Friday, March 5, 2010

Such Lovely Accommodation(ist)s

"Science and religion can be accommodated."

A common claim which you probably have heard. Sure, there are plenty of examples from history where the two come into conflict. Then again, there are plenty of examples of figures that did not see a conflict with their science and their faith. That a person can believe in their religious dogma and scientific facts does not prove that the two ways of understanding the world are coherent with each other--people believe contradictory things all the time; when both have serious holds on the mind and heart of a person, then abandoning one even for the sake of removing cognitive dissonance becomes difficult to say the least.

An empirical study of the interaction between science and religion can only say so much. After all, when one believes in both ways of knowing about the world, one often is compromised for the other. Kepler certainly did great science in promoting the heliocentric model of the solar system, but his reading of the Bible had to accommodate his views of the arrangement of the heavens. Newton was one of the greatest scientists of all time, but he also felt the need to have God intervene in the workings of the solar system (an interventionism abhorred by his contemporary Leibniz), a stance that later astronomers found to be unnecessary. As famously said by Laplace concerning God and physics: "I have no need for that hypothesis."

Today, most scientists agree that God and religion has no place in determining science. Figures such as Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller are both devout Christians, and both argue against including intelligent design into the scientific framework on biology. They both actually believe in ID in some form, but not one that should be published in the peer-reviewed journals of biology. Yet reason and science can be used to demonstrate the truths of theism to these intelligent figures. Collins, for example, believes that scholarship does well in demonstrating the historicity of the acts and man of Jesus Christ, including the miracles. Miller also believes in the Resurrection.

This is the oddity I see. Both would agree that miracles are outside the bounds of science, but it seems they are out of bounds only if science dissuades one from believing.

Take the recent example of a spat between PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne with a newspaper article in which they were interviewed concerning Ken Miller. The editorial choices on the part of the reporter and newspaper certainly deserve criticism; Myers and Coyne both had positive things to say about Miller, but that apparently didn't fit the narrative that the reporter wanted. Such biasing in reporting becomes nigh on propaganda--cherry-picking the statements and facts and carrying not for contradictory statements or contexts fits the category.

What I wish to focus on is a statement by Miller himself, supposing it was accurately reproduced by the reporter. All reporters are liable to not quote a person exactly, and often nuance is something noted only after an article is printed. A simple missing indefinite article could screw up the meaning of a statement. But there doesn't seem to be much reason to suppose that is the case here. The statement in question is this:

But the cell biologist [Miller] also makes explicitly scientific arguments: maintaining, for instance, that quantum indeterminacy — the ultimately unpredictable outcome of physical events — could allow God to intervene in subtle, undetectable ways.

This sort of sly intervention, he argues, is vital to the Creator’s project: if God were to re-grow limbs for amputees, for instance — if God were to perform the sort of miracles demanded by atheists as proof of his existence — the consequences would be disastrous.

“Suppose that it was common knowledge that if you were a righteous person and of great faith and prayed deeply, all of a sudden, your limb would grow back,” he says. “That would reduce God to a kind of supranatural force . . . and by pushing the button labeled ‘prayer,’ you could accomplish anything you wanted. What would that do to moral independence?”

Are faith and science reconciled now? Let's see if things stand up to scrutiny.

Apparently, God can only intervene in such a way that his influence must be undetectable, such as at the quantum level. This seems rather parallel to parapsychologists who argue that the properties of the paranormal is that the harder you look for it, the less it exists. The effect must always somehow remain at the statistical noise level. Miller seems to also want to make God statistical noise.

Just because something is at the quantum realm does not means the effects are indeterminable. For example, physicists with the best equipment in the world (namely at CERN) cannot detect a gluon; they cannot detect a top quark or a Higgs boson. However, we can detect the predicted effects of these particles. A Higgs, for example, should decay in a particular way which can be detected with devices at CERN, such as the ATLAS and CMS detectors. We may have no direct detection of these exotic particles, but we can have indirect methods. Further, a statistical analysis is needed to demonstrate that we are not simply sifting through the noise; a confidence in findings is necessary. Just because the causes of particles cannot be individually determined does not negate the predictability of effects which can be recorded.

