March 02, 2006

Dennett v. Swinburne on the Origin of Religion and the Existence of God

Prospect Magazine has published a series of letters between Richard Swinburne and Daniel Dennett regarding the existence of God and the historical origin of religious belief, following the publication of Dennett's new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett's book argues that an evolutionary explanation for religious belief exists, and that religion can and should be examined empirically by science with the initial presumption of "methodological naturalism" (i.e. we must assume for the sake of argument that God does not exist in order to take on this investigation). Swinburne argues that no such investigation can be adequately undertaken without first determining whether the evidence supports belief in the existence of God and his activity in the world, especially with regard to the formation of religious belief. "Methodological naturalism," Swinburne claims, must first be justified by an argument showing that such a method leads to truth, and this will only be the case if its naturalistic assumptions are, in fact, correct.

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January 30, 2006

"Theism and Mechanism in Leibniz"

I've just posted a new paper to my writings page, entitled "Theism and Mechanism in Leibniz." This is a topic that I've discussed quite a bit in the past few months, and this may be the end of it for a while.

An earlier version served as a term paper for Professor Karen Detlefsen's undergraduate seminar on Leibniz at Penn last semester. It has undergone slight revision based on her comments. Please feel free to offer any responses or discussion you have in the comments section of this post. Any revisions made will be documented in the comments here as well.

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January 13, 2006

Can High School Students Handle Philosophy?

Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas Austin, points to an LA Times article about a lawsuit against a California public school district over an attempt to introduce an elective course entitled "philosophy of design." The suit charges that the course is about promoting a particular religion, rather than looking at the issue in the sort of balanced way a permissible "comparative relgion" course would. Now, if the charge is true and the course teaches only one viewpoint and seeks to convince students of that viewpoint, then it is a bad philosophy class (the constitutional issue is, of course, also somewhat important, but I tend to ignore it since the federal deparment of education is unconstitutional anyway). However, evaluating the course is not my primary interest. What I'm interested in are Leiter's comments. He says,

Of course, there are real philosophical issues about naturalism and intelligent design, but they have nothing to do with the proposed course in California, and, indeed, they are far too hard for high school students. ( ... It would be a marvel if there were high school students prepared to sort through the issues about substance dualism, antirealism about material objects, and the theory of perception that are implicated in genuine philosophical discussion of the issue.)

Are high school students prepared to handle these issues? Can they be taught on that level without doing more harm than good? The thing about philosophy, in my view, is that, at least historically, the questions have been more important than the answers. This is certainly true pedagogically (consider the "Socratic" method). Furthermore, the questions philosophers consider are the questions that any deep thinker will eventually get to, with or without actually studying philosophy. If you start from any observation and ask "why" enough times, eventually you will get to philosophy.

Nevetheless, there is a strong temptation toward elitism in philosophy, and it is very understandable. For instance, I can personally attest that the more I study philosophy the more I become irritated with people who refuse to think. Also, because of the universal availability of the questions, there are a lot of people out there who want to call themselves philosophers but have had no schooling, and this is something of an affront to someone who spends 8 to 10 years studying to become a philosopher (I guess I belong to the former group, since I call myself a philosopher after not even 3 full years of school, but I'm working toward that latter). However, I hold that this usage of language is legitimate. A "philosopher" is just that - a lover of wisdom. The term was used by Socrates/Plato to contrast with the sophists who claimed to actually have wisdom. The philosopher claims only to love and pursue it. Now, some people have pursued it farther than others, and they want a little credit, and they deserve more than a little, but does that mean that no one else is competent to think about philosophical issues? No! In many cases, the same evidence is available to all of us, so it would in fact be a logical fallacy to believe something just because some philosopher says it; everyone has to think about it for himself.

Now, back to the issue at hand: Leiter asserts that it is highly unlikely that any high school student could grapple adequately with the issues involved. Do they need to grapple adequately? Is it not of pedagogical value just to have them start thinking about it, and wanting more information? Intelligent design might even become an entry for a general introduction to philosophy since it has bearing on issues of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of language (via questions of whether religious texts are consistent with evolution), and so forth.

Leiter lists three issues as examples of things that intelligent design is related to, and I say that they are all things that high school students could benefit by asking questions in relation to. This is not to say that everyone is equally good at answering this question, or that there is no priveleged place for professional philosophers, it is merely to say that high school students could benefit from being trained to ask the right kind of questions, and to start looking at a few possible answers, and anyone willing to put in the work is capable of accomplishing at least this much under a competent teacher (or perhaps just with a good book on the subject).

The first issue is "substance dualism." This view is also known as Cartesian dualism. It is the view that there are two completely different types of substance in the universe: the physical and the spiritual (or mental). That is, the physical world is one type of substance, and minds or souls are another. This is a question everyone is capable of understanding. When you ask "do I have a soul?" you implicitly ask the question of substance dualism. Descartes' Meditations are not difficult to read; motivated high school students with good teachers could easily get through it. That is not to say that there are not difficult problems in the text that have been debated by philosophers for centuries, and that people have devoted many years of scholarship to solving, but the basic outlines of Descartes' thoughts are within the reach of any thinking person. So is the question of substance dualism. Now, the contemporary philosophical literature on the subject is much more difficult, but that does not mean that high school students can't "sort through issues about substance dualism." They won't do it as well as professional philosophers, but then they don't understand Newtonian mechanics as well as professional physicists, but no one thinks they shouldn't be taught Newtonian mechanics. In fact, in many high school physics or chemistry classes the very most basic principles of quantum mechanics and relativity are at least mentioned in a qualitative sort of way, and these are extremely difficult issues! But that doesn't mean high school students can't start trying to wrap their minds around ideas like superpositions or wave-particle dualism or "warped" space. Likewise, high school students are equipped to start asking questions about substance dualism, if they are sufficiently motivated and well taught.

