Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Religion and reason

I have only ever seen one religious objection to the theory of Quantum Mechanics, and that came from an atheist. Einstein famously declared that "He does not throw dice" and the "He" is generally taken to refer to God.

When people say things like this:

To me it seems a contradiction to insist that all things flow from blind chance and then to go on calling oneself a rationalist.
they are not, as a rule, suggesting that Quantum theorists are irrational. Yet Quantum Mechanics is the only branch of any science in which anything flows from chance, and that only to the extent that chance and probability are equivalent.

This may be because religious texts do not, on the whole, offer explanations for phenomena that, like the partial reflection of light by glass, are now the province of Quantum Mechanics. Neither the theory of evolution, nor modern cosmology, involve chance in any capacity. Yet both are routinely criticised for doing so by religious antagonists.

The theory of evolution by mutation and natural selection has no place for chance. Mutations are only random to the extent that they are not fully understood or predictable. Yet. There's no reason to suppose they aren't mechanistic; certainly they take place within narrow boundaries. Selection is entirely unrandom. That's the whole point: what happens is simply that the best adapted, most successful, "fittest" mutations are generally more successful than others at passing themselves on because their carriers tend to survive slightly better than others.

The origin of the universe is hard, and might be impossible, to see. It might lie on the far side of a singularity that will always remain opaque. That does not suggest it had anything to do with chance.

The quotation about blind chance comes from an interview with Michael Novak, in which he discusses his book No One Sees God, which Novak describes as "a book about reason's path to God". This is delicate territory; nobody likes to be called irrational. Implicit in most atheist arguments are suggestions that believers are in some mixture superstitious, irrational and blinded by cultural baggage. There is often a tendency to attack back, on the part of the faithful.

Although Novak seeks to reverse this accusation, saying that religious belief is rational and atheism irrational, he takes a conciliatory line:
[His book] will probably struggle to find the special audience it needs: committed to reason and liberty, and by the accident of certain human experiences able to sympathize both with those who know God and those who find nothing there. And to see the benefits of reasoned conversation between such seemingly opposite tendencies.
This is not least because he feels he has a shared experience with both sides of the debate. Though a believer, he says:
At times in my life I have been driven toward atheism, wanted to become an atheist. Was left in the dark about God, felt nothing, nada.
Yet, for him, this was an emotional, and not an intellectual, drive:
But none of the various sorts of atheism I encountered (and these were many) seemed intellectually satisfying. All felt--to me, at least--like dodges. Any line of questioning that brought pressure on atheism was simply defined out of existence or at least treated as irrelevant. For example, the question "Why is there something, not nothing?" was ruled out as a question that cannot be answered by science, therefore meaningless. That is much too easy.
It's a neat inversion. But just as he is wrong to speak of blind chance (he is not referring to Quantum Mechanics), he is also wrong about the atheist response to metaphysical questions. It would be more accurate to say that "Why is there something, not nothing?" is held by atheists to be meaningless and therefore not answerable - not unanswerable by science but unanswerable, period because it has no meaning. This is because it contains what is in such debates the most common of all logical fallacies, that of begging the question. Is it the case that existence requires a reason? If some prime mover is required, why does that prime mover not require a prime mover, and so on ad infinitum, allowing the question to be rephrased "Why that prime mover, and not nothing?", ad infinitum?

Where, in the commission of obvious fallacies and the avoidance of obvious questions, is the triumph of reason?

Novak also sees the end of secularism on the horizon:
The idea was suggested to me by two writers, on opposite sides of most issues, who both have a knack for reading the times: Irving Kristol in America and J├╝rgen Habermas in Germany. Kristol observes that while secularism keeps marching through the institutions of daily life, the core of its living beliefs is spent, dead, unfruitful. Any movement that deprives most human beings of any meaning in their lives is eventually self-doomed.

Professor Habermas writes that the events of September 11, 2001, shocked him into recognizing that secularism represents a small island in the midst of a turbulent sea of religion all around the world. Even in the developed world, as in the United States, religion thrives. Certain sectors of European society seem to be an exception. And how long can they hold out?
A century ago, one would have seen fewer islands of secularism. Half a century ago there were more, but still fewer than today. The deduction, from this, that secularism is in decline is not easily reconciled with reason.

Novak is wrong about the role of chance in scientific explanations of the world, wrong about the atheist response to metaphysics, and wrong about the decline of secularism. About this, though, he is right:
An admirable secular humanism still thrives among us--but it does seem limited only to smallish enclaves. It is difficult to foresee it capturing multitudes. Besides, the examples of those atheist societies that have tried to fashion ceremonies, liturgies, and vast demonstrations (to make atheism discernible to the imagination and sensibility of peoples) are not encouraging. Secular humanism seems better suited to a few strong individuals and to fairly rarefied groups among the elite than to a culture as a whole. It founders on its own perception of the meaninglessness of human life. It offers only the meaning that individuals can put into it--and as easily pull out.
The last sentence is equally true of religious practice, as a moment's reflection on the variety of this surely suggests.

But this is the challenge we face. As the world becomes increasingly irreligious, rightly, morality and ethics remain, broadly, unaltered. This is because they derive not from a divinity but from the nature of the world and from our evolutionary heritage; they are a form of behaviour we developed, pragmatically, as our social structures evolved over millions of years. Yet individuals and societies seem unable to advocate morality in the absence of religious coercion. That's what we need to change.

Thanks to Right Wing Prof for the emails and links that led to this post. A couple of years ago, he posted an argument that quantum theory actually proves the existence of God.


peter whale said...

What I believe or what anyone else believes has no bearing or influence whatsoever on the truth.What I believe or what anyone else believes clouds the truth even if it coincides and agrees with the truth. Understanding is all there is for any entity, strive on for a happy new year.
Have a great liking for the blog although comments from me are few.

Peter Horne said...

I thought Einstein was a deist rather than an atheist. I'm sure I read somewhere that he had declared that he was not an atheist.

dearieme said...

"Mutations are only random to the extent that they are not fully understood or predictable." Like everything else we call "random", surely?

dearieme said...

I withdraw 'we call "random"'. I dislike the rhetorical "we". Instead 'I call "random"' would be better.

Peter Risdon said...

Happy new year, Peter W.

I think Einstein was an atheist, having read some of his correspondence. Some things he wrote seem deist, but I think that was the product of his choice of phrase and metaphor.

Yes, my bad phrasing, DM. You're right to say that random is the same thing as not predictable. I don't think it's the same as not fully understood, though.

I mean that mutations are only random to the extent that we cannot yet fully predict them. That's not the same thing as being intrinsically not predictable. Someone with no knowledge of basic mechanics would be unable to predict the flight of a shell, but that doesn't mean it's not predictable or random.