Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Zookeeper God
Over at Jerry Coyne's blog a few weeks ago, a generally positive re-posting of Francisco Ayala's critical review of Stephen C. Meyer's book received this familiar comment from Russell Blackford:
All good stuff, I guess, but Ayala is mistaken if he thinks that God is off the hook for the predictable evils of the evolutionary process merely because he doesn’t micromanage it. God supposedly set up that process, on Ayala’s account, but even a less-than-omnipotent being could foresee the kinds of evils that would inevitably arise. Why not just create a world without those evils in a blink of time, which is well within the capacities of an omnipotent being?
Yes, why not? Well, the first problem with a world like the one Blackford asks for is that it would hardly be one in which anything remotely like science as we understand it could exist.

How in such a zoo--for that is obviously the kind of world he's talking about, where the bloody process of natural selection doesn't happen and all critters are protected from harm--could investigation of natural causes come about?

The first thing animals in a zoo come to terms with is the boundary, the physical constraint. Then feeding time. And of course help when inadvertent injury occurs. Identity of the Zookeeper (and assumed identity of the zoo designer) is trivial in this case.

Can you imagine curiousity in such a world for the occupants of the zoo, however smart they might be? After all, we would assume they were "created" (in Blackford's simplistic sense of crafted) as humans like us in the blink of an eye. With the same intelligence one presumes. But can we assume in a world that did not (like the real one) unfold according to consistent physical laws that anyone would ever develop, say, a system of mechanics that can describe motion mathematically? If you've never been beaned by an apple falling from a tree. Or you've never seen the roof of a cave collapse on a hapless group of children or pups. Or a meteorite strike the earth. After all, you live in a zoo world where the Zookeeper doesn't allow that.

Even assuming you had some community of individuals in the zoo that were interested in the nature of gravity, why would they bother investigating it when they can just ask the Zookeeper?

The response usual as this point is that, well, okay, maybe it's not a zoo where nothing bad happens, but perhaps a world where the more egregious examples of natural evil--earthquakes etc--could have been been done without, thank you very much.

This doesn't follow either. You can't slightly modify the laws that cause plate tectonics, shifts in the earth's mantle, etc without also modifying the laws of physics right down to the bottom. You can't have a "sort of" real world but with protections built in.

It's like intelligent design proponents arguing with a straight face that they accept common descent but that evolution couldn't happen without design. It's not coherent. Oh. Wait a minute--that's exactly what they do argue. Sorry, wrong analogy.

Seriously it's not the wrong analogy. If atheists mean to defend and cherish science, as they should, then impatient retorts like, "why couldn't there have been less suffering in the natural world?" boils down to the same refusal of IDers to accept evolution that atheists love to ridicule.

Furthermore, not having come into being by natural selection etc, is it even reasonable to assume humans in this zoo would have the slightest interest in freedom? Is not our desire for freedom to be explained as much by our evolved nature as our skin color? Our eye color?

Remember, there are no asteroid collisions in this Zoo. No black holes ripping galaxies apart and no supernovae blasting dust clouds to coalesce into new planetary systems. No traces of this kind of turning out to arouse our awe and curiousity.

Everything. Just. Is.

Science in such a world? I doubt it.

The laws we have in this world cannot be arbitrarily constrained and still offer the source material for the study that undergirds the knowledge the human race has painfully accumulated over the past 2500 years.

This hearkening after a never-never land--apparently the only one in which arguments for a benevolent God wouldn't be scorned by philosophers like Blackford-- seems to be quite prevalent among otherwise clear thinking skeptics. Many sciencebloggers repeatedly express their moral disgust with the bloody process of evolution and yet never pause to reflect for a moment whether any meaningful hard fought science could even be possible in the zoo where the Zookeeper never allows that stubbed toe or disastrous flood to happen.

This of course leads to the age-old philosophical question, do we really learn anything lasting without suffering? Yet Blackford seems to think the only argument for God he could accept would require the creation of a world in which we can.



The Deuce said...

All the same though, I do think Ayala's theodicy is pretty awful. His case amounts not to the idea that evolution was simply how God made humans, but that God literally did not intend the direction of evolution, and so can't be held responsible for what it does. Of course, this would mean that He couldn't be held responsible for creating humans either. The "cure" is worse than the "disease" here.

Also, the idea that we need Darwin to "get God off the hook" implies that God was ever on the hook, and that He left Christians hanging with no rational theodicy for the first 1800 years of Christendom until Darwin came along and bailed us out with his idea that the intendedness of life was an illusion.

I just find the whole thing to be pretty nearly heretical, and to the extent that it's meant to get orthodox Christians who know basic Christian doctrine to accept evolution, incredibly clueless and counterproductive.

Crude said...

I have to agree with The Deuce. In fact, when I first heard of Ayala's way of "handling" evil and evolution, my gut reaction was that he was an atheist trying expressly to provide a "reconciliation" between evolution and Christianity that was so horrible and inane that most would just ditch Christianity rather than accept it.

As an aside, I don't see anything incoherent about someone accepting common descent, accepting evolution, and arguing that evolution could not happen without design. Maybe you're zeroing in on irreducible complexity or some specific ID claim, and maybe my seeing design (and/or teleology) in evolution isn't what you were aiming at, but it seems entirely coherent to me to both see design in evolution, and argue for its presence. Maybe this hinges on what you mean by design.

All this said, I do agree that the sort of "benevolent world a REAL God would create" talk strikes me as shocking. I can think of many independent reasons why a good God would create the world we know, and why these objections fall flat. It's hard to fathom the world these guys say a good God would make.

And to think that this is one of the principle objections to God existing!

John Farrell said...

Ayala's theodicy is pretty awful, but then as philosophy blogger Mike Liccione has pointed out, theodicy does not reduce to a logical explanation. It's a mystery. But trying to explain it just seems to be one of those things people can't resist doing, whether on the side of the angels, or not....