Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why there probably is a God -- review

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse reviews the book, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God.

...I decided to check it out. I'm glad I did. Ward's book is the best I have seen on this subject, and he is worth reading if just for the clarity of hs prose (not something you can count on from either philosophers or theologians). Surely if there were a convincing case to be made on behalf of the reasonableness of traditional religious belief Ward would be the one to present it. That he did not do so is telling us something about the hopelessness of the enterprise.

So at least one person found it unconvincing.

He has comments on topics raised in the book, which are well worth reading.

As a place to start, let us consider Ward's strange interpretation of Occam's Razor. Referring to the possibility of multiple universes Ward writes:

It has to be admited, however, that this is a very extravagant theory. It completely contradicts the principle of Occam's Razor, which says that you should not multiply entities unnecessarily. One of Dawkins' main motivations is to explain the complex in terms of simpler parts and general laws. But that motivation disappears completely if we have an infinite number of universes, and every possible combination of laws. Dawkins resists this conclusion by saying that `if each of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable'. That sounds like a despearate attempt to save a failed theory. The hypothesis that every possible universe exists is the most extravagant hypothesis anyone could think if, and it breaks Occam's rule of simplicity with a resounding smash. If the simple is good, then the fewer universes there are the better.

Skipping ahead a bit:

I agree with Dawkins that it would be preferable to have a simpler, less extravagant theory, if we could. Luckily, such a theory exists. It is God. If you introduce God, you can say that all Platonic turtles do exist, but they all exist in the mind of God, who is not a turtle at all.

This is all perfectly absurd, of course. By such logic we should prefer to explain disease via one demon over many bacteria.

The entities Occam encourages us not to multiply are not physical entities or even types of physical entities. It is assumptions or postulates that are to be minimized. You don't invoke extravagant, implausible hypotheses when mundane ones will do. A corollary to Occam's Razor would be that if physical entities and processes that are known to exist are adequate to explain something, you should not invent an all-powerful supernatural being to explain the same something.

We know our universe exists. The multiple universe hypothesis just says there is more of the same. (As an aside, we should mention that there are many multiverse hypotheses, and not just the specific one Ward considers). It can claim support from both inflationary cosmology and string theory, and it is worth noting that physicists have been seriously speculating about multiple universes since long before anyone noticed the anthropic principle had rheotrical value in arguments with atheists. Occam said not to multiply entities unnecessarily, but modern theories of physics are increasingly making multiple universe seem very necessary indeed.

And while we are at it, is there any particular reason to think there is only one universe? Whatever it is that makes universes, whether some sort of quantum fluctuation or an all-powerful God or something else entirely, could surely have made more than one. You can argue that this is all highly speculative since we have no direct evidence of those other universes, and I would agree. But since the God hypothesis suffers from the same defect I hardly think this is a strong point against the multiverse. Why is it simpler to think that there is one unique universe, rather than think that ours is just one of many universes, produced by some simple process to which we do not have access?

Against the more-of-the-same hypothesis Ward places the God hypothesis. This, he claims, is the simple, satisfying explanation for which we have been looking. Right, because what could be simpler than a disembodied, eternal intelligence capable of bringing worlds into being with an act of its will?

This is where I really part company with religious people, Ward included. They seem to think it is the most natural thing in the world to hypothesize into existence an entity with the powers typically attributed to the Christian God.


skipping ahead:

Could there be an unembodied mind, a pure Spirit, that has knowledge and awareness? I can see no reason why not. The God hypothesis has at least as much plausibility as the materialist hypothesis . Both are hard to imagine, but neither seems to be incoherent or self-contradictory. Either might be true.

I can think of some reasons why not. For starters, the idea of an unembodied consciousness is flatly contradicted by everything we know about consciousness. It looks like an oxymoron to me.

Regardless of the philosophy of mind to which you adhere, it seems absolutely clear that for us physical creatures a lot of complexly organized matter is essential to consciousness. No complexly organized matter, no consciousness. Thoughts and ideas may themselves be non-material entities, but as far as we know they require a physical substrate in order to exist.

Then there is the idea that God, while being himself immaterial, can interact with matter to the point of being able to bring whole universe into existence. This, again, is something utterly contrary to everything we know about intelligence. Here in the purely physical world something as simple as telekinesis is, as far as we know, impossible. There is a deck of cards on the desk in front of me, but I can not budge it with the power of my mind alone. How then does God interact causally with the material universe?

It is natural forces and processes that are constantly surprising us with their fecundity and creative prowess. Intelligence, by contrast and to the extent that we have experience with it, is utterly indequate to the task of creating universes and fiddling with fundamental constants.


At least materialism only relies on entities and forces I know exist, and says that the sorts of physical forces that have adequately explained ninety-nine percent of everything in our lives are also adequate for the remaining one percent.

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