Sunday, January 08, 2006

First Causes

Imagine that you are walking in the woods and come upon a watch. You're certain that an instrument of such function and complexity could not have come about in nature by accident or by chance. You posit that it must have been purposefully created by some higher intellect--a watchmaker.

In the same way, many persons who contemplate the order and complexity of the universe cannot imagine that it could exist independently of a higher force which caused it to be and which determined its properties. The universe seems so obviously to have been designed that there must be a purposeful designer.

The watchmaker analogy was proposed in the early 1800s by the theologian William Paley as a way of justifying belief in God from the standpoint of design. Paley's God is the universe's "watchmaker". The notion lives on today in the Intelligent Design movement, which argues that the universe is so ordered and so complex that it must surely have been designed. And if the universe was designed, there must be a designer. (Primarily for political reasons, the designer is often not explicitly identified as "God".)

My own miniscule contribution to this philosophical debate involves the mere observation that Intelligent Design advocates, while loathe to believe that the universe could be "all there is", are quite content to believe in an equally inexplicable designer. That previous sentence is so obvious that the irony it contains might not be.

It all comes down to "first causes". How far back do we need to go in the chain of causation in order to explain what is? It seems to me that, based on our current scientific and philosophical understanding of reality, no matter where we choose to stop we will be in a place that is less than satisfying.

Let me put it this way. It's fine to suppose that a watchmaker created the watch, but you can't stop there. The watchmaker is himself even more ordered and complicated than the watch. Who made the watchmaker? If you're going to explain the watch, then you have to explain the watchmaker. Similarly, if the universe was designed, who designed the Designer?

Most major religious orthodoxies hold that God is the first cause. God always was and always will be; God caused all that there is. And beyond that, the nature of God can't be understood--at least not yet.

How convenient.

We have postulated a God that we admittedly can't understand, and we use that God to explain everything else. Why is that approach intellectually any more acceptable than postulating that the universe is itself the first cause? Why is it acceptable to say that God always was and nothing came before God, but not to say that the universe itself (in some form) always was? I cannot see how one is more palatable than the other, except that we have a lot more direct evidence that the universe exists than we do that God exists!

Proponents of Intelligent Design say that we can't logically explain an ordered universe apart from a Designer, but they don't feel any need to logically explain the Designer.

I make no claims about whether or not an Intelligent Designer caused the universe to be, and I'm basically happy with either possibility. Within the limited context of this discussion, these are the choices: (1) The universe is all there is, and I don't understand how that can be; or (2) an inexplicable God created the universe, and I don't understand how that can be. If I chose one possibility over the other, the choice would be arbitrary. (I suspect that the principal reason the second option is "easier" for many people is that they have been indoctrinated along those lines from an early age.)

Or again: The universe has incredible structure, order, and complexity. I can't imagine that it could explain itself. But then, the universe's Designer has incredible structure, order and complexity. I can't imagine how that can be either. Whichever is true, it is beyond my comprehension.

It seems to me that the Intelligent Design crowd (and, dare I say it, religion in general) uses the idea of God as a convenient crutch to accommodate everything that cannot currently be rationally explained (and indeed some things that can be explained but which require a measure of mental fortitude). In at least that one respect, I contend that the notion is intellectually weak.

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


At Tue Jan 10, 07:11:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

To play devil's advocate: ID is untenable as science but it is a legitimate philosophical position. (It's the ID supporters who tend to be "bastards". They are not content to bet on "faith"; they want to make faith an infallible certainty and damn the doubters to hell.)

To use a term like "arbitrary" to describe the choice between belief in God or belief in "Naturalism" is, well, arbitrary. That is to say it becomes a loaded word that suggests that free choice is nothing more than a flip of the coin.

If a person chooses faith in a supernatural force behind the natural universe it might be a courageous and intellectually rigorous position. (It usually isn't with the ID crowd.)

Neither God nor Naturalism deserves a free pass. Each is a "faith" position. Neither can be used as a crutch to get out of answering for ourselves the questions: "why are we here?" and "what do I believe about reality? (or more to the point: "where will I say 'here I stand, I can do no other'?")

Agnosticism is the coward's way out.

And Faith is for fools.

Who among us intellectuals will dare to be fools and take a stand?

Are the scientists who insist there is nothing beyond what can be discovered fools? Absolutely. As are the "Godly" who insist on a supernatural reality. What you can't say is that they are "chicken."

They have dared to stand with their backs against an abyss to withstand truly hard questions. If God: why all that bad design that is so obvious and causes so much suffering. And if No God: how about total absurdity and meaninglessness.

I am not being "rigorous" in my argument. (It would take too much effort.)

My position: ID isn't science. But science isn't even a player in the arena of philosophy. Science is just this human activity that tries to figure out how the universe works. But science (by definition) can't answer: "Why?"