Leiter's second issue is "anti-realism about material objects." What he means, I think, is basically the same idea as "representation dualism" (there are a lot of "dualisms"). This is a concept which I personally believe (a) to have been pioneered by a favorite of mine, Parmenides, and (b) to be the really foundational question that makes it possible to start doing metaphysics as something distinct from physics. Representation dualism claims that the world we see (the representation) is not identical with the "ontological ground-floor," as it were, of the universe. That is, if the world we see is real at all there exists something that is more real. If one takes the description of the universe from, e.g., particle physics to be fundamental, one is already endorsing representation dualism, because the particles are not the things that we are aware of experiencing in every day life. In fact they are not even similar. This issue really isn't that hard to start inquiring about either, as you can see.

Finally, he mentions "theory of perception." Now, I don't even want to begin to discuss theory of perception, because there are so many issues and I'm not sure which ones count as "basic," but clearly we all know what perception is, what it means to perceive, and we are all equipped to at least start asking questions.

I hold that asking these questions is greatly beneficial to intellectual development, even if one doesn't arrive at a good or satisfactory answer. However, there is the issue of whether the students can apply these issues to intelligent design. I think the answer is yes. Going from "are there non-physical substances?" to "is there a God?" is not hard. Seeing the difficulty of interaction between substances, particularly unlike substances, is also not hard (but solving the difficulty is; that's what makes i a "difficulty"!). Asking questions like, "if the world has a Creator, what kind of being is it?" is also not hard (but, again, answering them is). Asking whether the world we see is the fundamental reality, and understanding the arguments of Berkeley and Hume that it can't be, is not hard. Answering that question is. Asking all these questions, and making first halting attempts to at least understand what the possible range of answers is is of great benefit to one's intellectual development. If the class was taught well, I don't understand how anything other than excessive academic elitism could motivate an educator in the field of philosophy to oppose it.

Now, Leiter does go on to charge that "this course is obviously just masquerading as philosophy in order to present crackpot theories as though they had scientific support or standing," and perhaps he is right. Perhaps the course doesn't exist for the purpose of an examination of the philosophical issues surrounding intelligent design. Perhaps, instead, the "philosophy" label is merely an excuse to push religious indoctrination into public schools. If he has good reason to believe that this is the case (and, as I said, I haven't investigated this issue), then Leiter is quite justified in his opposition to the course. As I said, IF it is taught well, there is no good reason to oppose it. However, given the degree of knowledge about philosophy found in most public school teachers (and most people, in general), and given the (lack of) availability of good textbooks, it may be highly unlikely that the class will be good. I merely hold that Leiter greatly overestimates the amount of difficulty there is in bringing difficult philosophical issues to high school students.

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December 24, 2005

How Much of Science is Philosophy?

There is an interesting post over at Parableman about the relationship between science and philosophy, in the context of the Intelligent Design debate. Jeremy claims that (1) ID is clearly not religious in nature, and (2) its philosophical nature is not a good reason to exclude it from science curriculum, because everything else in science is philosophical too. It's worth a read.

Personally I've been arguing for some time (not on this blog, in real life) that the vast majority of scientists don't have a sufficient grasp of the philosophical foundations of their fields to adequately pursue some of the deep questions they are coming up against. This is particularly true in physics. For instance, the physicists want to do cosmology now; they think they have a better grip of the problem than the philosophy department. Meanwhile, they literally don't know the meaning of the word. Brilliant minds like Steven Hawking go around talking about the "Big Bang Cosmology." A "cosmology" is, as the name implies, a theory of the cosmos, something like string theory. The Big Bang is not a theory of the cosmos, but an account of the origin of the cosmos. This is known as a "cosmogeny."

Now this is an issue of vocabulary, and I suppose they can use words however they want, provided they are consistent and understand one another, but then there are issue like so-called "quantum teleportation" and this very deep question of whether this process transports a particle from one location to another, or creates an entirely new particle at the new location: in short, the question of whether fundamental particles have what philosophers call "haeccity" or "thisness," and, if so, whether the two particles have the same haeccity. The problem of individuation is in many ways at the heart of metaphysics, and those desiring to give an answer to it should really pay attention to the last 3000 years of debate on the subject rather than starting over from scratch.

I believe that these issues show that the distinction between philosophy and science is ceasing to be useful, especially at the level of highly theoretical physics. This distinction was not drawn until the 19th century, but it has indeed served us well for the last hundred years. Science is usually viewed as being characterized by experiments and observations; philosophy simply by reasoning (although, for analytic philosophers and the British empiricists before them, this is still reasoning about the things we perceive in the phenomenal world around us). This division has never been that strict, as philosophy reaches over into essentially every academic discipline (we've got "a finger in every pie," as I like to say), but it has in some degree served us well, by allowing individuals to focus more intensely on fields like chemistry or biology that require very different knowledge and training than the mainstream of philosophy. However, today many realms of science are encroaching on issues that were traditionally the domain of philosophy and all too often recklessly ignoring millenia of thought on these issues. It is true, as Jeremy suggests, that much of science simply cannot be extricated from philosophy.

However, none of this means that the distinction between science and philosophy is quite so unreal as Jeremy claims. ID is not a claim about the workings of the physical world as such. It is a metaphysical claim about how those workings came to be, and an epistemological claim that we can know about that based on observation. Now a metaphysical claim about how the physical laws came to be is very different than a physical claim about it, such as Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang leaves the metaphysical question unanswered: it merely posits that the first moments of the universe looked a certain way. When physicists try to answer questions about what caused the Big Bang or what came before it, it is because they think that it had some physical, rather than metaphysical, origin. If the big bang began at the first instant of time, and there are no other physical universes like ours which could have spawned the creation of this universe, then physics has nothing to say about the origin of the Big Bang. If someone claims that God caused the Big Bang to occur, this is a metaphysical appeal, and has no place in physics.