Even if God or any force in the universe acted at the quantum level, even if a particular action cannot be determined, such as an electron caused to move in a slightly different angle, the overarching effect should be discoverable. The effect can be investigated if one supposes God has a goal in mind; if God is trying to bring about a certain state of affairs, and such a circumstances would not develop with out intervention, then one can test against the null hypothesis. Only if the goals of God are not definable or the effects too small to be detectable can God remain hidden. But if the goals of God are not definable, when what does anyone mean by the very term "God"? If any state of affairs is compatible with the desires of this being, then there is no understanding of what God is. If a physicist declared the existence of a particle, but could not describe any of its properties then he made no prediction at all. If Miller or any theologian cannot say what properties God has or what circumstances God prefers, then there is no concept to be understood. Unless God can be distinguished between no-God, the null hypothesis, then there is no "God" to talk about.

Besides, having God interact at the quantum level does not undo the fact that God is breaking the laws of physics. Just because a violation is not noticeable does not mean it is not a violation. Just because a rape victim does not report the incident does not mean her rights were not violated. Similarly, if God is going to the subatomic realm to give or take momentum from a particle, even if undetectable, this is still a violation of conservation of momentum; any intervention is a change of the natural state of things. Victor Stenger, a physicist himself, makes this point in his book The New Atheism.

Ultimately, Miller wants his God to perform miracles, but he wants those miracles to be scientifically safe. He is trying to make a proposition that sounds scientific but breaks the cardinal rule of the very philosophy of science: falsifiability. By protecting the interventions of God from such scrutiny he is in the same boat as all pseudo-scientists.

This is also apparent in his excuse for why God doesn't regrow the limbs of amputees. If such a God existed that would regrow limbs and does not, that's a disproved God claim.

However, Miller gives a more philosophical reason why God does not answer prayers for the delimbed. If God did answer prayers such as these, this would take away our moral independence, God now just some supranatural force. Perhaps this makes more sense if prayers could get you anything you wanted, but that is Miller's re-characterization of the problem. The issue that God will do anything at request, but that God does nothing upon request. Every time prayer is properly tested it if found to be no more helpful that nothing, and perhaps even worse than nothing. The problem isn't God doesn't answer all prayers, it's that God doesn't answer prayers any better than chance. Like George Carlin suggested, you might as well pray to Joe Pesci because it's just as likely to happen.

Moreover, Miller does believe that God is a supranatural force, one that acts at the quantum level. Miller thus contradicts himself in no time flat.

What is more hypocritical is that the God Miller believes in has done supernatural actions in the past. Jesus of the New Testament does cure the sick, the blind, and so on. Did their moral independence dry up, or does their self-determination not matter? What about the very unnatural return of Jesus from the dead? And as for loosing moral independence, if you believe that you will be resurrected from the dead to go to heaven simply by believing in the Nicene Creed (remember, Miller is a Roman Catholic), does not that belief remove the will to help the sick if you think they will be fixed up anyways after the Second Coming? All Miller can do is make the miracles happen later instead of now. And what happens to moral independence in heaven, again which Mill believes in? Will there be suffering and limbless souls as well? This stance is simply a cop-out for why prayers fails.

This should also be discomforting to the religious person that does have faith in prayer. Many people do think God answers prayers, and the New Testament makes clear that faith in God does bring about healing (cf. Matt 15, esp. v. 28). So, like all accommodationists, Miller has to discredit some aspect of the faith in order to reconcile it will his philosophy. Miller does not have the faith the size of a mustard seed, but he does have the rationalization of a mountain. Perhaps this is why the strongly religious and irreligious are not moved.

Ultimately, I think the entire stance of Miller can be made much less verbose without the loose of understanding: "God works in mysterious ways." To me, this is unfortunately equivalent to "I have no idea what's goin' on." "God" becomes just a word with psychological baggage for the adherent. Most people come to believe in the mysterious for not-so-smart reasons, and then those beliefs are rationalized as much as possible. Eventually the cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable to many, including one listening to these rationalizations.

This is not to say that there is no argument to be made for the existence of God. Miller and others bring up the fine-tuning of the constants of the universe for life. It is a scientific argument and one that requires research; it is more than simple assertion. Even if unpersuasive, such as argument is a million times better than the ad hoc and post hoc reasons given to reconcile the way one sees how the world works and the way we want to believe the world works.

In this test case, the ideas of science and religion are not so easily reconciled. It seems similar to the rationalizations of Pierre d'Ailly in trying to defend his Christian astrology. Bizarre arguments, such as the stars themselves have transmitted their interactions to the astrologers so that the methods are not so random in reality, are the bread and butter of desperate attempts to justify what has no real good justification. If the will to believe is strong enough, it can overcome cognitive dissonance; however, it cannot make it go away, and that is why Miller really can't win.

No comments: