Cheap consistency

The literature on science and religion is dominated, on the religious side, by a desire for establishing consistency between science and (possibly reinterpreted) religious beliefs.

I suspect that this whole literature is fatally shot through with a kind of intellectual pathology, assuming that mere compatibility achieves something, while not attempting to make the claims at all plausible to anyone standing outside of a particular community of faith. Cheap consistency means very little.
Consider a few examples of responses to Darwinian evolution, starting from the more conservative.

(1) Christians have no objections to the material evidence produced by science. There are shapes of life forms in the rocks. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on the rocks, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as an old earth and the falsity of special creation. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret the material evidence another way. We propose that the fossils are deceptions produced by Satan, who is ever trying to undermine our confidence in God as our Creator.

This view involves a massive rejection of science as practiced in a secular environment. But in a backhanded way, it also asserts compatibility. If we had good reason to believe in a deceptive Adversary, a Revealed story of salvation and so forth, we could very well interpret fossils very differently in such a context. Note also that there is no rejection of material evidence.

(2) Christians have no objections to the material evidence produced by science. There are shapes of life forms in the rocks. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on the rocks, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as an old earth and the falsity of special creation. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret the material evidence another way. We propose that the fossils were deposited during Noah’s Flood. Indeed, we can show that it is possible that a worldwide flood, if it happened just the right way, could have produced the available material evidence. Furthermore, a supernaturally initiated Flood can solve other puzzles. For example, we have no objection to the basic physical phenomenon of radioactive decay. But such a massive catastrophe as Noah’s Flood also invalidates assumptions that go into radiometric dating. Radioactivity does not prove an old earth: the clocks are all messed up due to catastrophic events secular science has not accounted for.

This seems nearly as radical as the Satan scenario in (1). But it is nowhere near as categorical a rejection of science. People who fancy themselves “creation-scientists” often put a lot of detailed work into developing their “creation model.” Creationism is, in fact, not at all a rejection of science. It is an attempt to achieve consistency between science—a highly valued enterprise—and traditional doctrines.

(3) Christians have no objections to the material evidence or even the theories produced by science. Evolution happened: life forms are related by common descent. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on evolution, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as the lack of divine creative activity in the history of life. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret evolution another way. We propose that God guided evolution, that mutations are not blind. Quantum randomness, in fact, opens a door for divine action that does not violate any of the natural laws that God Himself decreed.

This is a much more liberal point of view. It’s much friendlier toward science as it stands. It incorporates a very strange and wholly unsubstantiated claim—that what physicists think is random is in fact not random—but there is enough difficulty in directly testing such a claim that it still seems superficially compatible with the state of play in modern science.

(4) Christians have no objections to anything produced by science. Evolution happened exactly as scientists think it did: life forms are related by common descent, and blind selection-and-variation is responsible for complex adaptations. But faithful Christians must reject the secular interpretive framework imposed on evolution, which is what leads to unacceptable conclusions such as that God did not create life. Christian belief has internal resources, which make sense within the framework of faith, to interpret evolution another way. We propose that God used unguided evolution to accomplish his purposes, including the fashioning of moral agents such as human beings. God also wanted to achieve maximum autonomy—and eventual free will—in his creations. To do this, God had to set in motion an evolutionary process, including its aspects that to us look unguided, wasteful, and prone to generate immense suffering.

On the face of it, such a theology is fully compatible with everything in science, contributing mainly a metaphysical gloss on top of the story of evolution. The “God” invoked here does no explanatory or predictive work, but generic theism is vague enough about the purposes of God that just about anything can be interpreted to be the unfolding of some divine purpose or other.

Now, such theological responses as (1)-(4) usually get discussed in terms of their degree of compatibility with science, with (4) as the best and (1) the worst. But I tried to present them here in a way that emphasizes what I think is a deep similarity between all of them. All are examples of motivated reasoning, in that their God is an external imposition on science due to prior commitments, not a concept brought up to explain genuine puzzles about evolution. (1) is a ridiculous conspiracy theory involving all sorts of hidden motivations, but so is (4).

