Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Four, section one

Scientific Evidence for God (Chapter Four, section one)

The author begins by saying he has shown in part one that a person, “is not a sophisticated animal but a lofty personality with unparalleled value.” I strongly disagree with the claim he has proven any such thing, but fine. Now let’s see if he can indeed, “present evidence that there is a God,” and, “explain why so many scientists adamantly negate God’s existence.” (Incidentally, that last sentence doesn’t work. It sounds like he is trying to say that many scientists adamantly deny God’s existence, which is true enough. What he said means that the existence of scientists in itself proves God doesn’t exist. Once again, this is a nitpick, but I believe it is important to be precise.)

I try to maintain a neutral tone, but what the author says next is so monumentally stupid that it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. He says that if we assume that the universe (the Big Bang) and the beginning of life (abiogenesis) were random chance, then humans are, “accidents: impersonal statistics… A statistic should have no hurts or disappointments. …even the most die-hard atheist, feels hurt and disappointment.”

How does one respond to such a statement? He is trying to say that because the universe came into existence randomly, we are all statistics, and statistics are unfeeling. Yet we do have feelings, so we can’t be statistics and the universe can’t be random. Let’s try to respond without screaming in frustration.
1) “Statistics” is a branch of mathematics used to analyze the frequency of given phenomena. A “statistic” is not a thing, it’s a data point.
2) Regardless of whether the universe “randomly” came into existence or was created by God, we would still be “statistics.” The number of humans alive right now is a statistic, as is the number of people living in the USA, France, and Nigeria, or the number of people who own blue shirts. These are statistics regardless of how the universe or the people who own blue shirts came into existence.
3) “Statistics” don’t have feelings because, like I said, a statistic is a data point, a number arrived at by counting up the occurrences of a given phenomena or the result of applying a mathematical function to a set of data. It is not a thing, it’s an idea. This is an example of the worst kind of equivocation fallacy. That we are “statistics” in the sense that each person is an occurrence of the phenomenon, “human,” does not mean that we are statistics in the sense that we are abstract concepts without the capacity for feeling emotion.
4) Since we are not abstract concepts but rather are physical beings with a nervous system, the fact that we can feel emotions has no bearing on how the universe came into existence.

He goes on to say that,”in a self-created world, there is no order.” I’m not sure how he knows this. It is entirely plausible to say that a world with physical laws could self-organize. This is in fact what many scientists believe to be the case in our universe. Not having had the opportunity to observe both known created and known spontaneously-occurring universes, we have no way to know what to expect each to look like.

He claims that in a spontaneously-occurring universe, there should be no sense of justice, no, “objective laws or truths.” He seems to be talking about moral laws and truths, in which case I completely agree. There is no objective morality. As for a sense of justice, the universe has no sense of justice. People have a sense of justice. People are an infinitesimal fraction of the universe, a vanishingly rare bit of order in an expansive void of entropic chaos. That humans want things to be fair should not be extrapolated to the universe at large.

On a related note, the author now cites the Anthropic Principle, the notion that the universe is fine-tuned for life. First of all, the Anthropic Principle in a scientific sense merely states that it is not a coincidence that we observe the laws universe are conducive to life, becuase if they were not, we would not be here to observe them. It is only as a theological argument that this is extrapolated to mean that the universe was deliberatly fine-tuned for our existence. Second of all, the universe as a whole is most certainly not fine-tuned for our kind of life. Most of the universe is inhospitable to humans. Most of our own planet is inhospitable to humans. Seventy percent of the Earth in covered in water. Of what’s left, a sizeable fraction is frozen wasteland or arid desert.

Thirdly, the Anthropic Principle has things the wrong way around. The universe is not fine-tuned to us; we are adapted to the universe. As Douglas Adams wrote:

“. . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

(Incidentally, I thought of a similar analogy, marveling at how well water fits inside its glass, on my own before I ran across Adams’. But his is better.)

The author quotes two physicists who say that were the laws of nature any different, life would be impossible. This is true, but as I said above, we are adapted to the universe, not the other way around. Were the physical constants different, life would be different. Perhaps there would be no life at all. But the fact that the physical laws allow for our kind of life in no more surprising than the fact that the puddle fits perfectly inside its hole.

Perhaps the argument is that the fact our specific form of life does occur shows that the universe was designed to produce it. After all, there could just as well be no life. That we sentient humans exist must mean that there’s a reason for our existence, right?

Unfortunately, teleological arguments fail because we could just as easily say that there is no reason humans or sentience exist other than chance and natural selection. This is not a thought we’re comfortable with, but so what? Our discomfort has no bearing on whether it’s the truth.

The author says that Judaism has always espoused the view that the Universe was created for Man. This is no doubt meant to mesh with the Anthropic Principle and the quoted physicists. Is it really surprising, though, that the same people who thought that the Earth was the physical center of the universe also thought that the same universe was created solely for themselves? In their worldview, the universe was a flat Earth with a hard dome over it in which hung the sun, the moon, and the stars. In this little universe humans were clearly the most advanced – and therefore important - beings, so it made sense to them that everything had been created for people. Today, when we know just how vast the universe is, to claim that the universe was created just for people, or even worse, just for Jews, is the height of arrogance. If intelligent extra-terrestrials were ever to visit Earth, how could we justify our implicit claim that they are merely part of a complicated web of interactions designed to produce and maintain the human race? (Undoubtedly, were we to actually meet aliens and establish relations with them, religious dogma would be reinterpreted to mean that the universe was created for intelligent life rather than specifically humans. But I digress.)

The author now quotes the Alter of Slobodka and, oddly, James Madison, whose quote is merely an appeal to people to behave in a manner consistent with the Ten Commandments. The Alter says that people are worthy of respect because they are formed by God in His image. I think this is a disturbing line of reasoning, and that it is our biological predispositions and social conditioning are what make us value human life, but in any case this line of reasoning is at best an appeal to consequences.

The author candidly admits that he hasn’t proven God, but claims to have, “established a need for God.” Given the failure of his ridiculous attempt with the word “statistic,” the failure of the Anthropic Principle, and the rather disturbing notion that without God people have no value, I don’t think that he has done even that much.

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