Reflections on the god thing

I’ve been trying to read up on chaos theory today, as I think there may be some sociopolitical implications that haven’t been addressed by most of what I’ve read for the book. The description of chaos I’m familiar with sounds an awful lot like life: minuscule changes in initial circumstances have a big effect on things later on. The problem is that life can hardly be considered a “deterministic system,” beyond the fact of death.

But in reading about this I came across one of those wacky theologian-scientists who believe that there is a god despite what they’ve learned about the nature of universe, and then they conflate deism with Christianity  thereby confusing everyone and making normal theologians err in believing there is some kind of scientific basis for Christianity. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. I particularly dislike the deist use of the word god because, in our society, god tends to mean the god of the new testament, and the deist god is not that god. The deist god has nothing in common with the new testament god.

Anyway, this man’s name is John Polkinghorne, and he has supposedly come up with three (or more) good reasons why there is a god. (And since he’s a priest, we must assume that god is the god of the new testament.) I am familiar with these, to some extent.

According to wikipedia, they are:

The intelligibility of the universe:

One would anticipate that evolutionary selection would produce hominid minds apt for coping with everyday experience, but that these minds should also be able to understand the subatomic world and general relativity goes far beyond anything of relevance to survival fitness. The mystery deepens when one recognises the proven fruitfulness of mathematical beauty as a guide to successful theory choice.

The anthropic fine tuning of the universe:

He quotes with approval Freeman Dyson, who said “the more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming” and suggests there is a wide consensus amongst physicists that either there are a very large number of other universes in the Multiverse or that “there is just one universe which is the way it is in its anthropic fruitfulness because it is the expression of the purposive design of a Creator, who has endowed it with the finely tuned potentialty for life.

A wider humane reality:

He considers that theism offers a more persuasive account of ethical and aesthetic perceptions. He argues that it is difficult to accommodate the idea that “we have real moral knowledge” and that “statements such as ‘torturing children is wrong’ are more than “simply social conventions of the societies within which they are uttered” within an atheistic or naturalistic world view. He also believes such a world view finds it hard to explain how “Something of lasting significance is glimpsed in the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the fruits of human creativity.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, I refute them thus:

One can’t anticipate evolution

Nobody has done this before, and I don’t know how exactly you can anticipate something that we only study with hindsight. Evolution is not deterministic. It only looks this way because it is historical. All history looks deterministic only because we are where we are now. If things had turned out differently, history would necessarily have been different. Our reality is historical contingency. To view evolution as some kind of process towards something is to reverse causality and the arrow of time. There’s reason to suspect that our minds emerged quite by accident. Not all evolutionary traits that persist in surviving species are necessary for survival.

As for the comment about mathematical beauty, I can only wonder what that means / proves. The universe is governed by laws, and we don’t know why. The fact that beings within the universe understand some of these laws (we think) doesn’t prove anything about the creation / origin of the universe. It doesn’t say anything about the universe beyond the fact that beings in the universe can understand something about the universe. That these beings express this understanding through mathematics and that some of them may regard the explanatory power of mathematics as beautiful does not say anything about the creation/origin of the universe either.

This doesn’t make a case for deism, how can it make a case for judeo-christian-islamic monotheism?

The Universe is Not “Fine Tuned”

This is a favourite of mine. I’ve heard it many many times and I regard it as utter nonsense. I do not pretend to know how many physicists may be sympathetic with this bizarre view, but I do know that there are astronomers who would be quite opposed.

This view comes from the same backwards reasoning that decides that evolution is teleological. Yes, as we understand life, it takes a very specific set of circumstances for thinking beings to evolve. This could be considered a very precarious balance. But our sample size for this conclusion is horrible. We are basing that on one planet in a universe so big I can’t even begin to conceive of how far it is between here and Mars, let alone to a Quasar. How do we know anything about other life conditions? Maybe there are other kinds of life. We don’t know one way or the other. Finding water on Mars, and the recent discoveries of possible earth-like planets in nearby systems suggest that not only could there be completely different forms of life in other parts of universe, but there could even be earth-like life in other parts of the galaxy.

The universe is so big that in all probability this fine balance does indeed exist in other places. But we don’t know. We can’t conclude one way or the other at the moment. Because we don’t know, we cannot claim that the fine balance that allowed us to come into existence is proof of a purpose or even some kind of deliberately created framework.

And how arrogant is this view? Seriously, human beings are the reason for the universe’s existence? Get over yourselves. This view has existed among humans since the beginning of our history and it is regularly proved wrong: whenever one culture met another, that culture immediately decided it was the chosen society, and it was superior. We know better now. All this claim is indicative of is a nearly baseless arrogance – I mean, we haven’t met aliens yet, so I guess we can believe we’re king of the hill for the moment – and a profound lack of imagination.

Theism Doesn’t Make Us More Humane

This one isn’t much of an argument at all. It’s mostly a preference. Some people would like to believe that the feeling of epiphany, for example, is some kind proof of a higher power outside of them rather than stuff happening in their bodies. You can’t argue the origins of the universe based on the feelings of a few people on one planet…though people have being doing that since we started thinking about this.

As for the notion of natural law, C.S. Lewis, for one, made a similar argument. But take the golden rule. The golden rule, or something like it, arose in most human societies, if not all, often independently. Lewis saw this as proof of natural law. But if the golden rule isn’t based on human experience, I don’t know what is.

We can see how the abhorrence of torturing children comes about that way as well. For one thing, not everyone abhors torturing kids. And in certain circumstances, such behaviour becomes commonplace. But that’s a side note. Human beings would have always needed to protect their young, like any other animals. Do unto others applies here as well as anywhere. But the distaste many people have for eating veal, for example, could conceivably be related to the same impulse (or inhibition). I am not biologist, but it’s not hard to see why more successful human tribes and societies would survive with a prohibition against torturing children than without it (or encouraging it).

Deism is Not Theism

This, the best explanation I have read about this type of thing is via Konrad Lorenz: If we were to grant point 1 or even point 2, how does this even point towards the god of the new testament (or any other god imagined by human beings)? Point 1 or 2 might make the case for deism  but it certainly doesn’t argue for a god who lives in the sky and makes his “son” flesh. How could such a creator have a son? Isn’t that utterly preposterous (and arrogant)?

Why We Believe

My personal belief is that

  1. There must be some kind of biological need to think there is a higher power – perhaps as a way of overcoming guilt about responsibility in tragedy or something like that – and
  2. The brainwashing has been going on so long, and is so deeply entrenched that we are not likely to ever seen the end of it. Even if scientists found evidence of life on Mars in the past, even if aliens landed here tomorrow, theologians would still be making the case for their god, because dealing with reality is somehow too difficult.

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