Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Illiterate Goatherds and Sticky Fingers

I am sad to announce that – with a somewhat tiresome predictability – I have decided to award A.C Grayling the ‘Golden Grayling’ award for the most intellectually inept attack on religion. I have been compelled to do so by his recent review of John Polkinghorne and Nicolas Beale’s new book ‘Questions of Truth’, a short but pungent piece which occasionally threatens to make an interesting point, but rapidly degenerates into mudslinging and snide remarks about ‘the superstitious lucubrations of illiterate goatherds living several thousand years’.

One has to say that the poor old ancient Hebrews get a pretty short shrift these days from the odious Oxbridge humanist. You usually see them described as ‘sub-literate bronze age herdsmen’ or ‘sky fairy worshipping’ simpletons'. The fact that their concept of the ‘imago dei’ - that human beings are created in the image of God - later became the foundation for the idea of natural rights, appears to have been swept under the carpet. Odd that, considering human rights is Graylings’s cause celebre. And what of the fact that the creation myth of genesis - with its orderly Cosmos created and ruled over by an Omnipotent God - matured during the 17th century into the concept that that nature has an intelligible structure and is governed by mathematical laws? (something Grayling should be aware of, having written a book on Descartes). Oh well, we shouldn’t let a mere detail like historical fact get in the way of a good polemic.

We then turn to an exploration of the anthropic principle:

The argument that the universe exists for the express purpose of making the existence of humans possible has long since been debunked, and it is discreditable of Beale-Polkinghorne to try to pass it off on the unsuspecting. In case you need reminding, the point can be illustrated as follows: I would not be writing this on a laptop if computers had not been invented, but this does not prove that computers were invented so that I could write this.

I suspect that if Charles Babbage had known that, in the coming centuries, A.C Grayling would be bashing out articles for ‘The New Humanist’ on an ancestor of his invention, he would have taken a sledgehammer to the fruits of his labour. Admittedly, ‘anthropic’ is a poor title for what is ultimately a bio-centric principle. As has been pointed out by John Leslie in ‘Universes’, using the example of a set of firing squads, we are entitled to ask why the universe is so conducive to the emergence of complex life. It is the opinion of many, including the president of the Royal Society Sir Martin Rees, that were some of the physical constants of nature to be altered by even small amounts, complex life (indeed, probably any life) would be impossible. The leading naturalistic explanation for this invokes the existence of an infinite array of universes we cannot observe; in other words, physical infinity as a substitute for God. As I remarked last year, in order to account for the universe we see, Carl Sagan’s dictum ‘The Cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be’, needs to become ‘The Cosmos is all there is, expect for that infinite multiverse over there with the highly convenient universe generating mechanism, with varying physical constants and meta laws guiding its functioning, within a highly restricted mathematical subset’. A bit of a mouthful, wouldn't you say?. Even if such were the case, as Roger Penrose has pointed out, if our universe is but one random member of a multiverse, then we ought to be observing highly extraordinary events, like horses and unicorns popping into and out of existence by random collisions since these are vastly more probable than all of nature’s constants and quantities falling by chance into the virtually infinitesimal life-permitting range. Finally, as Paul Davies speculates in ‘The Goldilocks Enigma’, if such an array of universes existed, God like entities would exist in some of them. If this is correct then the choice is between theism and polytheism (although hopefully the nastier Gods in the multiverse are some way off). Paul Davies also notes that:

Mathematicians have proved that a universal computing machine can create an artificial world that is itself capable of simulating its own world, and so on ad infinitum. In other words, simulations nest inside simulations inside simulations ... Because fake worlds can outnumber real ones without restriction, the "real" multiverse would inevitably spawn a vastly greater number of virtual multiverses. Indeed, there would be a limitless tower of virtual multiverses, leaving the "real" one swamped in a sea of fakes.

At which point one feels compelled to reach for Occam's razor and begin slashing like Norman Bates. At least, if we were living in a simulated universe it would explain why so many boring and predictable things keep happening. The programmers obviously suffer from a lack of imagination.

Another pet peeve for Grayling is the idea that anyone could hold to an interpretation of scripture that isn’t completely crazy. Not being a Young Earth Creationist is somehow cheating.

The rule appears to be that where science and religion directly conflict - about the origin of the universe, let us say - the religious tale (Genesis) gets turned into symbol, thus sidestepping the possibility of direct and testable confrontation.

Not entirely fair. In the Patristic era virtually all the Christian theologians read Genesis allegorically (there were a few exceptions like St. Ephraim the Syrian). Augustine quite explicitly said that there were no days in creation; he maintained that God created everything in one long act. Days, he held were meant to signify logical divisions. He also introduces the idea of certain features of the world forming from rational seeds rather than the spontaneous creation of the literal reading. Origen (154-254) says in First Principles:

"Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without the sun and moon and stars?... I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events."

Literalism only crept in with the rise of science in the 17th century when people began to think that only material things are true, therefore the bible must be talking about material things and we have to ask questions like 'how big was Noah's ark?'.

It’s also worth pointing out that one of the most difficult conflicts in the history of science and religion was that between the eternal universe of Aristotle and the finite created universe of Genesis. In the 19th century it was said that the fact that that we lived in an eternal universe implied atheism. Now it has been found to be finite and we are told that implies atheism too. ‘Reason’, as Hume maintained, is 'the slave of the passions’. Thus have Lucretius’s eternal atomistic void, the omnipotent God of Genesis, and Aristotle’s indifferent prime mover battled it out of the centuries; the ascendency of one over the other owing more to the prevailing taste than to a dispassionate analysis of nature.

Grayling continues:

And of course Beale-Polkinghorne have to be mind-brain dualists (see their chapter on this, in which their dualism is described in their own version of Newspeak as "dual aspect monism" in which "mind and brain are not identical" - work that one out!) in order for them to keep a place for the concept of "soul", itself explained in a cloud of fudge by analogy with piano and the music played on it: "...layers...indeterminism...er...Penrose...chaos theory...quantum mechanics...er...blah blah...see my book chapter 9, all rather complicated..."

I don’t know if A.C has been keeping tabs on current trends in the philosophy of mind. It sounds like all he has read is Dan Dennett’s courageous but widely derided ‘Consciousness Explained’, or ‘Conciousness explained away’ as its detractors would have it. The most fashionable trend at the moment is non reductive physicalism and the 'property dualism' of David Chalmers is beginning to find a foothold. Judging by his stream of consciousness in the review (or whatever is actually permitted under strict monism) Grayling doesn’t appear to understand it, or to want to understand it.

Flush from his denouncement of the fantasies of Polkinghorne and Beale, as the pièce de résistance Grayling implores the Royal Society to banish their ‘delusions’ and their ‘sticky fingers’ from the premises.

Polkinghorne dishonours the Royal Society by exploiting his Fellowship to publicise this weak, casuistical and tendentious pamphlet on its precincts, and the Royal Society does itself no favours by allowing Polkinghorne to do it. The Royal Society should insist that, as it is the country's one principal institution that exists to serve science, and as there are hundreds of other places where theology and religion are the staple and main point, there will be no more special pleading for and insinuation of religion by religious apologists within its doors.

On that note, here is a sort of pub quiz type question. What do the following historical figures have in common?.

1) Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Francis Bacon and the founder members of the Royal Society
2) Issac Newton
3) Charles Lyell
4) Michael Faraday
5) James Clerk Maxwell
6) Sir Arthur Eddington
7) R A Fisher

I’ll give you a clue. The answer is something to do with ‘the superstitious lucubrations of illiterate goatherds living several thousand years’

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Recusant said...

Interesting that the fatuous Grayling, with his leonine mop, has taken the cues given to him by 'correct' opinion so much to heart: the ones that say that Science and Religion are in conflict and always have been.

I suppose it would take a philosopher, and not a scientist, to believe that. Although as a fellow philosopher, I like to think that some of us are not quite so reductive - or adolescent.

Humphrey said...

Not to sound too cynical, but I think he's trying to improve his media profile. A balanced approach will win the odd plaudit but not publicity.

island said...

Wow, somebody who knows that the AP is actually a biocentric principle. I may actually fall over dead in my tracks.

starcourse said...

It's not necessarily jyust "life" but intelligent life.

Humphrey said...

Hi Nicholas?

Thanks for linking to this rant.

Brandon Carter has frequently regretted his own choice of the word "anthropic," because it suggests that the principle involves humans specifically, rather than intelligent observers in general. However when you look at books like 'Just Six Numbers', the terms are usually much broader; the reference is usually to 'intelligent life', 'carbon based life' or 'any life' depending on how critical that particular feature happens to be. Alter lambda (dark energy), and its hard to see how you are going to get galaxies and stars to form. No stars and galaxies no life. Anthropic simply isn't broad enough.

-dt said...

Great article! I read this blog every couple of days, and this is one of my favorites so far.

Eugene Curry said...

I'd like to refer to this article on Wikipedia, but I need to know who wrote it. So, who wrote it?