Friday, April 23, 2004

I'm glad you asked-5

III. Science

Before we can properly review the scientific evidence, we need to review our philosophy of science, and that, in turn, goes back to our underlying epistemology. Does my perception of the world resemble the world?

A dog or cat is a consummate realist. Fido believes that furry face staring back at him in the mirror is the real deal. But I don’t regard canine or feline epistemology as the best available theory of knowledge—unless you’re planning to catch rats or hunt chipmunks.

Like man’s best friend, many people treat the percipient as though he were a camera obscura—with a pair of holes bored into the front-end of the box to admit images, another pair drilled on either side to admit sounds, and so on. On this view, there is no filtering process. The light that passes through the opening and casts a shadow on the backside is a scaled down replica of the image that bounced off the sensible object. So there is a close, family resemblance between the input and readout.

But on a more scientific analysis, the observer or observable world is more like an enigma machine. Light bouncing off the sensible object encodes the secondary properties in the form of electromagnetic information, and when that strikes the eye, the data stream is reencoded as electrochemical information. What reaches consciousness is not a miniature image of the sensible object, but a cryptogram. It bears no more resemblance to the original than a music score is a facsimile of sound. Incidentally, cryptography goes back to Bible times. Check out the code names in Jer 25:25-26; 51:1,41.

But even our scientific analysis is more than a little illusory. When we try to break down the various steps involved sensory processing, we are having to describe the input in terms of the readout, as if we could retrace the process. We talk about the tree, and the light from the tree, and the eye, and the optic nerve, and neural pathways and synapses and so on. And this is described as if we were on the outside, seeing the info feed in, when—in fact—our mind is on the receiving end, and the readout is more like a little film projector. Our perception of the external world is an optical illusion, like the silver screen.

That doesn’t mean that the external world is an illusion. But it lies at several removes from immediate awareness. At an ontological level, there is a public world; but at an epistemic level, there is only a private world of my mind and your mind.

At this point, someone might ask, then how do you know that there even is an external world? Maybe it’s just that projector running in your head! And, at a philosophical level, there is no knock down argument against this objection.

But, at a theological level, there is. For the Creator of the world enjoys an intersubjectival knowledge of the world. And by virtue of revelation, we may tap into a God’s-eye view of the world. For propositions, as abstract information, are identical at either end of the transmission process—unless they come out as gibberish (garbage in/garbage out). If you understand what you read, then it was not garbled in transmission. It still must be encoded in a sensible medium, but the readout is the same as the input. Otherwise, it would be unintelligible.

At the level of basic epistemology, science can never disprove the Bible because divine revelation is our only clear window onto the world. Otherwise, we perceive the world through the stained-glass solipsism of our inescapable subjectivity.

I will go on to discuss some scientific objections to the Bible, but always with this caveat in my back pocket. For even if we were unable to field specific objections, the world of the naked eye, of the microscope and telescope and other such like, is a hall of mirrors, and left to our own devices, may as well be a trick mirror.

1. Creation

For some professing believers, there is no conflict between science and Scripture because they constantly revise their reading of Scripture with a view to the latest scientific theory. For a couple of reasons, I won’t go that route. To begin with, if the Bible is divine revelation, then it enjoys an independent and superior source of information. That being so, why would we try to square it with another and lesser source of information? Isn’t the Creator of the world the world authority on how the world was made? Isn’t that the natural point of departure?

Of course, there are even people in the church who deny the inspiration of Scripture on factual matters. But in that event, there is nothing to harmonize—for, on their view, Darwin was right and Moses was wrong, period.

As to my second reason, when we interpret a document from the past, we need to turn back the clock and clear our minds of all modern assumptions. The very last thing we want is to be up-to-date. Rather, the objective is to be out-of-date—to assume the viewpoint of the original writer and his implied audience—to see how the world would look through his eyes. No one reads Dante with the Commedia in one hand and a textbook on modern astronomy in the other.

