Knowing Knowledge III: Nature Itself Is God's Book, Dialogues, 19/03/2015

The discussion with Steve Fuller and myself about his latest book, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in Nature, continues today with a discussion of the ontological and moral aspects of theodicy.
• • •
Dear Steve;

I would call the major theme of this chapter the redemption of theodicy. Why I say redemption will become clear as I go on. 

The language of God is the
functional codes of the universe.
This chapter was entirely an education for me, demonstrating conclusively the inescapable roots of modern science's methods in the priorities and ideas of Christian theodicy. This bedrock is the concept that the mathematical structures and functional molecular codes (like DNA) constitute the word and thoughts of God expressed in reality itself. Humanity, being made in the image of God and therefore sharing in the same divinity, can investigate the world – whether through experiment, theoretical mathematics, empirical observation, or computer simulation – to read and write the word of God.

This is a beautiful model for understanding what science is. And I think it makes for a perfect route to replace the idiotic reductive conception of science that comes out of people like Dawkins today. 

It's also a perfect route to defend science from the attacks that scientific education and institutions face from the people you so tactfully call the Creationist Right Wing. I, however, will excuse myself from all tact regarding the Creationist Right and call them as I see them: bigoted imbeciles who exert powerful influences over major political and media organizations who aim to replace science education of all kinds with Biblical literalist dogma. I like Dan Savage's term for them, the American Taliban.

The Creationist Left, with which you identify, faces an uphill battle so difficult, I don't know that you can fight it directly and even come close to winning. You call creationism the sensible notion that reality can be called creation, that there is an order which unifies the multifaceted complexity of being, and humanity can understand that order. 

As we understand the order of the universe more adequately, we bring ourselves closer to God. I'm glad you've finally been able to explain to me what precisely you mean by creationism, because I've always been confused when the subject has come up at the Reply Collective.

The term 'creationism' in popular culture is owned
entirely by people who consider scientific inquiry a
pack of lies, which leaves thinkers who simply
understand there to be design principles in the
universe as a whole stuck with the worst bedfellows.
However, the American Taliban, with their enormous media power and influence, already owns the word 'creationism.' They have set its meaning in all of popular discourse to refer to their own form of disgusting Biblical literalism that breeds dogmatism and ignorance. They would not consider your nuanced and historically informed philosophy to be a creationism. 

If anything, Ken Ham and his ilk would probably see you as a worse apostate than Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, or any actual biologist. An atheist biologist would only deny their God. You envision a God that speaks not in the literal text of the Bible, but in figurative language, in mathematics, and in the planetary history of evolution itself. You profane their God.

To reclaim the language of creationism for the scientific theodicy you describe is, as far as I can tell, practically impossible. Making the battle explicit would bring in the most extreme militants on both sides of the popular conflict of science and religion who would simply trample you under their onslaught.

The only way you could save yourself from this madness is leaving behind the label of creationism and the associated debates, and regenerating the core concepts of theodicy in new ways. I'm particularly excited about how you discuss what you call the Petrine-Pauline conflict in how to express our relationships with God.

My sympathies lie with the Pauline tradition: engagement with the divine in nature without the mediation of institutions, that we can achieve scientific knowledge without depending on a particular path or authority. You understand this rebellion against authority in knowledge as the foundation of modern secularism. 

The now-demolished Mount Cashel Boys Home in
St. John's, Newfoundland, my hometown. This
orphanage is where the most respected Catholic
clergymen in the province regularly raped the
children in their care, with the knowledge and
protection of higher Church authorities. The
reason for my rather extreme anti-clericalism.
But last week, you also wondered why "God is unfairly subject to a much higher standard of proof than we normally require of big theoretical ideas" like complex scientific concepts that are much more tenuous and strange than God. I have an answer to that which lies in how people who become secular or atheist engage with the Petrine tradition where the content of belief in God depends on authority.

Resting the concept of the divine in an authority uses the concept of God for social conformity and to enrich a human institution that, to pick an example close to my biography and homeland of Newfoundland, protects child molesters and gives them control of orphanages full of defenceless young boys to rape. It's an intense example, but it's at the root of why I, at least, am such an anti-clerical guy. 

Human suffering in all its forms is the heart of the most powerful weakness of theodicy, particularly the ethical dimensions of the order of the universe. The optimism of theodicy is also its cruelty. Suffering and pain has its place in the overall fabric of the universe such that it is justified in the ultimate outcome. 

You build a solid account of how deontology and utilitarianism are products of theodicy, philosophical edifices which justify scenarios and circumstances that are unpalatable to our intuitive distaste and disgust for pain.

I will not go to Voltaire's Candide for my refutation, as Dr. Pangloss is too cartoonish an enemy, and simplifies the problem. It's not a matter of disproving the truth of theodicy's mission and conception of being. I instead think of Ivan Karamazov, who does not deny the truth of God's existence, and does not deny the validity of theodicy. He accepts that there is a plan in creation that justifies its suffering, including the institutionalized abuse of millions over the centuries in the name of God and faith.

He simply refuses to sign on to the ethical aspects of theodicy. The notion that there is an order to the universe for which humans are uniquely suited to understanding, and that we investigate this order through our own designed knowledge tools; this is fine, and enlightening to me.

But I cannot accept the ethics. Don't ask me to sign on. Don't ask me to contribute anything to the ethical and political aspects of theodicy but my rage.
• • • 
Dear Adam;

I’m glad you’ve gotten so engaged with the theology, despite whatever disagreements we might have! Chapter two explains the mind-set in which I agreed to be an expert witness for the intelligent design defenders at the Dover trial. To be honest, it was only by agreeing to serve in the trial that I was forced to come clean on a lot of my own views, which up to that point had existed in a semi-self-censored state. 

A lot of other things started to fall into place after that point, including a stronger affinity for existentialism as an ethic of risk-taking designed to reveal one’s true being. I will stop on this point here to deal more directly with your challenges.

I clearly have a more relaxed attitude to the Creationist Right than you do. Part of this reflects the fact that the more scientifically minded people in this camp (so-called ‘Young Earth Creationists’) are trying to mount a methodological critique of the means by which we assign dates to fossils and even light beams from distant parts of the universe. 

Of course, there is no guarantee of success but I don’t see why they shouldn’t try. It’s certainly conceivable that all the physical facts remain as they are but the time-frame locating them is significantly compressed. In other words, the time it took to produce them could be condensed from 6 billion to 6000 years. 

Again, I don’t expect that this particular hypothesis will turn out to be true, but any significant compression in the time-frame for natural history (say, from billions to millions of years) hits the strict Darwinists hard, since natural selection’s plausibility requires a very long time for its blind trial-and-error processes to work their magic to produce something that looks like – but isn’t – a designed universe.

Galileo was both a pious Christian and the
persecuted man who became many children's
first boyhood hero of science.
This raises the issue of ‘Biblical literalism,’ with which I am also comfortable. The literal/figurative distinction is not helpful because it is really a euphemism for stupid/smart readings of the Bible, as drawn by the people who think they’re ‘smart.’ I have no doubt that the Scientific Revolutionaries understood that they were created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ literally -- and acted accordingly. 

When Galileo and Bacon said that God issued two books, the Bible and Nature, they were both meant to be read literally. If the mathematically formulated regularities observed in nature are literally true, so too are the words in the Bible. The question then is finding the right semantics for making sense of both of them.

To be sure, there is plenty of room for disagreement and we may get things wrong, but to speak of ‘figurative’ readings is simply to de-legitimate the entire enterprise. The basic point about literalism is that the text – be it a sentence or a formula – provides the anchor for whatever interpretations follow. It is not simply a touchstone for an interpretation that could have been arrived independently of the text. 

In an earlier book, Science: The Art of Living, I mentioned the lawyer John Calvin as instrumental in raising this awareness – as this is a very legalistic way of thinking about language, the precedent for which had been set by the Talmudic tradition of Judaism but before Calvin had only been intermittently endorsed by Christian intellectuals, notably followers of John Duns Scotus like John Wycliffe, who got the Bible translated into English.