But where are the Giants of religious faith to say ID is a distraction. Science is science. But where is Faith? Where do we see Faith - not as a crutch - but as a bold cry in this wilderness of wishy-washy agnosticism?

At Tue Jan 10, 07:47:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

1. I was speaking personally when I said the choice would be arbitrary". That's because I have no idea which of the two proposed possibilities is most likely to be true.

2. Why is agnosticism the coward's way out? To not be agnostic is to presume you know the answer. Many people do presume that, but for those of us who don't, what's the alternative?

3. Why do we need to answer "why"? What if the question doesn't have an answer?

At Wed Jan 11, 07:36:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

On agnosticism as the cowards way. Two possiblities: 1)I don't believe there is an answer; 2)I don't know the answer.

1) A faith position, also a conversation stopper. Implies (to me) that you think that what you see is all there is without the guts to say so.

2) Implies (to me) that you haven't made the effort to decide. Is it possible to be so agnostic as to hold two positions (i.e. existence or non-existence) exactly equal without even the hint of a hunch one way or another?

3) MY position. As soon as I think God is the Creator of the Universe I flip flop and think, no, there's no indication that God exists and then I flip flop again and I think but then I'm saying meaning is entirely what we say it is and that seems absurd and so I flip flop again ad infinitum.

4) Dawn's position. Trying to answer such questions is striving after the wind.

Basically I'm saying it's much easier to not have an opinion (agnosticism) than to declare one (faith). At least if I flip flop I recognize the implications (contradictions) of each position. (Actually, for many people it's easier to declare a faith position BECAUSE they haven't considered the implications.)

Why ask why? Because we do. Whether or not there IS an answer we all ask the 'Why' question. It's human nature.

Dawn is probably right. I just think striving after the wind is a useful practice in trying to figure out what it means to be human and like I said, we all want an answer to that question.

Maybe I'm saying agnosticism as avoidance of the question is cowardly. If you truly end up with no satisfactory answer, well, what are you going to do? But isn't not choosing a choice?

And round and round we go until we all fall down.

At Wed Jan 11, 09:11:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

It seems to me there's a decent chance that "why" is a meaningless question. If so, then there's the risk of "garbage in, garbage out". Is religious faith the "garbage out" answer to "why"? It sometimes appears so to me.

On the other hand, "how" is an emminently reasonable (albeit still challenging) question.

At Thu Jan 12, 05:46:00 PM, Anonymous bert said...

"decent chance" =51%, 75%, 90%?
I'm curious: What do you think is the probablility that "why" questions are meaningless?

As to meaning: there are lots of ways to interpret the word "meaning".

Linguistically, "why" questions are emminently reasonable.

It seems to me that the question is whether or not "why" questions ARE meaningless. That is I'm considering meaning in an ontological sense. Is there meaning in the sense that the answer to "why" questions are in some ultimate sense meaningful?

I'm confusing even myself. Even making linguistic sense is difficult at times.

Consider this: Why is a prairie more beautiful than a landfill? I would suggest that there is a 99% chance that on its face you would consider that to be a meaningful question.

What about this: Why was I born?

It's harder to answer the second question (although for some religious people a pat answer is at the ready). But I think that if the second question is "garbage in" then in the same sense so is the first.

These "why" questions don't have an empirical answer. They're not quantifiable. They don't compute.

Another question: Is the human brain just a vastly more complex computer? If so, then "why" questions ARE just "garbage in."

And your preference for prairies is groundless (pun only partially intended).

I pose these questions not merely for the answers but to clarify the questions in my own mind. Whether or not the questions have "meaning" may not be the point, rather, the point may be that I "want" there to be a meaningful answer to some of these questions.

There's a low german expression that I got from my dad that calls into question the preceding statement:

Wan wan nich wiea, dan weia en maunjcha klompe koo schiet buta.

Loosely translated: If ifs were not ifs, then many cowpies would be butter.

In other words wanting something doesn't make it so.

Nevertheless I "want" "why" questions to have meaning. Maybe I have yet to understand what I mean when I ask "why".

The question remains: Are "why" questions necessarily meaningless?

I say: no.

At Thu Jan 12, 06:43:00 PM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

Uh, 65%. How the hell do I know? That's why I'm an agnostic ... I don't know. Really.

Regarding "why": Of course I mean rather simply that if the universe is "all there is", and there's no creator or designer who has a plan for us, then it's meaningless to ask "why" we're here. I've neither considered nor dismissed other kinds of "why" questions in the context of this discussion.

At Sat Jan 14, 10:08:00 AM, Anonymous mark said...

I feel like I’m sticking my head in a blender—there are a lot of thoughts flying around on this blog and I’m having trouble following most of them. Maybe we should slow things down and see if anything coagulates. (How’s that for an analytical approach?) Or not.