Incidentally, this brings us back to an earlier point. When professing believers partition the Bible into inspired and uninspired portions, this does not reflect the viewpoint of the Bible, but is an insulating strategy on the part of modern readers with divided commitments. The creation account is of a piece with the Fall, the flood, the patriarchal narratives, the Exodus, and so forth. To set up a buffer zone between the parts of the Bible we accept and the parts we reject is a self-defensive and self-deceptive exercise that betrays modern anxieties of which the original was innocent.

To take another example, we’re often told that the Copernican revolution either falsifies the Bible or falsifies a literal reading of Scripture. But the danger here is to import extraneous debates into our reading of Scripture. Joshua never read Ptolemy, so why assume that Joshua was operating within a Ptolemaic framework? Both the Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems assume an extra-terrestrial viewpoint.

When Bible writers talk about the earth, the "earth" in view is not a stationary globe in relation to the other planets, but the surface of the earth. The "earth" is the land—-seen at eye-level. An observation is not a theory of the solar system. The Bible lacks the theoretical interest of Greek astronomy.

The Galileo affair is often introduced as a bluff. We dare you to take sides. If, on the one hand, you say that Galileo was wrong, then you preserve a consistent position, but only at the cost of consigning yourself to the dustbin of lost causes. If, on the other hand, you say that Galileo was right, then you either admit that the Bible was wrong, or admit that exegesis is silly putty; if we can reinterpret the geocentric verses, why not Gen 1?

To this I’d say two things. A Christian must leave himself open to whatever the Bible teaches. If the Bible were committed to geocentrism, then that would, in turn, commit the Christian to geocentrism. Let God be true and every man a liar (Rom 3:4)! If Galileo finds himself on the wrong side of Scripture, then Galileo be damned! Sure, we would pay a price for this. But that’s the cost of discipleship. You take your lumps like a man. (Geocentrism is subject to a number of obvious objections. However, the obvious objections can be parried with surprising ease. Cf. M. Selbrede, "Rebuttal of North & Nieto," I myself am non-committal on the subject.

However, I think the bluff tries to bully us into an artificial dilemma. For it casts the debate in extra-Scriptural categories. Exegesis need not choose between either frame of reference, for both fall outside the purview of Scripture.

When I read Genesis, I should put myself in the sandals of an ancient Israelite, emancipated from Egypt, living in the Sinai, and listening to Moses read aloud the law. When, for example, the first man and woman are told that the stars serve a calendrical function, does this imply the ordinary rate of propagation? Did Adam and Eve have to wait millions and billions of years before beams of starlight struck the earth? Is that how our Israelite would have construed the account? And if I’m not prepared to assume that historical horizon and make it my own—not merely as a matter of critical sympathy, but as an act of faith—then I should admit to myself that the game is up and stopping kidding myself with sophistries and half-measures.

However, such anachronisms are not limited to nominal believers. A quite common and unconscious misstep made by scientific critics of the creation and flood accounts is first to build in extra-Biblical assumptions, and then convict the narrative of inconsistency because it conflicts with the various consequences of these extraneous assumptions.

What is lost sight of is that a critic is supposed to exercise critical sympathy. In other words, a reviewer or philosopher or historian is supposed to exercise enough detachment that he can separate his own views from the viewpoint of the text, in order to grasp what is meant, make sense of it on its own terms, and see how well it hangs together given the assumptions of the author. Even if you’re reading a writer in order to attack him, you need to be a good listener. The difference between believer and unbeliever is that the latter will put a temporary distance between his views and the author’s, whereas a believer will detach his views in order to make room for the inspired viewpoint of Scripture.

As an example of this confusion, we're told that, when measured in light-years, the scale of the universe entails its multi-billion year age. But this inference rests on a number of assumptions, viz., the initial size of the universe, the speed of light as a cosmic constant, the relative rate of expansion, the ordinary emission and transmission of starlight from its point of origin to the earth, and so on.

