Friday, December 12, 2008

John Wilkins on the problems with theistic evolution.
I have argued before that the only sense of theistic evolutionist that makes any sense without doing irreparable harm to science is something like Leibniz' notion that God has created or actualised the world that best serves whatever utility functions God has (i.e., whatever is in his Plan) out of a large number, possibly infinite, of worlds. The primary cause, in other words, lies in the choice of and creation of a world that through secondary causes (natural laws) results in the things and outcomes he Planned. This makes absolutely no scientific difference whatsoever, and so it consonant with the best scientific explanation. But because a great many theists seem to think of God as a kind of Great Pointy Haired Manager, who acts to micromanage everything in the universe, they insist that to be a theist is necessarily to give up some of the explanatory power of science in favour of a providential account (which we cannot know anyway, because God's Ways are Mysterious).

5 comments:

Deuce said...

I don't think that the sort of "theistic evolutionist" Wilkins has in mind "without doing irreparable harm to science" does any better at circumventing the scientific "problems" that he articulates than do the versions of theistic evolution that he denounces.

Let's look at some of the things that Christians necessarily believe about man. Above all, we believe that man was intended to exist by God. In particular, we believe that man was made "in the Image" of God. This means, above all, that we have an immortal spiritual nature. Our minds are capable of interacting with and experiencing the spiritual, which is real, and not some projection of our neurons.

We have a moral sense, and as Christians, we believe that what our moral sense perceives is a genuine, objective reality. Universal moral truth is a real (though non-physical) thing that our minds can interact with, and our perception of it can affect our physical behavior. As with the spiritual, a person cannot be a Christian and believe moral truth to be a mere evolutionary-contrived projection of our neurons. And sin is an actual choice, a decision we make to act against God, and not just us acting out our evolutionary programming (in which case, we would need no redemption from God for it).

These views about man are especially important in Christianity, since the whole idea of God literally incarnating as a man depends on the concept of man being a spiritual being created in the Image of God.

Okay, let's go back to Wilkins' scenario, and imagine God deciding to actualize the world that will serve his goal. God's goal is to make a creature that is in His Image. A creature that is not entirely physical, but has a spiritual component, and a mind that is capable of perceiving the timeless moral law. And this mind isn't some epiphenomenon, but must be interwoven with the creature's physical self such that the creature is capable of physically acting based on its spiritual and moral awareness. Finally, this creature must be such that God Himself can incarnate as one.

So, how would God go about actualizing a Universe with such a creature?

Well, logically we can see that there are two ways:

First of all, God could make a universe with a sophisticated set of physical laws that are specially made to guarantee the emergence of precisely such a creature. Essentially, this would mean that humans, with all the traits described above, are "front-loaded" into the physical laws of the universe.

This would imply that there are lots of physical laws that we haven't discovered yet, specifically geared towards causing humans to exist. This is hardly of "absolutely no scientific difference whatsoever" as Wilkins would require.

The second possibility would be that God could make a universe where the existence of mankind wasn't required by physical laws, but instead would come about by a tightly predetermined, extremely improbable series of events that He sets off from the beginning of the universe, like a series of dominoes.

But this, from our perspective, isn't substantially different from the "providential account" that Wilkins dislikes so much. In either case, man originates by a series of very improbable events that God uses to "guide" evolution to make man. The only logical difference between the two is in whether God acted before or after the universe had begun to make those same unlikely events happen.

However, for people looking back, there would be no way to tell which it was, and the results and the explanation for those results would be the same: a series of unlikely events that wouldn't have happened if they hadn't been intended to happen. Which is to say, if Wilkins doesn't like the "providential" account, he has every reason to dislike the "actualized world" account.

What my point boils down to is, it's impossible to be a theist at all, without running afoul of Wilkins once you hammer out the logical implications of your position.

The crux of the matter is, did God intend for man to exist, and did he act to ensure that man would exist? If you answer affirmatively to those questions, you're at some point going to end up stepping on the "explanatory power" of any explanation that tries to account for man's intendedness as an illusion, no matter how you try to finesse the two. If you answer negatively to either, you can't be a consistent Christian.