A few thoughts of my own:

- We seem to assume that the existence of God necessitates meaning and “why” questions, and the nonexistence of God gets us off those hooks. Here, I agree with Bert. All of us have to take a position and live with it, and no positions are easily defensible. And I don’t think God is a crutch. More often, s/he is a pain in the ass. God makes life simpler and easier only for those who don’t think about him/her as anything more than a doctrinal position personified.

I think its perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know,” as long as you don’t use that as an excuse to not act. I don’t know in any objective, empirical sense that Bush is a walking disaster. And I’m sure that the folks at Fox could make me look like an idiot if I tried to prove my point. But I am absolutely convinced that he is, and so that belief informs how I vote, who I support, how much I trust what Bush says, etc. Mike, I think you make similar decisions every day. Few of us know anything for sure, but we still act. We have to or we’d have turned to dust long ago. Ironically, there are plenty of people who say they believe in God but act as if s/he doesn’t exist, so I’m not sure how important that particular question is.

- As far as the how vs. why debate … I wonder whether that will turn out like the particle vs. wave and speed vs. position debate in quantum mechanics: After awhile the distinction gets lost. And, as I said above, no matter which position you take, hard questions remain. Perhaps the fundamental distinction isn’t between believers and unbelievers but between those who struggle and those who don’t.

- My recent thoughts about ID have more to do with believing in miracles. ID basically posits that miracles have happened in history. That position as an alternative explanation to evolution seems dubious and certainly doesn’t teach us anything. (How many people would go to a mechanic who claims to fix cars not by skill but through divine intervention? If that explanation doesn’t work for internal combustion engines, why should we accept it as an explanation for how the universe works?) But then do I believe in miracles at all? To be consistent, I shouldn’t. If miracles haven’t happened in the past, then they aren’t happening in the present. But I’m not ready to believe that God (assuming, of course, that God exists) would create a reality that would be a completely closed system, allowing no interaction with its creator. So I’m stuck.

I suspect that the distinction we make between God and the natural order is false--that at some level, the how and the why merge as I said earlier. So there I differ with you, Bert. Science, as we practice it today, seeks to avoid philosophy, and I can understand why. But I’m not sure that’s ultimately possible.

At Sat Jan 14, 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Mike Brennan said...

Holy shit! A lurker surfaces from the deep!

At Sat Jan 14, 11:15:00 AM, Anonymous bert said...

I took the liberty to publish Mark's comments on the Blog. I think he didn't understand how easy it is to post a comment so he sent it through e-mail. Trust the Jost to find middle ground and make some sense.

I wonder if knowing and acting are like the particle and the wave. Somehow they are two sides to the same coin. Perhaps we learn what we know by how we act.

Is the converse of Mark's statement true: Does the absense of God necessitate meaninglessness and negate the validity of "why" questions? Perhaps thinking in terms of absolutes or ultimates throws us off the track.

Thinking literally Mike's 65% doubt means that for him 35% of all "why" questions are 'probably' valid. "Why" questions about the asthetics and value of prairies are legitimate therefore there is meaning (not measurable meaning, and we may not be able to even define that meaning in a universally acceptable way).

Personally, I, in my literal way of thinking, am uncomfortable with the sloppiness of that thinking. I tend to want black to be black and white to be white. Shades of grey make me shudder intellectually.

But if in a quantum world that's the way it is then I have to live with sloppy thinking. Even Einstein was uncomfortable with some of the implications of quantum mechanics so I'm in good company.

The dictionary gave me an intersting perspective of agnosticism. It says: Agnostic - "a person who believes the human mind cannot know whether there is a God or an ultimate cause, or anything beyond material phenomena."

Putting the emphasis on the word human. an agnostic is one who believes humans are innately limited to the material world. And I would add: except by faith.

But the same levels or kinds of faith are not given to everyone.

So I'm technically an agnostic (with one qualification). Actually it's hard to imagine with this definition that any thinking person can be other than an agnostic.

However I'm not willing to believe that faith is a less legitimate way of knowing than knowing something empirically. It's a different way. And I think it has something to do with free choice.

Person chooses to act based on what they know by the faith that they have. Mike plants a prairie without empirical knowledge that it has value. (And don't say biodiversity is an empirical concept. It is, of course. But biodiversity only has any kind of ultimate value 'by faith'.)

What about me. Sometimes I am convinced the universe is a closed system and sometimes not. I'm an agostic with a flip flop twist.

Most of the time I live as if humanity is in this thing called life by itself. No blaming God when people get sick. That's just the way it is.

But there are times when I think God moves within our world. Maybe much more than we can be aware of.

And I long for a God who will make everything all right for those who suffer and die through no fault of their own.

The question of God is properly not whether or not he/she exists, but if God exists what do we believe about such a God.

I think it was Paul Tillich who said that God is the 'ground of being'. I like that. I don't understand all the implications of that, but it resonates.


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