being manipulated by clever gremlins. Pointing out that there was no evidence of such manipulation provokes the response, "These are very clever gremlins who go to extraordinary lengths to disguise their manipulations. That's why we can't detect them."

    I'm sorry, your example has little to do with logic and nothing to do with science (which was the subject of my post -- remember?). In fact, it is nothing but a rhetorical trick that is stock-in-trade for the IDiots. Science is the method of testing hypotheses with evidence. Simply choosing a scenario that you calculate your intended audience will find ridiculous and claiming it an "example" of your disfavored proposal has nothing to do with testing anything. It is no more scientific or logical than when the IDiots hold up the vertebrate eye or bacterial flagellum and say 'this is so complex it is ridiculous to think it came about by undirected, random processes'.

    Which is not to say that hypothesis H1 I gave above requires that the god go to extraordinary lengths to disguise anything (beyond the fact of choosing to work through mutations). Have humans ever observed an actual chemical mutation occur in situ in real time? I repeat, how could we distinguish a random from a miraculous mutation after the fact? Nor is H1 all that unusual in terms of motives, if we use humans as examples. It is a common human strategy to work indirectly rather than through "brute force" in order to achieve some desired end. For example, nations often try to use economic means or "black ops" to influence other nations rather than attacking openly with armies.

    But the "reasonableness" of H1 (measured by your, or my, personal intuition about what is or is not reasonable) isn't the point. This issue is the nature of science and what it will and won't tell us about the world around us.

    In other words, if something isn't obeying the laws of physics and chemistry,1 then we''ll know about it, even if we have to put it down as an unexplained anomaly.

    Admittedly, if we can observe a phenomena that "violates" your metaphorical laws of physics and chemistry, we could identify it as at least an anomaly. But there are a lot of processes that we call "random" or that are so highly contingent that we cannot at present predict, in practice and perhaps in principle, which of a number of different outcomes may occur. If outcome "a" occurs and not outcome "b", what test could be applied to see if its cause was the laws of physics and chemistry or something else?

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  5. Personally I do not see why we even want to assume the existence of such a being. We just add unnecessary complexity to our understanding of the processes involved.

    The point is not to propose such a being as an actual scientific hypothesis (though anti-scientists, like IDers, might propose something similar). The point is to try to find the limits of scientific reasoning to better understand it.

    You would have to add that God always intervenes whenever random mutations occur: in nature and in the labs.

    Why? That's a genuine question, by the way. What about the motives and abilities of this god would lead you to make that auxiliary assumption and how do you justify it?

    So I am thinking: Occam's Razor anyone?

    Don't get over enamored of Occam's Razor. It is neither a rule of logic or a reliable scientific inference. It is, at best, a "rule of thumb," an organized way of making a first approximation ... otherwise known as "a guess."

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  6. Actually, if one is trying to find evidence of the existence of some overall intelligence in the universe, rather then blather on about the anthropic principal, or the origin of life, or the development of positive mutations, one should consider the issue of the asteroid collision 65 million years ago, which most scientific authorities believe eliminated the dinosaurs.

    One thing is quite evident, the impact of the collision had to be within a quite restricted range. If the collision had been a little greater, all life would have been extinguished and we wouldn't be here. If the collision had been a little lesser, the smaller dinosaurs like the Trodons would have survived and larger mammals, including ourselves would not have evolved (i.e. we wouldn't be here).

    There was nothing distinguishable at all about the fact of the collision; such events have occurred often in the history of the earth. What distinguishes it is the narrow range of impact required. It would seem that Ken Miller and Francis Collins would be much better served by pointing to this event as evidence of intelligence in the universe as the alternative is a lucky accident.

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  7. I think if you are going to debate the possible existence of a God or Gods and His/Its/Their detectability through the scientific method, then first you have to define the type of god you are talking about.

    1) The in-your-face God of last Thursday. The god you are talking about is intimately involved in everything that happens, and manipulates what we perceive to maintain some sort of god narrative (e.g. the Universe was created last Thursday, but god has planted scientific evidence to suggest that the Universe is 14 billion years old). In this case, mthodological naturalism cannot be relied upon, nor can religious texts or beliefs. All bets are off; no-one could claim certainty of anything. Why worry?

    2) The personal god. This god carries certain auxillary assumptions, for example that he intervenes in the natural world, humans are 'made in his image', and therefore his motivations are understandable to us. Although such a god might choose to leave no detectable evidence of his existence, I think Larry is right to say that on the balance of probabilities and the absence of evidence, no such god exists (or is worth worrying about).

    3) The impersonal or distant god. If there is or was some sort of supreme being at the 'beginning of time', or not concerned at all about humans, then there may be no detectable evidence of intervention in our natural world - because none exists. You could speculate that this type of god was only concerned about the birth of stars, or the evolution of dinosaurs, or the growth of crystals on a planet far, far, away. We could be just the byproduct of the gods actions aimed elsewhere. Essentially this type of god would be 'unknowable' to us. Once again, no such god would be worth worrying about.

    4) The type of god which springs from philosophy, and may or may not exist depending on what assumptions you make. What one man proposes, other men dispose. Once again, no such god would be worth worrying about, although you might philosophically worry about the truth of the arguements for the gods existence.

    Of course new evidence could change a rational person's mind. Even that nice Prof. Dawkins says he would change his mind in such circumstances...

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  8. Larry, how can methodological materialism refute various purported modern day medical anomalies in evangelical Christianity such as the resurrection of bodies that experienced rigor mortis and the regrowth of amputated limbs?

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  9. James Goetz asks,

    Larry, how can methodological materialism refute various purported modern day medical anomalies in evangelical Christianity such as the resurrection of bodies that experienced rigor mortis and the regrowth of amputated limbs?

    When people make extraordinary claims the onus is not on scientists to refute them. The onus is on the people making the claim to prove that it took place.

    Anyone who claims that people have risen from the dead must provide evidence that the event actually happened. In the absence of such evidence, science concludes that the event did not happen.

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  10. When people make extraordinary claims the onus is not on scientists to refute them. The onus is on the people making the claim to prove that it took place.

    I would agree with you if you say, "The onus is on the people making the claim to document compelling evidence that it took place."

    Anyone who claims that people have risen from the dead must provide evidence that the event actually happened. In the absence of such evidence, science concludes that the event did not happen.

    I saw what I conclude is compelling documentation of a formerly rigor mortis human body coming back to life. On one hand, I don't have the budget to examine the evidence myself. On the other hand, based on my examination of both the evidence and the opposition to the evidence, my conjecture is that the documentation is reliable and compelling.

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  11. DiscoveredJoys, you are right to say it does depend on what type of God you are talking about. So narrowing it to 4 choices really doesn't do the concept justice. There are degrees of what constitutes a God as being personal, impersonal, distant, deceiving, etc etc. Perhaps the personal God is only personal in a spiritual sense and not through natural order? There is such a large scope to assign similar attributes in varying degrees of this specific being that it, as you have implied, is useless to even attempt to figure out. Our best bet is just focus on our observations, and our understanding of life and the universe and essentially leave the existence of God out of it, because including God into the equation is just too exhausting to consider and it is probably best, and safe, to remain agnostic on the issue, because the explanations for either side are just too exhausting to even analyze to the point that it is just a bunch of strawman arguments thrown all over the place. I used to think it was worth the time to refute the concepts of God as depicted by religion, but nowadays even that concept has changed and adjusted to the refutations, it is just too broad to even discuss anymore.

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