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.

Posted by Kenny at July 19, 2005 11:09 PM
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The Locke quote is in Book II: Of Ideas, Chapter XXIII: Of Our Complex Ideas of Substances, section 2 (in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding).

Posted by: Lauren at July 20, 2005 4:59 PM

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