No, none of this justifies Ken Ham’s Creationist theme parks. But my attitude towards Creationists is very much case by case, depending on what they wish to present as science in their textbooks, etc. Only someone ignorant of the history of science could think that creationism is intrinsically antagonistic to science, even as a world-view that might inform scientific practice today. 

After all, if humans had not aspired to godlike powers, we would not be on the threshold of synthesizing life, intelligence, etc. And if the Creationist Right wishes to castigate such people, then they have only their own Abrahamic religious trajectory to blame, because I doubt that any other religious tradition would have ever gotten us to this point.* Like or not, in practice, most scientists are Creationist Leftists – and bully for them! Contrary to appearances, the Mormons have a good grasp of this point, based on their rather adventurous track record in biomedical research, including eugenics.

Dostoyevsky's characters articulated
some of the best critiques of moral
theodicy in the Western tradition of
* Maybe the problem here is that the Creationist Right do not take their Biblical literalism sufficiently literally! 

Finally, theodicy – and yes, this is a source of serious disagreement between us. ‘God’s sense of justice’ (the literal meaning of ‘theodicy’) has always fascinated me, largely because it seems to be the ideal perspective from which understand human rationality as something fallible yet aspirational. We can understand the bad things that happen to us as episodes in learning to get somewhere better. 

But this logic is compelling for an individual only if in some sense you are still around after the bad thing has passed. And of course, people often die or are irreversibly damaged as a result of the bad things that happen to them, whether or not they are responsible for them (i.e. what the theologians call ‘moral evil’ and ‘natural evil’). 

In that case, people need to think of their individual lives as moments in a larger project, so that, say, my death enables others who identify with me (and I with them) to improve our collectively owned position. So, when Jesus said he died for all of humanity’s sins, the task ahead was to make good on his message without necessarily suffering his fate. Those who interpret Jesus’ life in this way – as an experiment in living – are ‘Christians’.

In a sense, this is all about ‘the end justifies the means’ and ‘the greatest good for the greatest number.’** And it is familiar enough from secular military contexts, in which soldiers sacrifice themselves for countries, whose citizens are expected to provide due support and even derive inspiration. 

** Utilitarianism is basically secularized theodicy, whereby the sovereign legislator replaces the deity.

I would like to see this sentiment extended to participation in scientific research, which people may be allowed to perform in fulfilment of ‘national service’ in lieu of military training. But that’s a proposal I pursue in The Proactionary Imperative, rather than this book. 

What Fuller says about Mill reminds me a lot of
what Nietzsche said about the requirement of
pain for progress, which makes me think that
pretty much the entire history of Western
philosophy since Mill has severely
misinterpreted him.
The point I would stress in all this is that identifying with the lives of those who come after oneself need not be something imposed from the outside (even by God) but can – and should – be something that is voluntarily assumed on one’s own part. In that respect, God may choose the time that you go, but you are already mentally prepared to go willingly. Clearly, then, Ivan Karamazov uses his free will to opposite effect – namely, to opt out of the divine justice system altogether. But where does that leave you? Is nihilism a viable position?

Darwin himself – faced with the harsh sense of divine justice espoused by Reverend Malthus’s population theory – simply concluded that no deity worthy of belief could be behind it, and so ‘natural selection’ in Darwin’s original rendering is radically blind to all purpose, let alone human interest. Of course, not all evolutionists drew such atheistic conclusions. 

Moreover, those inclined to embrace a utilitarian world-view came up with more finessed positions that aimed to incorporate the apparent trump card of ‘needless suffering’ into some global optimum of goodness. This is the context in which to understand John Stuart Mill’s oft-quoted maxim, ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied’. What he meant was that Socratic suffering and death teaches us more than the life of an untroubled pig. Socrates’ life was not good in itself but good for us. 

Notwithstanding his politically incorrect speciesism, Mill is basically thinking about matters the right way. Unlike classical Epicureanism, Utilitarianism does not aim to minimize pain per se but to arrive at the optimal pleasure-to-pain ratio – and that may mean sustaining considerable pain, at least locally and in the short term. ​In short, no pain, no gain!

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