1/29/2009

THEODICY

Nick Matzke, over at the Panda's Thumb, acknowledges the passing of Michalel Majerus, one of the world's top lepidoperists and arguably the expert on Biston bistularia, the famous peppered moth. Nick says a great deal in his post that is good and which needs to be said about a great scientist, but it's what he says at the beginning that really struck me, because it can be said about quite a few of us, when all is said and done, scientists or otherwise:

This is very hard to understand, as he was quite young and in the midst of a very productive career.

Yes. I agree with Nick.

The character of the natural world is not, and has never been, consistent with most conceptions of deity, including the God of the Bible. The doctrine of the Fall is the most common way in which Christians attempt to address the fact that the world which their Creator has made does not always seem as Yahweh claimed:

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day (Gen 1:31)

Ontological arguments (this is an especially interesting one) quite often assert that imperfect beings (such as ourselves) can not achieve perfection, and yet we obviously can conceptualize entities that are in and of themselves perfect: the sort of circles, for example, that do not exist in nature because they perfectly express an irrational number. These arguments further assert that imperfect beings can not really produce perfection, even conceptually. Thus we imperfect beings can not be said to be the true source of the perfection we conceptualize: it is, some folk maintain, a sign of another realm, defined by the Perfect.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's begging the question, or a sort of self-delusion about the sorts of positive assertions which are possible. Maybe it's logically possible, but does not rise to the level of a proof. Who knows? The armchair philosophers like Stan have fiddled back and forth with this without proving one thing one way or another....kind of like belief and non-belief in general.

Nevertheless, when I conceptualize a Perfect Being, that totem does not have the characteristics that I associate with the natural world. Dawkins makes a similar (but not identical) point with absolutely crystalline brutality:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

And yet, here we poor creatures are, hardly indifferent to each other's suffering, obsessing about good and evil, children of that same universe! Strange!

2 comments:

Ian H Spedding FCD said...

I wonder how many other civilizations have, like ourselves, struggled slowly and painfully into existence on other planets, only to be snuffed out by a passing asteroid or wave of intense cosmic radiation or black hole before they had the means to save themselves. Perhaps we will be one of the lucky ones and survive long enough to escape into space from this fragile floating bulls-eye. Maybe, if there is no God - and we survive long enough - we could aspire to take on the role ourselves and eventually raise up again all those who have passed away before us. Maybe, if the concept of block time or timescape is correct, that is what is already happening in the future where, for our distant descendants, we are part of a long-dead past which they are seeking to resurrect.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Oddly enough, this is the sort of thing that one of the anthropic principle guys (Frank Tipler) likes to talk about. His basic idea is that eventually computing power will grow to the point that we will be able to simulate universes, and that in such virtual universes the beings will, um, 'live forever'.

Seems goofy to me. A meaningful simulation would seem to require more order than the universe can deliver, even with quantum computers that suck order from 'outside' our own space-time continuum. This is the same reason my eyes glaze over at multiverse scenarios and string theory. It's not that I don't appreciate the fact that some versions of Calabi-Yau manifolds offer the promise of force unification. The former are pretty mathematical objects, and the latter is certainly one of the main goals of physics today. I just don't see how invoking extra-dimensionality or a very large number of universes without evidence for same is anything other than a metaphysical scheme. Sure, I'd like to believe that there are potentially natural causes that will eventually triumph in maintaining some minimal level of cosmic order, sort of a naturalized 'afterlife'.

I just don't see any evidence.