Science makes important metaphysical assumptions, and scientists need to be aware of this, and they need to be able to think "outside the box," as it were, and ask occasionally whether a different set of metaphysical assumptions might be better able to explain the world. This requires scientists to have solid knowledge of metaphysics, and the available positions and the arguments for and against them. It does not, however, require that scientists become metaphysicians or otherwise collapse the boundary between science and philosophy. The position of ID, properly understood, is that there exists a sound teleological (design) argument for the existence of God. This is a meta-scientific observation: that is, it goes beyond science by examining the metaphysical consequences of what science has discovered, in much the same way that examinations of the impact of quantum mechanics for the issue of free will vs. determinism do. Neither of these debates need be taught in science classrooms, because science as such is agnostic about them. Note that this cuts both ways. As Alvin Plantinga once said:

[The idea that] human beings and other living creatures have come about by chance, rather than by God's design, is also not a proper part of empirical science. How could science show that God has not intentionally designed and created human beings and other creatures? How could it show that they have arisen merely by chance? That's not empirical science. That's metaphysics, or maybe theology. It's a theological add-on, not part of science itself. And, since it is a theological add-on, it shouldn't, of course, be taught in public schools.
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December 22, 2005

Let's Make Creation Science Not Suck

Nearly a month ago, I posted without commentary a Leibniz quote about materialism and supernaturalism. At the time I was busy with classes and didn't have time to really address the issue I saw the quote raising, but now that finals are over, I'd like to take a minute and look at this.

When I read this quote, I immediately thought of "creation science." Leibniz here describes what he sees as two false extremes: the one is represented today by the likes of Peter Atkins, the Oxford Chemist who insists that in order to properly follow scientific methodology one must believe that the ultimate physical laws of nature are logically necessary (which, let me interject, they obviously are not!) and that there exists nothing beyond the physical. The other extreme is represented by the so-called "creation science" movement (and some, but not all, proponents of intelligent design) who claim that the events of the natural world cannot all be explained by physical laws, and so oppose science. (Other intelligent design people merely intend to say that we ought not to think that the laws themselves are the result of chance, because there seems to be a sort of inherent purposiveness about them; I do personally endorse this position, as does Leibniz.) I have been arguing on this blog for some time that this is bad theology, and I've just recently finished writing a term paper arguing that Leibniz's mechanistic views are motivated primarily by theology - and good theology at that. (I plan to post this paper once I've received feedback from my professor and given it another edit.)

Between these two extremes, Leibniz plots a middle course: "all natural phenomena could be explained mechanically if we understood them well enough, but the principles of mechanics themselves cannot be explained geometrically, since they depend on more sublime principles which show the wisdom of the Author in the order and perfection of his work."

In Discourse on Metaphysics 19 (which I discussed here) and in many other places, Leibniz argues for the use of "final causes" in physics. In particular, he is constantly claiming the Snell would never have discovered his laws of optics had he not considered that God does everything in the most perfect way possible.

Now, to the heading of this post: creation science, as it exists today, is bad for several reasons. Because creation scientists "do not reason with exactness in this matter, and it is easy for [their opponents] to reply to them, they injure religion in trying to render it service, for they merely confirm those in their error who recognize only material principles." Basically, they tend to make Christians look like idiots, and so atheists become all the more certain of their atheism. Creation scientists go around claiming that they are doing "science," but science, by definition, is concerned with "efficient causes" - it wants to find out the physical, not spiritual or metaphysical, reasons for events. And there are physical reasons for events. I continue to hold that it would essentially amount to God making a mistake if he had to break his own physical laws in order to bring about his will miraculously. Rather, the perfect wisdom and infinite power of God should lead us to conclude that he made a world in which his laws hold always, and that he is able to bring about his will, even in those things we consider miraculous, without breaking physical laws. If I am right about this, then the enterprise of science seen as the attempt to explain everything in the physical world by efficient causes is theologically legitimate. Furthermore, I think it is clear that the scientific method is a valid way of seeking truth and in particular of pursuing these kinds of investigations. Creation science, as it now exists, denies this. Instead, it claims that we must look to divine revelation, etc., in order to do science properly, and it often also claims that we should reject the idea that we can explain everything by efficient causes at all. Furthermore, it has been my experience that the people pursuing creation science rarely have sufficient theology/biblical studies backgrounds to make the kind of theological judgments needed for their field. Because of this, when it is accepted by the mainstream of Christianity, it can be theologically damaging as well.

However, I promised in the post title to explain how creation science could not suck, and I intend to do just that. You see, Leibniz was right, I think, in claiming that theists should make use of final causes in their investigations of nature. This cuts two ways: first, when we see that the world is a certain way, when we discover a scientific law or a theory, we should ask, why did God do things this way? Second, there are some cases in which we already have a pretty good idea, either through revelation or through reasoning about the nature of God, what God probably wanted to do with regard to some natural event, or we may know through revelation that some event occurred, and in these cases we can reason backward from the final cause and try to determine the efficient cause, and this may in some cases turn out to be a useful heuristic device in searching for knowledge of natural laws. Note that the aesthetic criteria which mathematicians and physicists increasingly make heuristic use of are of this nature.

However, these things are not science, and it is critical that we recognize this so we are able to communicate with the rest of the world. Michael Behe doesn't get to walk around with his own private definition of theory, and we can't just go around redefining science. If we do, then we won't be able to enter debate with non-Christians, because we won't be speaking the same language.