For my part, it escapes me why I should care that Wilkins thinks that some explanation does "irreparable harm to science". Does science have some exhaustive record of every event that has ever happened leading to the origin of man, together with proof that all of those events weren't intended to happen? No, of course not. Wilkins argument is instead that such explanations "irreparably harm science" by undermining (ie, contradicting the truth of) the best scientific explanation.

Well, how about those other traits of man I mentioned above, such as our spiritual nature, our moral sense, our awareness of God, or our consciousness? Those things do "irreparable harm to science" in *exactly* the same fashion as a theistic account of man's origin does. That is to say, being a realist about those things necessarily contradicts the best materialistic account that science can come up with, just as being a realist about man's apparent design contradicts the best materialistic account of his origin. Does that mean that we Christians are obligated to throw out our belief in those things as well?

I think that, if you are a Christian who agrees with the idea that science must be methodologically naturalistic, you at some point need to accept that your best scientific accounts of man (both what he is and how he got here), if taken to be literally true, are going to contradict what you believe as a Christian.

I don't see how this is a fatal problem though, if you can keep your methodology and your ontology separate, and don't insist on your best naturalistic accounts being just that - the best naturalistic accounts - and not actually, 100% true.

John S. Wilkins said...

You could at least have responded at my blog so I could reply. But I don't think you quite get the point of my argument. There are no "hidden powers" that generate humans by necessity in the neo-Leibnizian view. There are only the ordinary laws of nature that we already know a lot about. What is different is that in some possible (simulated) worlds these laws output humans, and that is what God wants, so he chooses to instantiate those worlds and not the other ones where green bugeyed monsters evolved. Also, the issue of a soul is irrelevant since the existence of souls is scientifically undetectable and anyway traditional theism has God creating these directly.

Deuce said...

There are no "hidden powers" that generate humans by necessity in the neo-Leibnizian view. There are only the ordinary laws of nature that we already know a lot about.

Well, no, that's not quite true. You're going to be left with the question, what caused evolution to make humans instead of green-eyed bug monsters? Or instead of just making an endless series of better-adapted microbes? Or instead of any of the other conceivable routes it should have taken?

The theist is either going to have to answer that it was necessitated by physical laws that we *don't* know about, or that it was necessitated by acts of God's intention "guiding" evolution to a predetermined outcome via a series of otherwise unlikely events. This is the case regardless of whether the theist is of a "Leibniz" bent or a "providentialist" bent.

Also, the issue of a soul is irrelevant since the existence of souls is scientifically undetectable...

And "providentialist" acts of God in the past are likewise scientifically undetectable. Arguably, you could potentially infer them in some way via some sort of probabilistic method, but if so, you could do the same thing under a "Leibniz" account as well.

The point is, the difference between a "Leibniz" account and a "providentialist" account is purely philosophical in nature. There is no scientific difference between them. Looking back empirically, all you'd see in both cases is an unlikely sequence of events. If that's a scientific problem for the "providentialist" account, then it's a problem for the "Leibniz" account as well.

As to souls, they are scientifically undetectable, but not of no scientific difference, because they *do* affect our behavior, according to classical theism.

That is to say, traditional theism isn't compatible with the idea that our souls are epiphenomena - that our bodies are mere automata, with some inert soul that doesn't do anything along for the ride. For one thing, theism holds that we make moral decisions, which it certainly holds to have something to do with our souls.

Or to put it in summary, classical theism holds that the best possible scientific explanation for human behavior (with "scientific" being understood to imply naturalistic) will be false.

...and anyway traditional theism has God creating these directly.

Well, for one thing, I was talking about the operation of the soul, not it's origin. And for another, how does God creating our souls directly not qualify as a "hidden power" just as much as the providentialist account?

John S. Wilkins said...

You still aren't reading me carefully. When you ask
You're going to be left with the question, what caused evolution to make humans instead of green-eyed bug monsters? Or instead of just making an endless series of better-adapted microbes? Or instead of any of the other conceivable routes it should have taken?
I already answered this - God chooses the world in which the desired outcomes evolve naturally. So in other words, God chooses the universe in which the laws and boundary conditions result in the creatures he wants. There are no hidden laws or special interventions necessary, just the choice, out of all the possible or considered worlds, that choose the outcomes God wanted.