If so, I think that on an intellectual level, there are occasions where those of us approaching such debates from a scientific perspective should treat sophisticated theologians on the same level as their creationist counterparts. Cheap consistency with science means nothing—we should demand that theological stories about divine intentions solve some genuine puzzles, contribute to some real explanation. Otherwise, we should not take them seriously. Just like creationists, we should limit our engagement and dialogue with even more liberal theologians. It just encourages the bastards.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Taner,

    I think this lays out beautifully the theist's dilemma with respect to science and religion. There really is no very attractive resting place between the two poles of confrontation and accommodation. Confrontation, going head-to-head against the best-confirmed theories and discoveries of science, lands you in pseudoscience and obscurantism. The limit of accommodation, on the other hand is complete irrelevance, with a claim that has no explanatory or predictive work to do. As Darwin noted long ago, it is trivially easy to accommodate God with science. You just say that God willed whatever is the case. As Darwin noted,though, the downside of such an accommodation is that God-talk is then trivialized; saying "God did it" does not tell us anything new. Such talk is merely a roundabout and tendentious way of asserting that what is so is so. Why invoke God if everything is exactly as it would be given no God?

    Well, then, is there a middle path, a course for theists somewhere between confrontation and accommodation? As you post makes abundantly clear, however, any such via media is in danger of inheriting the vices of the extremes. The more God's activity is involved in the quotidian operations of the universe, the harder it is to avoid conflict with science. On the other hand, the more God is removed from the details–maybe by restricting his creative action to kick-starting the big bang–the less relevant and religiously interesting God is. It is hard to feel any religious fervor for a distant, deistic entity or unmoved mover. So, it is hard to see a good place for the theist to come down. Fine job.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Taner Edis said…

    …those of us approaching such debates from a scientific perspective should treat sophisticated theologians on the same level as their creationist counterparts. Cheap consistency with science means nothing—we should demand that theological stories about divine intentions solve some genuine puzzles, contribute to some real explanation. Otherwise, we should not take them seriously.
    =============
    Comment:

    I take it that Swinburne falls into category (4), right?

    Swinburne would argue that Christian theism provides an explanation for many general features of the universe: the existence of the universe, the existence of "simple" natural laws, the physical conditions required for the evolution of human bodies, etc.

    Does his thinking fail to meet your demand? How so? Should we not take his thinking seriously? Should we treat Swinburne's case for God like we would treat the thinking of a scientific creationist?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley,

    As I see it, the basic problem with Swinburne is that he has trouble showing exactly why these things are improbable given naturalism. If we take naturalism as the view that the universe is a brute fact, which is how I think Swinburne sees it, then such facts as that the universe exists, that it is ordered by simple laws, etc., are merely aspects of that basic posit. Finding a non-tendentious way of assigning probabilities to ultimate posits is problematic, to say the least. Symbolically, where U is the existence of the universe and its fundamental features, such as that it has simple laws, etc., Swinburne's claim is that p(U/G & K) > p(U/K). Here G is the hypothesis that the theistic God exists and K is tautological background information. The problem is how to give an account for the low value assigned to p(U/K). In fact, the shoe may be on the other foot. An all-powerful and omniscient being (where omniscience includes knowledge of all possible worlds)would surely not be limited to the creation of universes resembling this one. Such a being would surely have the capacity to create utterly different universes with different natural laws, or indefinitely many realms of purely spiritual (i.e., non-physical entities). The upshot is that I would say that p(U/G & K) is therefore quite low, and p(U/K) has no clearly justified objective value at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13590531184544289491 David Evans

    A related problem with Swinburne is that p(U/G&K;) must depend on the assumed properties of G. If G is the Christian god who loves his creatures (who, indeed, marks the fall of every sparrow), the amount of suffering and evil in this U could argue for a low value of p. This is of course only a reformulation of the problem of evil, but I think quite an interesting one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    As I see it, the basic problem with Swinburne is that he has trouble showing exactly why these things are improbable given naturalism. If we take naturalism as the view that the universe is a brute fact, which is how I think Swinburne sees it, then such facts as that the universe exists, that it is ordered by simple laws, etc., are merely aspects of that basic posit. Finding a non-tendentious way of assigning probabilities to ultimate posits is problematic, to say the least.
    ==============
    Response:

    Let's say you are correct that Swinburne has failed to show that Christian Theism provides a better explanation than Naturalism for the existence of the universe, simple natural laws, and the physcial conditions required for the evolution of human bodies.