This is what I suggest we do: first, let's rename this field "theology of nature" (and try not to confuse it with natural theology). Then, let's take some Christians with strong science background (by which I mean, with Ph.Ds in the natural sciences) and send them to school for theology and/or biblical studies and/or philosophy of religion. Then, let's give them appointments in the theology or religious studies departments - not the departments of their scientific fields! - at universities as professors of the theology of nature. Then they can pursue their investigations of final causes, and we can all benefit from the knowledge they gain, and Christians can have a better understanding of the relationship of our faith to modern science. This idea of "theology of nature" is a perfectly legitimate academic pursuit and, Christians must believe, also a legitimate method of pursuing truth. Also, by placing this in the theology department and attracting more competent people to the serious study of it, we may have the effect of making Christianity more rather than less plausible to modern intellectuals.

Note: The title of this post is a reference to Miguel de Icaza's infamous talk, "Let's Make Unix Not Suck".

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December 15, 2005

Accuracy of Wikipedia vs. Brittanica

From Nature magazine via slashdot: a survey by experts of articles on 42 science related topics (e.g. "Cambrian Explosion," "lymphocyte," "neural network," "quark," etc. Complete list here) found that the Wikipedia articles contained an average 4 errors per article, whereas Encyclopedia Brittanica contained on average 3. Each encyclopedia contained four instances of "serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts" in the 42 articles surveyed. The rest were minor factual errors. Interestingly, the article with the most errors seems to have been the same for both Wikipedia and Brittanica: that on Dmitry Mendeleev, where Wikipedia contained 19 errors, and Brittanica 8, according to Princeton Professor Michael Gordin who recently wrote a book on Mendeleev.

Two further facts are of note: the reviewers said that the Wikipedia articles were usually more confusing and harder to follow, and a Wikipedia enthusiast has noted that the comparison may be unfair since wikipedia articles are much longer on average (2.6 times longer, to be precise), and so actually have fewer errors per kilobyte of data.

A similar study, though of much smaller scale, was undertaken by Ed Felten some time ago, which I discussed at the time here.

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November 29, 2005

Quote of the Day

"We know that while there have been, on the one hand, able philosophers who recognized nothing except what is material in the universe, there are, on the other hand, learned and zealous theologians who, shocked at the corpuscular philosophy and not content with checking it's misuse, have felt obliged to maintain tha tthere are phenomena in nature which cannot be explained by mechanical principles; as for example, light, weight, and elastic force. But since they do not reason with exactness in this matter, and it is easy for the corpuscular philosophers to reply to them, they injure religion in trying to render it service, for they merely confirm those in their error who recognize only material principles. The true middle term for satisfying both truth and piety is this: all natural phenomena could be explained mechanically if we understood them well enough, but the principles of mechanics themselves cannot be explained geometrically, since they depend on more sublime principles which show the wisdom of the Author in the order and perfection of his work." - G.W. Leibniz, "Tentanem Anagogicum: An Anagogical Essay in the Investigation of Causes," c. 1696 (tr. Leroy F. Loemaker).

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November 07, 2005

Renewable Energy and the Death of Quantum Mechanics (Wishful Thinking)

From The Guardian via Slashdot: Dr. Randell Mills of Blacklight Technology claims to have invented a new energy source that supposedly works by moving the electrons of hydrogen atoms in ordinary water closer to the nucleus, thus causing a very large release of energy. Dr. Mills calls the new form of hydrogen "hydrino." The (alleged) new technology would reduce energy costs to about 24% of the coal energy, or 20% that of nuclear. There is only one problem: according to quantum mechanics, Dr. Mills's results are impossible.

In standard quantum mechanics, the smallest possible distance between the electron and the nucleus (a single proton) in the hydrogen atom is fixed and cannot be reduced (says The Guardian - it was my understanding that just about anything could happen in quantum mechanics and the electron "shells" were merely regions where the electron's waveform might collapse with high probability, but what do I know? Then again, what does The Guardian know?). Dr. Mills has developed a new theory, which is more closely related to classical physics then is standard quantum theory. This theory was published under the title "Classical Quantum Mechanics" in the December 2003 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Physics Essays. This theory was heavily criticized by Dr. Andreas Rathke of the European Space Agency in a paper entitled "A Critical Analysis of the Hydrino Model" in the May 2005 edition of the New Journal of Physics (abstract available online here). Dr. Rathke claims that Dr. Mills's theory is the result of mathematical mistakes. There have, however, been others who have claimed that it is Rathke's calculations that are mistaken, and Mills's invention would seem to show that these are in the right.

At least two academic scientists have inspected Dr. Mills's research and been convinced that it does in fact work. These are Professor Rick Maas of the University of North Carolina chemistry department, and Professor Randy Booker, a physicist, also from UNC. Professor Maas said that the two of them had "put [their] professional reputations on the line" with the claim that Dr. Mills's data is, at the last, compelling and worthy of further investigation. However, quantum mechanics remains entrenched, and scientists will (rightly) continue to be very skeptical as the possibility is examined further.

Corporations and venture capitalists are somewhat less skeptical. Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in Blacklight Technologies to develop this idea. The first product, they say, will be a household heater, hopefully to be made available within four years. There is also research being done at NASA on using the technology in spacecrafts.

In case you are wondering how this news item came to be on this blog, I am deeply troubled by quantum mechanics and think, philosophically and theologically that it ought not to be true. The real world simply cannot be stochastic (can it?). I don't know if Dr. Mills's theory is actually deterministic, but it gives me hope that the world might be a comprehensible place after all (I never really gave up hoping). Note that the founders of modern science (Descartes, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, etc.) would have said almost unanimously that if quantum mechanics was true, science (they would have said "mechanistic natural philosophy") was a failure. I am inclined to agree.

I'll be very disappointed when Dr. Mills's theory is disproven next week.