Providentialist interventions must be detectable, at least in principle. If things would have naturally occurred in one way but occur in another, then we ought to be able to detect this. A world in which, for example, a distribution that should be a poisson curve but has an anomaly, would be a case in point. I'm proposing a way in which such things are not needed for the theistic evolutionist - all secondary cause explanations run just as they would without there being a God - the divine explanation lies in God choosing to actualise this world rather than the one in which initial conditions do not lead, for example, to the K-T bolide. But the bolide is purely natural.

As to souls, God can create and destroy these as much as he likes, along with auras, dharma, and other non-detectable things. This is irrelevant to whether a theist can hold to evolution consistently as no naturalistic science can say anything whatsoever about things that are not empirically detectable. Hence there is no conflict. I suspect you think that this means science has to say they are real or not - which is not my point. I merely am asking if a theist can be consistently scientific. Any religion that requires contrary to fact claims, of course bis ruled out, though.

Deuce said...

I already answered this - God chooses the world in which the desired outcomes evolve naturally. So in other words, God chooses the universe in which the laws and boundary conditions result in the creatures he wants. There are no hidden laws or special interventions necessary, just the choice, out of all the possible or considered worlds, that choose the outcomes God wanted.

No, I understand the idea perfectly well, but I'm asking you to think about what such a universe would look like. Let's assume that there aren't any laws that we don't know about that would force evolution to make humans. Given that, it's quite possible to have a universe with the same physical laws as ours, but with no humans.

So, let's say there are a practically infinite possible universes with the same physical laws as ours, but with no humans, and God chooses to actualize the one that does have humans. What is that going to look like to us looking back (provided we have enough information, which we don't)?

Given that the outcome is extremely unlikely in a universe like ours, it's going to look like an extremely improbable series of uncanny coincidences conspired to make us happen. And that's also exactly what things would look like if the providentialist account were true.

A world in which, for example, a distribution that should be a poisson curve but has an anomaly, would be a case in point.

Yet you're just as likely to get such a result in a "Leibnitz" universe as in a "providentialist" one. The question is one of intentionality. IF there is intentional arrangement of events towards a particular end, and IF such intentional arrangement is indirectly detectable by some probabilistic method, THEN that intentionality is indirectly detectable regardless of precisely how and when it took place. When the intentional arrangement happened (whether in the process of creating the universe, or after it began) is just a minor philosophical detail. Thus, if "providentialist" belief is some sort of threat so science, so is "Liebnitzian" belief.

As to souls, God can create and destroy these as much as he likes, along with auras, dharma, and other non-detectable things.
Again, you seem to be ignoring the fact that I'm talking about the operation of souls, not their origin.

I suspect this is because you understand exactly the point I'm making - that if the theist is scientifically "obligated" to apply your rules consistently, not just to evolution but to other areas of the world as well, then he must accept the notion that the body works entirely as a physical automaton and that the soul has absolutely no effect on his behavior at all - and you realize that it's an unreasonable demand that no theist would take seriously.

Any religion that requires contrary to fact claims, of course bis ruled out, though.

However, it's not a known fact that no divine guidance (whether of the Liebnitz or providentialist variety) has ever taken place in the emergence of man. It's merely a contradiction of the claim that the best scientific explanation (meaning, the best naturalistic one) is the literal and complete truth.

But, if that's the standard that the theist must hold to in order to avoid doing "irreparable harm to science" then the theist is screwed, because such a standard requires him to believe that nothing immaterial, including his own soul, moral perception, etc, ever has an effect on the world. And we haven't even gotten to things like miracles yet.

Now, none of this is a problem if methodological naturalism is really only a methodology, as its name implies. In that case, the explanations that the theist is "allowed" to entertain in his scientific work do not constrain what he may actually believe to be the case. However, it appears to me that you are insisting on quite a bit more than that.