    Nevertheless, it still could be the case that Christian Theism does provide a better exlanation than Naturalism for these phenomena; perhaps Swinburne just did not manage to build a good case for this point.

    The failure of someone to establish the truth of an explanation does not show that they have failed to "solve some genuine puzzles, contribute to some real explanation" (Taner Edis' words) and that we should not take the explanation and the thinking behind it seriously.

    More to the point is your comment that finding "a non-tendentious way of assigning probabilities to ultimate posits is problematic".

    If we cannot assign probabilities to ultimate posits, then does that mean we should not take seriously any discussion of ultimate posits, such as that God exists (or that God does not exist or that God does not intervene in the events of our universe)?

    Or should such thinking be taken seriously only as a philosophical issue, and be carefully excluded and segregated from discussion of scientific issues?

    Also, it seems obvious that in some sense you have previously taken Swinburne's argument seriously in order to arrive at your fairly sophisticated critque of his thinking.

    Were you wasting your time? Was there a quick-and-dirty way to dispense with Swinburne without having to dig into the logic of his arguments? If there is such a quick-and-dirty way to dispense with Swinburne, should we advocate that approach over more serious intellectual engagement with his arguments?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley,

    No, I do not think that there is some quick-and-dirty way of disposing of Swinburne's claims. He thinks that we can have meaningful probability values for ultimate brute facts. That is, if p(G/K)) is the probability that God exists given only tautological background, and p(U/K) is the existence of the universe (with its "finely tuned" simple laws, etc.)given only tautological background, Swinburne thinks that he CAN give meaningful (very broad) values for p(G/K) and p(U/K). Above, I am merely reporting my conclusion, after much detailed argument, that he cannot (see my long discussion in God and the Burden of Proof).

    For instance, Swinburne bases much of his argument upon his particular use of the principle of simplicity. He takes it as a synthetic a priori truth that, all other things being equal, the simpler of two hypotheses is more probable. I am deeply skeptical of his elevation of a (often useful) desideratum of theory-choice to a grandiose metaphysical absolute. Further, it is not at all clear to me that theism really is the simpler hypothesis.

    In general, yes, I do think that we can reasonably discuss ultimate posits. That is, I think that metaphysics may be meaningfully and rationally discussed. However, I think that the best way for such discussion to proceed is by arguments that attempt to infer to the best explanation. For instance, I think it is meaningful and interesting to argue whether the variety, intensity, and distribution of evils in the world are phenomena better explained on the hypothesis of a loving, all-powerful creator, or an impersonal first cause.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    In general, yes, I do think that we can reasonably discuss ultimate posits. That is, I think that metaphysics may be meaningfully and rationally discussed. However, I think that the best way for such discussion to proceed is by arguments that attempt to infer to the best explanation. For instance, I think it is meaningful and interesting to argue whether the variety, intensity, and distribution of evils in the world are phenomena better explained on the hypothesis of a loving, all-powerful creator, or an impersonal first cause.
    ===============
    Response:

    I agree.

    Since we should take seriously the God hyptothesis as an alternative to Naturalism (or an impersonal first cause) to explain "the variety, intensity, and distribution of evils in the world" to determine which hypothesis provides the best explanation, shouldn't we also take seriously the God hypothesis as an alternative explanation for the existence of simple laws of nature and the physical conditions that made the evolution of human bodies possible? or is there a disanalogy between these issues that I'm not getting?

    It seems to me that if we can conclude that explanation A is better than explanation B, that both explanations must be doing some intellectual/logical work. If explanation B is not a real explanation, then we are not comparing the quality or power of one explanation with another, just tossing out B as a pseudo explanation, as a non-starter, as failing to meet the minimum requirement to constitute an explanation.

    If the God hypothesis can be shown to be a worse explanation than Naturalism for the extent and nature of evil in the world, then the God hypothesis must have implications that make it subject to criticism and rejection.