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October 12, 2005

Leibniz on "Efficient" vs. "Final" Causes in Physics: Its Application to God, Science, and Miracles

So I'm taking this class on Leibniz this semester (for those of you who may be unfamiliar, that is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the 17th century philosopher/scientist/mathematician, and the "other" discoverer of calculus), and I was reading his Discourse on Metaphysics today and came across this fantastic passage in section 19:

Moreover, it is unreasonable to introduce a supreme intelligence as orderer of things and then, instead of using his wisdom, use only the properties of matter to explain the phenomena. This is as if, in order to account for the conquest of an important place by a great prince, a historian were to claim that it occurred because the small particles of gunpowder, set off by the contact of a spark, escaped with sufficient speed to push a hard and heavy body against the walls of the place, while the little particles that make up the brass of the cannon were so firmly interlaced that this speed did not separate them, instead of showing how the foresight of the conqueror enabled him to choose suitable means and times and how his power overcame all obstacles.

The heading of this section is "The Utility of Final Causes in Physics." Now Leibniz, like me, sees no conflict between an event's being "miraculous" and its being explainable in terms of physics: as in the case of the conqueror, both explanations are correct, but only one is relevant. Leibniz borrows from Aristotle the terminology of "efficient" and "final" causes (Aristotle has two more types of causes, "formal" and "material," which are not relevant here). Today, we use the word "cause" to refer only to what Aristotle and later philosophers, including Leibniz, called the "efficient cause." The "final cause" is the purpose of a thing or event. For instance, the final cause of this post is (in part) to be read.

Now, for anyone who, like Leibniz and like myself, is a theist, the world is full of final causes. There are reasons why things are as they are. God has a design for the world. Leibniz, in this passage, tells us that it would be ridiculous to believe in God and not see final causes throughout the world. He also says, in a nearby section, that it is silly for those who study final causes of things to ridicule those who study their efficient causes, and vice versa. Both explanations are correct, but in a given situation one may be more relevant than another.

A while back, I wrote a post on Christian Naturalism. In it, I argued that Christians should not believe in exceptions to the laws of nature. This then leaves the problem of how to deal with miracles. In that post I said "A miracle is an event in which the 'higher functions' of the divine consciousness, i.e. the part equivalent to the conscious functioning of the human mind, that makes plans and designs regarding human lives and the like, are more apparent than the 'lower functions' which are the laws of nature. To put it more simply (but less precisely) a miracle occurs when the laws of nature conspire together to acheive some intelligent end." (Yes, the "conspire" language was in part a reference to Stephen Hawking's "Chronology Protection Conjecture.") Using the language of Aristotle and Leibniz I can now state this more precisely.

The difference between the "miraculous" and the "mundane" is purely subjective. A miracle is an event in which the "final cause" - the divine purpose behind it (or at least a part of that purpose) - is more readily apparent to the observer than the "efficient cause" - the physical laws which require that the event occurs. In this way, there is no contradiction between belief in the miraculous and naturalism.

A brief note on a related topic: I apply this same doctrine to all miracles, but one in which I have gotten very negative responses is in its application to the revelation of the Christian Scriptures. I believe that these are miraculous in precisely this sense: what came down to us turned out (not by any accident, but by divine purpose) to be the Living Word of God. This does not, however, mean that it was not produced in precisely the same way as any other work of literature. Therefore it is consistent with belief in the inspiration of Scripture to talk about the influence of earlier non-inspired writers (e.g. Plato, Philo of Alexandria, or Heraclitus) on the authors of Scripture, as I often do. I believe that the Scriptures are miraculously inspired, I just don't believe that they were inspired "in a vacuum" as it were, independent of the surrounding thought patterns. Where previous writers were correct, or almost correct, or provided good terminology for discussing a subject, God used their writings to bring it about that the authors of Scripture would write down the Living Word of God.

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September 27, 2005

The Right Way to Introduce Intelligent Design to Public Schools ...

is by teaching philosophy of science. Metaphysics and philosophy of science, no matter what anyone says, are "ontically prior" to experimental science. What that means is that you must have at least a working philosophy of science (with some difficult conceptual work it is possible to abstract away the metaphysics in most cases) in order to interpret the results of observations and experiments. Remember that "scientific method" thing you learned in high school (or, hopefully, middle school)? Scientists hold to a philosophical - not scientific - theory states that that method works. The details of this philosophical position will determine the interpretation of evidence. That is not to say that evidence cannot change the theory (you might find the evidence completely incomprehensible within your theory or, more likely, another theory might turn out to provide a more plausible interpretation of the evidence), but merely that one must have a working version of it before one can begin scientific enquiry.

The occasion for this post was a couple of news articles (NY Times (1), NY Times (2), AP) and an insightful post at Every Thought Captive concerning a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania school district for attempting to mandate teaching of intelligent design. It is expected that in the course of the case a court will have to answer the question of whether intelligent design is a "scientific" theory.

The answer to this question is, of course, no. Intelligent design is not a "scientific" theory. It is, in fact, a philosophical theory. Of course, as revered philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga recently remarked, the converse proposition, that natural processes are not guided by a higher Being, "is also not a proper part of empirical science. How could science show that God has not intentionally designed and created human beings and other creatures? How could it show that they have arisen merely by chance. That's not empirical science. That's metaphysics, or maybe theology. It's a theological add-on, not part of science itself. And, since it is a theological add-on, it shouldn't, of course, be taught in public schools." (Plantinga's quote was discussed at the time, last month, on several blogs, including Parableman and Prosthesis).

Now, I don't necessarily think it follows that it shouldn't be discussed in public schools. (Let me qualify that - I don't really think public schools should exist, I think that in a perfect world all schools would be private and parents would choose any school they liked, and private charitable funds would ensure that children of poor families could afford an education, but leaving that aside, insofar as the existence of public schools must be tolerated in our non-ideal world, I do not think that control by secular government ought to prevent them from discussing these issues). I do, however, think that it would be clearly and obviously wrong for the government to fund the propagation of any particular viewpoint on matters such as these (of course, as I have often said, education necessarily involves some degree of indoctrination, and this is my primary reason for opposing government involvement in it, besides the government having no right to appropriate the money involved).

The solution to this problem, I suggest, is to discuss the philosophy of science and its development at the beginning of every science class (I do remember having about a week on "scientific method" in just about every science class from grades 6 to 12). Students should be informed that today mainstream science accepts a controversial philosophical principle known as "methodological naturalism," and recently many philosophers and popular thinkers, and even a few scientists, have questioned this view. Furthermore, this was not the view of any notable scientists prior to the 19th century. Prior to this time it was assumed by all of the most prominent scientists (Galileo, Newton, Boyle, etc.) that they were investigating the will of God. There was much philosophical debate as to whether God willed once that matter should exist and obey certain laws (and if so, whether He made exceptions to these laws - "miracles"), or whether He continually willed that certain natural laws should hold. Whatever the case, it was assumed that the ultimate explanation, at bottom, for natural laws would come to "God wills that it be so." Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that this in any way hampered the intellectual inquiry of these men by causing them to stop asking why to soon. (See my discussion of Del Ratzsch's brilliant paper "Natural Theology, Methodological Naturalism, and 'Turtles All The Way Down'" here). The most important point is that, whether or not the laws of nature are so because God wills them, the truth of this matter is not a "scientific" truth, but a metaphysical one. Perhaps there are some ways the laws of physics could be that might be more amenable to one view than the other, but in general this kind of knowledge must be the product of philosophical reasoning.

Even more ridiculous, apparently some scientists are objecting to a statement the school board is requiring to be read to students saying, "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered." Isn't this the way science works? Students given a basic grounding in philosophy of science would not need to be told this; they would see the word "theory" and their first thought would be "a proposed explanation of the facts which has successfully explained a wide variety of phenomena within the realm of its applicability and been accepted by the majority of the scientific community" - and evolution most certainly has this status. (Of course the students wouldn't phrase it quite like that if they are in middle school, but you get the idea).

Where did we ever get the crazy idea we could teach science without first figuring out what science was and how it worked? This debate would be virtually a non-issue if we would figure out these sorts of questions first, as no one but Peter Atkins (a well-respected Oxford chemist and bad amateur philosopher who insists that you are not following the scientific method unless you assume before you start that the ultimate yet-to-be-discovered laws of physics are logically necessary, as is the existence of the universe) should be expected to object to saying "science is agnostic as to the ultimate origin of the laws of physics". Sure, science can tell us about the "big bang" (which I believe in) and evolution (which I don't particularly), but Newtonian mechanics couldn't tell us why force should be equal to mass times acceleration, and in the same way no scientific theory is likely to contain within itself the reason why it must be true (i.e. to be logically necessary), but rather there will most likely always be a deeper explanation. If there is a deepest explanation, it must be metaphysical, and may include God. If there is an infinite regression of explanations, there must be some explanation for why there is an infinite regression, and this explanation must, again, be metaphysical and may, again, include God. These sorts of truths are outside the realm of experimental science, but nevertheless important to think about. Science, especially teaching of evolution on the high school level, often makes non-scientific assumptions about these sorts of truths, and when it does this without explicitly stating its assumptions it is out of line. Students should be made aware of these issues and taught to look critically at all scientific theory in their light.

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August 28, 2005

Dennett: "Intelligent Design" Obscures Real Objections to Evolution

Daniel Dennet, a brilliant philosopher at Tufts University, known (to me) for his work on personal identity and philosophy of mind, is an avowed atheist. In today's New York Times, Dennet joins the "intelligent design" controversy with a lengthy Op-Ed. The article is four pages long, but I just want to focus on one thing he says and the conclusions he draws from it:

The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view.

Dennett argues that the political focus of the ID movement, and especially the Discovery Institute, has made it nearly impossible for anyone to bring an actual scientific objection to evolution. For an objection to be "scientific" (rather than purely philosophical, which is a better description of most creationist theories), it needs to make testable predictions which are different from the reigning theory. Simply pointing out all of the things the reigning theory has not yet explained is not a scientific objection. (However, I think most evolutionists fail to admit that a list of facts that are within the realm a theory is supposed to cover, but which the theory does not in fact explain, does constitute epistemic ground for an individual to reject the theory in favor of another or, in the absence of a better theory, withhold judgment.) Thus far, proponents of intelligent design have predicted that various things wouldn't be found - for instance, I, who am not a scientist, predict, rather ignorantly, I admit, that we will not find a good evolutionary explanation for the creation of new chromosome pairs. If it could be proven that there was no such explanation (what would such a proof look like?) that would severely limit the applicability of evolution, to something like the "micro-evolution" that most creationists believe in. However, if intelligent design proponents want to be taken seriously by the scientific establishment - or at least make a serious breach of proper scientific methodology necessary for their exclusion - they must predict what we will find, and then go look for it. I would be willing to bet, and Dennett seems to agree with me, that an ID paper that made concrete predictions on, for instance, what would be found by our work to interpret the recently mapped human genome, would be published in a peer-reviewed journal, even if the prediction had not been verified or falsified yet. The problem, however, is that ID proponents are letting their faith get in the way of good scientific methodology. They know that concrete predictions might be proven wrong, and this might be damaging to their faith, so they make no such predictions. That kind of faith is no faith at all. Faith in a lie is at best unbenificial - at worst, extremely damaging. This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 15:19 when he says "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable." That is, the New Testament insists that your Christian faith is not beneficial to you unless it is TRUE. If you have real faith, you will be confident that your belief can withstand an honest inquiry into truth, and come out on top. And if it doesn't, the Bible says you are better off with your apparently false belief removed. Christian faith is not blind.

Therefore, Christian biologists, those with scientific training who believe in ID: don't be afraid to follow good scientific methodology, to make real testable predictions that might be wrong! If your theory is purely philosophical, say so and go on doing science with these different background philosophical assumptions. Later on, we can do what has been called "worldview analysis" and look at which understanding fits the facts most naturally (no doubt both will be able to be fitted to the facts, but hopefully one will fit more naturally, so that we have some rational ground for belief). Above all, don't let your belief in God as the designer of the universe stop you from making further inquiry into just HOW He designed it! Faith in God was not a stumbling block, but rather an encourager, in the inquiries made by Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Priestly, and all of the other early modern philosopher-scientist-theologians who searched for better understanding of the physical world.

In the end, Dennett is right in his criticism of ID as a "scientific" theory. However, I am surprised that he did not evaluate it as a philosophical theory. Does anyone out there have an opinion on this? Are there non-political intelligent design proponents? Do these people believe in the theory as philosophical or scientific? How do they view the distinction between the two? I think more philosophy of science should be included in public school science curriculums, so that students know exactly what assumptions are being made. Do others agree? Would this be a better way to push for some mention of the fact that science doesn't necessarily mean rejection of God? (I think it would.) Whatever the case, I think that Dennett has contributed much more useful thoughts to the ongoing debate in the Times than most of the other writers, and I thank him for his legitimate, if perhaps excessively strongly worded at times, critiques of the intelligent design movement as it exists today, and I hope that the Discovery Institute and others like them will take his criticism to heart and either begin doing real science, or begin to frame their theory as philosophical instead of scientific.

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August 25, 2005

FDA to Regulate Medical Usage of Maggots and Leeches

No, I'm not joking. It has been decided that both qualify as "mechanical devices" for medical use and will be regulated accordingly. See the New York Times article here. Now if only they'd regulate mosquitos (out of existence)...

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August 08, 2005

"Innate" Gender Differences and ... Autism?

Today's New York Times features an Op-Ed by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University arguing that, when viewed on the level of broad statistical tendencies across the whole of the human race, males and females exhibit marked neuro-psychological differences, in some ways similar to those suggested by Harvard president Lawrence Summers (you all remember the uproar that ensued). Eager to avoid the mistake made by Dr. Summers, Professor Baron-Cohen is very careful to emphasize the "on the level of broad statistical tendencies" part, and for this I applaud him. As he says in the article, "the differences that show up in brain research reflect averages, meaning that they emerge only when you study groups ... The evidence to date tells us nothing about individuals."

Professor Baron-Cohen's study divides people into Type E, Type S, and Type B brains based on answers to survey questions (neuro-physiology was also studied, but we're getting to that part). Type E brains are those who have a predisposition for emotional empathy over systematic thought, Type S brains are more disposed to systematize the world than to empathize with the emotions of others, and Type E brains perform each function approximately equally. According to the study, 44% of women are Type E, and 17% are Type S. The numbers are almost exactly reversed for men, with 54% Type S and 17% Type E.

Interpreted as purely statistical data, rather than as "law" regarding the innate aptitudes of persons of different gender, these statistics are more or less common knowledge; they line up with experience. But what is the cause of this difference? Professor Baron-Cohen's group argues that at least some of this has to do with biology rather than environment, noting, for instance, that "on average, at 24 hours old, more male infants will look at a mechanical mobile suspended above them, whereas more female infants will look at a human face." No statistics are provided on this, but it sounds pretty convincing to me, and it doesn't particularly surprise me. The explanation provided by the study is that an individuals "brain type" in the classification system is determined by pre-natal testosterone levels. These findings also correlate to statistics about the size of various portions of the brain, etc., which again suggest heredity rather than environment.

The real clencher is that the article goes on to argue that autism is caused by excessive pre-natal testosterone levels, so that, in essence, autistics are "extermely male" in brain-function. He supports this by the two observations that (a) it is very common for autistic children to have parents who are both extreme Type S brains, and (b) autistics generally have an extremely pronounced disposition to systematize the world around them. Most interesting...

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July 19, 2005

God, Science, and the Teleological (Design) Argument Revisited

I've just finished the deeply moving experience of reading one of the most brilliant, and beautiful, philosophy papers I have been exposed to to date. The paper, "Natural Theology, Methodological Naturalism, and 'Turtles all the Way Down'" by Dr. Del Ratzsch, a philosopher of science at Calvin College, appears in the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy, and academic journal published by the Society of Christian Philosophers. (The latest issue is dated October 2004 - they're a little behind.) The paper discusses a broad range of issues related to the interaction between theology and science. There are two points that I find particularly beautiful and compelling and would like to discuss. The first is his argument that the success of science (not any particular scientific endeavor, but the entire enterprise) actually amounts to experimental support (albeit inconclusive) for traditional monotheism. The second is his discussion of "infinite regression" of naturalistic explanations. I encourage anyone reading this to read the paper if you can get your hands on it (I myself will be finishing the rest of the journal ASAP so that I can begin loaning out this article). For those of you who are here at Penn, the library does receive the journal.

Science as Evidence of God. The role of Christianity in the history and early development of science has been much discussed. Judaism and Islam deserve credit for major developments in human thought that moved in the direction of science in earlier periods, so perhaps the credit should really go to the entire Western monotheistic tradition, but it was first and foremost Christianity (perhaps due to facts about distinctive Christian beliefs, perhaps due to historical accident) that provided the foundation for the genesis of modern science in the early modern era. The development of the scientific method and philosophy of science more generally is accredited to characters like Galileo, Newton, and Boyle, who adhered strongly to the basic doctrines of Christianity (though their "free-thinking" in other areas often got them in trouble with the established Church). These philosophies and methodologies, Ratzsch argues, actually grew out of the Christian commitments of these thinkers, rather than being in opposition to them as many secular humanist thinkers would have us believe. In particular, he claims that there was probably a line of reasoning much like the following:

1) The world was created by an intelligent and perfectly rational Being
2) We are created in the image of that Being, meaning that we have intelligent minds like His, though of course ours are finite and quite limited, whereas His is infinite.
:. 3) Therefore, the universe is such as to be intelligible to us: it is a true cosmos, being ordered according to rational principles which are of the sort that we should expect to be able to discover and understand them (though of course our limited intellect may prevent perfect and ultimate understanding).

Based on these ideas, these early scientist-philosopher-theologians (which is indeed what each of the men mentioned, and many other pioneers of science, were) concluded that the task of scientific enquiry should be possible. That is: we should be able to do experiments and formulate equations and use rational patterns of thoughts in order to successfully understand and describe the universe. What this means is that the theory of traditional Western monotheism has as a consequence the success of science! Science is predicted by monotheism in its familiar form. Within science, when a theory or hypothesis predicts an outcome and, when the experiment is performed, the outcome eventuates, this is counted as evidence for the theory or hypothesis. Why, Ratzsch asks, do scientists neglect to apply this principle to theories outside the traditional realm of science? If this is a general principle of reasoning, ought it not to apply elsewhere?

This, of course, is not a conclusive argument, but the fact that the basic premises that underlie the very possibility of doing science "fall out" of monotheism at the very least makes the success of science a contributor to whatever epistemic warrant there may be for belief in God. Furthermore, this completely undermines any claim that science must make some presumption of philosophical naturalism (where naturalism is used in a stronger sense than that in which I used it here where I meant only the belief that whatever natural laws there are have no exceptions. Ratzsch, and most others, use naturalism in a strong sense as the denial of the existence of anything supernatual, as e.g. God or the soul). After all, it was a form of supernaturalism that enabled the development of science in the first place.

It is important to keep track of what this argument justifies ("proves" is perhaps too strong a word for it, though I find it extremely compelling). Science, under this argument, provides direct support for only that part of Christian belief which predicted the success of science - namely, the belief that a being who is or was intelligent and rational is or was the creator and/or sustainer of the universe. This, however, is a big step.

Infinite Regress of Naturalistic Explanations: So What About Those Turtles? Ratzsch's turtle reference was familiar to me from a passage in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding which he does not cite and which I am too lazy to look up [UPDATE (7/20, 17:34): the citation is EHU II.xxiii.2. Thanks, Lauren.]. Apparently it is discussed elsewhere as well, and is generally fairly widely known. The idea is this: a sage was once asked what the world rested upon, and he answered that it resed upon an elephant. When asked what the elephant rested on, he said it was a turtle. When asked what the turtle rested on, he said it was another turtle. When asked what that turtle rested on he, exasperated, exclaimed that it was "turtles all the way down" (note: in Locke's version, the sage says that the first turtle rests upon "a thing, I know not what"). This, according to Ratzsch, is the position of many naturalists with regard to explaining away what appear to be design features (what Ratzsch and others sometimes call the "fine-tuning" of the universe). Ratzsch neatly side-steps evolution to discuss cosmology instead (noting that the Big Bang theory postulates creation, or at least generation, ex nihilo on the most obvious interpretation). The odds are strongly against there being an earth-like planet that can support life like us, and scientific thought does not like to see this as being a brutely contingent fact, so they explain that there are many billions of planets in the universe and the odds are not against one of these having the right conditions. However, the odds are strongly against there being a universe with the proper physical constants to generate any planets at all. Some thinkers have then retreated to saying that there are millions of universes, or even infinitely many (either concurrently as in multiverse theory, or occurring successively with multiple "Bangs" followed by collapses - although I understand that the latest data from those who study cosmic background radiation militates against the latter), and that one of these had to have the right rules. And so on. We arrive at classical (Newtonian) mechanics as an explanation of physical activity, but want a deeper explanation. Soon we have special relativity and quantum mechanics. We hope it won't be long before we've got a workable and widely accepted version of String theory/quantum gravity/"ultimate theory of everything"/pick your favorite idea, because point particle quantum mechanics, and in particular the properties of the fundamental particles, is too complex and arbitrary, and there must be something simpler and more beautiful (again, thoughts of a designer creep in) underlying it.

Ratzsch can be read as suggesting that this regression has to stop somewhere, but I don't think that reading is necessary. What is most important is that at every level there is the appearance of a designer. With cosmology it is more apparent than with the more traditional areas of physics that as the explanations take further steps back they become more, rather than less, complicated, and no matter how far you go there is still the suggestion of teleology - that the universe was designed intentionally to support life. The same explanation is available to those who will be open to the possibility of the supernatural at every level, but the pure naturalist must make every more complex assertions to explain away the evidence of design.

The true stroke of brilliance in Ratzsch's article is his suggestion that this regression resembles a Mandelbrot shape - a fractal. The same pattern is visible at every level: the pattern of an intelligent, rational designer, with an intelligent, rational purpose in mind. The pattern becomes more intricate and more beautiful at every level, but it is always the same pattern. Ratzsch does seem to think that there is some point where science must stop; some final equation or explanation beyond which is nothing but divine fiat. I am inclined to agree, and the primary reason I think that there must be something deeper than our current understanding is "God can do better." Ultimately I expect that there is a very simple equation following this "fractal pattern" - another f=ma or e=mc^2 waiting to be discovered at the next level, and perhaps the level after that, and perhaps the level after that, and so on, that will be an ultimate testimony to the brilliance of God's design. But I am also intrigued by the possibility that the pattern may actually regress to infinity (my girlfriend, a physics major, suggested a similar idea to me prior to my reading Ratzsch's article), forming this fractal pattern to ultimate perfection, and leaving the human race with always another puzzle to unlock, for a deeper and deeper understanding of the nature and character of God and His design for the universe.

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