Thursday, August 28, 2008

God's Undertaker - Reduction, Reduction, Reduction


The God of the gaps

It doesn't take long in discussions like these for the phrase “God of the gaps” to be mentioned. “This is the idea that the introduction of a god or God is an evidence of intellectual laziness: we cannot explain something scientifically and so we introduce 'God' to cover our ignorance” (p.46). But in the previous chapter's example of Mr. Ford's car, we do not use Mr. Ford to plug in the gaps of our understanding of internal combustion engines. He does not make it into even a footnote of an explanation as to how the engine works, but he does receive credit in an explanation of how the engine came to be in the first place.

So with God. Richard Swinburne:
Note that I am not postulating a 'God of the gaps', a god merely to explain the things that science has not yet explained. I am postulating a God to explain why science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains. The very success of science in showing us how deeply ordered the natural world is provides strong grounds for believing that there is an even deeper cause for that order (p.47).
Lennox continues:
The point to grasp here is that, because God is not an alternative to science as an explanation, he is not to be understood merely as a God of the gaps. On the contrary, he is the ground of all explanation...It is important to stress this because influential authors such as Richard Dawkins will insist on conceiving of God as an explanatory alternative to science—an idea that is nowhere to be found in theological reflection of any depth (p.47).
De-deifying the universe – the very first scientists

An ancient hears thunder and ascribes it to some god stirring himself in the heavens. That kind of thinking is not going to lead to scientific discovery, and so, for science to progress, the universe had to be de-deified.

Xenophanes was not content with the popular mythological explanations of his day (c. 570-478 BC). Noting the tendency of people to make gods in their own image, he commented: “If cows and horses or lions had hands and could draw, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, cows like cows, making their bodies similar to the shape of their own” (p.48). Such criticisms led to the advancement of science.

Lennox notes that Xenophanes wasn't the first to “criticize the polytheistic view”. Centuries before him, “Moses had warned against worshipping “other gods, bowing down to them, or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky” (Deuteronomy 17.3). So also had the later prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 8.2). Now here's the striking thing: These Hebrew prophets, in their praiseworthy zeal to suppress the deification of nature, did not jump “to the conclusion that getting rid of gods either necessitate[d] or [was] the same as getting rid of God” (p.49).

The critical thing to grasp here is that, in contrast to the Greeks, whose gods lay inside of the world, the Hebrews understood God to be outside and independent of the world. Those Greek philosophers who pushed the gods out of nature are applauded for their insight, but the Hebrews were ahead of them from the first. The Hebrews didn't need a champion to free them from intellectual enslavement to the concept of gods in nature; they had never allowed nature to be defied in the first place. Thus, for “Moses and the Prophets it was absurd to bow down to various bits of the universe...But they regarded it as equally absurd not to believe in and bow down to the Creator God who made both the universe and them” (p.49).

Neither did Xenophanes lump God with gods. Despite the polytheistic culture that surrounded him he wrote: “There is one God...similar to mortals neither in shape nor in thought...remote and effortless he governs all there is” (p.49-50).

So the relationship between the divine and nature can be conceived of in two ways: (1) Nature is made into gods, or (2) God made nature. The first is an obvious science-stopper. When you find something you don't understand in nature, all you've got to do is make nature into a god and voila! The inquiry can stop.

Does the second understanding of God and nature also hinder science? Not at all. Because in the second understanding, the divine is kept outside of nature, which means that the divine can not be brought in as an explanation of a mechanism within nature. It is the difference between believing a Mr. Ford built the car engine and believing a Mr. Ford is the car engine—or some part of it. And here Thomas Aquinas is of some help to us. Aquinas realized that there could be various levels of causation. “He regarded God as the First Cause—the ultimate cause of all things. God directly caused the universe to exist and it was thus dependent on him” (p.50). Let's call this direct causation. But then Aquinas also recognized “a second level of causation...that operated within the universe. This consisted in the cause-effect web that is spun out of the vast interlocking and interdependent system that is the universe. Thus, the fact that explanations of secondary causation can be given in terms of laws and mechanisms does not imply the non-existence of the Creator on which the very existence of the cause-effect web depends” (p.50). This means that when confronted with a problem at the second level—the level of why the piston moves, for instance—we are not allowed to introduce first level solutions—like Mr. Ford or God.

Lennox finishes this part of the chapter with a warning:
Perhaps there is a subtle danger today that, in their desire to eliminate the concept of a Creator completely, some scientists and philosophers have been led, albeit unwittingly, to re-deify the universe by endowing matter and energy with creative powers that they cannot be convincingly shown to possess. Banishing the One Creator God they would then end up with what has been described as the ultimate in polytheism—a universe in which every particle has god-like capacities (p.50).

Methodological reductionism. Explaining something by breaking the problem “up into separate parts or aspects, and thus 'reduce' it to simpler components that are individually easier to investigate” (p.51).

Lennox discusses this in the light of mathematics. Mathematics has succeeded in reducing very complex phenomena like the elliptical orbit of planets around the sun into simple, elegant equations. However, as Godet proved in his First and Second Incompleteness Theorems, there is a limit to how far the whole can be reduced to parts. As Freeman Dyson said, “Godet proved that in mathematics the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts” (p.52). Therefore Peter Atkins is wrong to say that “the only grounds for supposing that reductionism will fail are pessimism in the minds of the scientists and fear in the minds of the religious.”

Epistemological reductionism.
The view that higher level phenomena can be explained by processes at a lower level. The strong epistemological reductionist thesis is that such 'bottom-up' explanations can always be achieved without remainder. That is, chemistry can ultimately be explained by physics; biochemistry by chemistry; biology by biochemistry; psychology by biology; sociology by brain science; and theology by sociology (p.53).
Richard Dawkins holds this view: “My task is to explain elephants, and the world of complex things, in terms of the simple things that physicists either understand, or are working on” (p.53).

Basically, Lennox says “the ultimate goal of such reductionism is evidently to reduce all human behaviour—our likes and dislikes, the entire mental landscape of our lives—to physics.” But there's a problem: “There is almost always an unresolved residue left by even the most successful attempts at reduction” (quoting Karl Popper, p.53).

Lennox explains why this is so using an illustration of words on the page of a book. The significance of the letters and words on the page cannot be explained by the physics and chemistry of the ink that formed them, or of the paper they're formed on. Even with language itself, “you cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics, or the grammar of a language from its vocabulary” (p.54).

If this is true of information on paper, it is equally true of genetic information encoded in DNA.

Ontological reductionism. Closely related to epistemological reductionism.
A classic example of it is given by Richard Dawkins: 'The universe is nothing but a collection of atoms in motion, human beings are simply machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object's sole reason for living' (p.55).
Lennox points out that “the words 'nothing but', 'sole', or 'simply', are the tell-tale signature of ontological reductionist thinking. If we remove these words we are usually left with something unobjectionable'.

Ontological reductionism leads to saying the type of things Francis Crick says:
You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules (p.55).

Thankfully, ontological reductionism is self-defeating. John Polkinghorne:
If Crick's thesis is true we could never know it. For, not only does it relegate our experiences of beauty, moral obligation, and religious encounter to the epiphenomenal scrap-heap. It also destroys rationality. Thought is replaced by electrochemical neural events. Two such events cannot confront each other in rational discourse. They are neither right nor wrong. They simply happen...The very assertions of the reductionist himself are nothing but blips in the neural network of his brain. The world of rational discourse dissolves into the absurd chatter of firing synapses. Quite frankly, that cannot be right and none of us believes it to be so (p.56).

This reminds us of Darwin's doubt:
With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy (p.56).

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