    This is a different view than say Ayer's view that the sentence 'God exists' fails to make a factual claim, and thus fails to be something that should be taken seriously and carefully analyzed and evaluated.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley,

    Sure, I think that it is reasonable to discuss theism vs. naturalism concerning the existence of simple, finely-tuned laws adequate for the evolution of complex life, etc. I do not think that Swinburne's use of Bayes' Theorem is helpful here because, as I say, I do not think that there is ANY prior value for either theism or naturalism. That is, where U = the universe exists and G = God exists, and k is merely tautological background knowledge, I do not concede that p(G/K) or p(U/K) have ANY value, high, low, or middling. However, I do think that naturalism vs. theism can be rationally debated in terms, as I say, of inference to the best explanation.

    A complication is the asymmetry between theism and naturalism. Theism and naturalism are not two alternative explanations of the same data. Rather, naturalism takes the universe as the ultimate, brute, uncaused posit. Theists go further and offer an explanation of the universe. John Hick explains the issue between theists and naturalists beautifully:

    It is true that no naturalistic theory can account for the existence of the universe, or for its having the basic character that it has; this simply has to be accepted as the ultimate inexplicable fact. But religion also has its ultimate inexplicable fact in the form of God or a non-personal Absolute. And the skeptical mind prefers to rest in the mystery of the visible world without going beyond it to a further invisible mystery (Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 2nd edition, p. 111).

    So, here the issue is not which explanation of a given body of data is to be preferred, but what is the best stopping point for explanation. Here the inference to the best explanation takes the form of an argument about where it is most reasonable to end explanations.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Taner,

    You refer to a certain type of "consistency" of theistic claims with science. You seem to mean a strict deductive consistency: we cannot deduce the falsehood of the theistic claim from premises that are generally accepted as scientific facts. Since you call this type of consistency "cheap", you seem to think that the word "consistency" can also be used in another sense, one which excludes cheap consistency and in which sense theistic claims are not consistent with science. I would agree with this. To be consistent with science in a more useful sense a claim must be at least plausible (to borrow your word) given good scientific thinking and the best available scientific knowledge.

    I feel you may be making some distinction between "consistency" and "compatibility", but this isn't clear. As I see it, the two words mean much the same in this context, and the same distinction that I've described above can also be made in the case of "compatibility". Any compatibility of theistic claims with science is only of the cheap, deductive sort.

    …we should demand that theological stories about divine intentions solve some genuine puzzles, contribute to some real explanation. Otherwise, we should not take them seriously.

    I agree. But I'm concerned that you haven't connected this demand with science. As it stands, the theist can retort, "Why should they? The fact that my claims don't meet this demand is no barrier to their consistency with science." I would want to emphasise that our rejection of such claims arises from taking seriously the lessons that science has taught us. Science doesn't just teach us facts about the way the world is. It also teaches us epistemic lessons on how to think about the world, including lessons on what sorts of claims to reject. Among other things, science teaches us to be very sceptical of claims that do no explanatory work. (I would say it also teaches us to be very sceptical of supernatural claims.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Richard Wein,

    Well, you're right, of course…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Richard Wein said…

    Among other things, science teaches us to be very sceptical of claims that do no explanatory work.

    =========

    Comment:

    Would 'phlogiston exists' be an example of such a claim?
    Clearly, if an explanation fails to explain, then it should be tossed out.

    But is the claim 'God exists' analogous to 'phlogiston exists' in that it also fails to do any explanatory work?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I don't accept Swinburne's case for God, but I'm not sure whether Taner Edis's objection works against Swinburne.

    So, let me play angel's advocate and put forward a Swinburne-like view here.

    The statement 'God exists' is a personal explanation for various general features of the universe, such as the existence of embodied persons. The universe contains embodied persons because an unlimited non-embodied person thought it would be good for there to be a universe containing embodied-persons, and so created a universe such that the initial conditions of the universe and the various laws of nature in that universe would be likely to produce living creatures which would through evolution produce embodied persons.

    This is a personal explanation (in terms of motivation)of why embodied persons exist rather than a scientific explanation, but whether it is a true explanation or a probable explanation or a false explanation or an improbable explanation, it is a bona fide explanation.

    The claim 'God exists' is thus disanalogous to the claim 'phlogiston exists' because the former claim actually does some explanatory work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Bradley,

    I wouldn't say that God and phlogiston can do no explanatory work at all. But the explanations they appear in are poor ones.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Richard,

    OK, so you partially accept my point- that 'God exists' is part of a bona fide explanation.

    Let's assume that you are correct that it is part of a poor explanation.

    What I'm interested in, given that assumption, is whether there is some simple and/or obvious problem that makes the explanation a poor one, such that we can dispense with Swinburne in a quick-and-dirty fashion, without having to get into the details of his case for God.

    The logical positivists thought they had such a quick-and-dirty objection: The sentence 'God exists' fails to make a factual claim, because it is not verifiable by empirical investigation, so we can ignore this statement as falling outside the realm of science and what can be known by rational modern folk.

    Is there some similar simple and obvious problem with the personal explanation of the existence of embodied persons that Swinburne offers (in which 'God exists' plays a central role)?

    If there is such an objection, a way of quickly dispensing with the suggested explanation, an objection that does not require going into the details of Swinburne's arguments, I would like to hear it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Bradley,

    I don't claim there is a quick argument of the sort you're asking for. Sorry, I don't have time to say more just now. But I'll try to return to this subject next week.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    The argument does not have to be quick. I'm looking for something fairly simple and straightforward and of general usefulness.

    If the objection/argument gets too complex and subtle, then it may not have much advantage over simply dealing directly with the logic and details of Swinburne's arguments for God, for example.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Bradley,

    I'm not clear why you keep challenging me on the subject of refuting Swinburne's argument, since I didn't say anything about that subject. I haven't made an argument against God here (and I don't intend to). But even if I made my best argument against God, I don't think that would achieve the same results as refuting Swinburne's argument. Refuting an argument and arguing against its conclusion achieve different results.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley,

    Of course, personal explanations often have some force in a human context. These contexts are familiar to us and we invoke them daily. Why are Rush Limbaugh's advertisers jumping ship? Because Rush decided to characterize in the vilest and most vulgar terms a young woman with whom he has a disagreement. So, Rush's problems with his advertisers are explained in terms of his personal choices and decisions. Further, human personal choices certainly seem, in principle at least, of capable of getting a deeper scientific explanation in terms of neuroscience.

    With theistic explanation, on the other hand, the analogy with human personal explanation is extremely tenuous, and it is highly questionable whether such putative explanations really explain at all. Ex hypothesi theistic explanations cannot be subsumed under a deeper scientific account. They are by definition ultimate explanations. Further, the divine mind is supposedly so utterly different from the human mind, that it is very hard to understand what is supposedly going on when God chooses to do something. God supposedly does not possess his thoughts in a discursive manner, as we do, but sees everything in a single synoptic vision. Rational choosing on the other hand, as we know it, seems to involve the successive weighing of options. Further, if God exists outside of time,then his choices are timeless acts, and it is hard to see just what this means. On the other hand, if God is everlasting and not atemporal, then his choices would have to be part of his everlasting nature, and the analogy with human choice is still very remote. Further, the reasons for God's putative choices are, at best, only dimly understood. Why did God create this universe instead of the indefinitely large number of other universes he could have created?

    Of course, we could obviate these problems by making God more human. We could regard him as the pissed-off, jealous, hairy thunderer of the Old Testament. However, as sophisticated theologians have long recognized, by anthropomorphizing God we reduce him to just another mythological being like Zeus or Odin.

    So, our choices seem to be to make theistic personal explanations intelligible by anthropomorphizing God and engaging in myth mongering, or we can take the sophisticated theological view. In the latter case, the attempt to explain anything in terms of God's choices inevitably amounts to this: A transcendent being timelessly or everlastingly acted, in an inscrutable and incomprehensible manner and wielding occult powers, to bring about some state of affairs for reasons largely unknowable.

    I am sorry. I just am not enlightened by such an account.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X