Now, it should be clear that the creation account is silent on most of these assumptions. That doesn't mean that it necessary negates them. But it is, at best, neutral on such assumptions. To point out, then, that Biblical cosmology is at odds with modern cosmology only goes to show that the Biblical account is inconsistent with certain extra-Biblical assumptions. So what? An inconsistency can be relieved in either of two directions, so the unbeliever hasn’t gone any distance in proving his view to be true and the view of Scripture to be false. Running in place may create the illusion of progress, but the motion is circular.

What the unbeliever needs to do is to ask how the world would look assuming, if only for the sake of argument, the editorial viewpoint of the narrative. Suppose that the world was made at an accelerated pace—say, in six straight days. Would it look old or new? Would it appear different than if it happened in the normal amount of time it takes to run through the life-cycle of a star or galaxy or mountain chain?

Unbelievers often dismiss this approach as sleight-of-hand. Yet it is no different than trying to read Dante through Medieval eyes. In fact, it is the unbeliever who is dealing off the bottom of the deck. On the one hand, he wants us to interpret the Bible as literally as possible because that puts the Bible on a collision course with science. On the other hand, when the believer begins to ask what sort of world a literal interpretation predicts for, what a literal reading logically entails, then the unbeliever cries foul!

Others dismiss this explanation as implicating God in a web of deception. But such an objection is so hidebound as to be unintentionally comic. They think it’s perfectly okay to say that a star is older than it looks, due to time lag, but to say that it’s younger than it looks is downright deceptive!

Yet the objection also commits the naturalistic fallacy. The universe is not a cosmic clock with a pair of hands sweeping out the hours and minutes. The fact that we coopt a natural process to clock absolute time is a secondary, man-made application of a process that serves another purpose altogether. I can also uncap beer bottles with my teeth, but if I split a molar in the process, that is hardly a design flaw. The fact is that things don’t look any particular age. That’s a comparative judgment based on experience, and past experience is hardly germane to creation ex nihilo. The proper subject-matter of science is ordinary providence, not extraordinary providence (creation and miracle). If I’d never see a Redwood before, I’d never guess it’s age from its appearance. Yes, I could count the rings, but that presupposes the prior existence of seed-bearing trees. (I also assume that tree-rings are affected by climatic variation, or the absence thereof.)

It is amusing to see how unbelievers smuggle unnatural assumptions into their naturalism. They defend evolution by telling us that natural selection favors adaptations that confer a survival advantage (e.g., camouflage). But it takes a witting observer to discern the value of a survival advantage. So the Darwinist must step outside the blinkered view of a blind watchmaker and instead assume the prescient view of a sighted watchmaker.

2. Flood

Another objection is that even if we grant the implications of creation ex nihilo, that would only explain the cyclical appearance of nature, but not the appearance of a linear progression from simple to complex—such as we find in the fossil record.

To begin with, permit me to question the premise. I may be wrong about this, but it isn’t clear to me that the fossil record presents such a pattern. What I’m treated to is a bait-and-switch scam. I’m told that the fossil record presents such a pattern, but I’m never shown such a pattern as given in the fossil record. Rather, I’m shown artistic diagrams and computer animations that reconstruct an evolutionary trajectory. These are pasted together from scattered remains gleaned from different digs. What the Darwinist does is to cobble together fossil remains from a variety of sites, and then line them up according to an assumed phylogeny. But is that evidence of evolution, or is the theory arranging the evidence?

Now this is shrewd salesmanship. Ray Bradbury once attributed his success as a SF writer to his picturesque prose. As he explained, you can make people believe in anything as long as you reach them through their senses.

In fact, in my reading of evolutionary literature, there seems to be tremendous flexibility built into the way the theory is positioned in relation to the evidence. Different Darwinian writers make allowance for graduated, punctuated or even quantum evolution; for convergent or divergent evolution; for progressive or regressive evolution, or coevolution or sequential evolution; for biotic or organic adaptation, preadaptation, coadaptiation, nonadaptive traits and spandrels; for specialization and despecialization; for analogies, homologies and homoplasies; for ancestral or derived homologies; for primitive or acquired traits; for diversification or downsizing, &c. Yet a theory consistent with everything is a theory of nothing.

Land animals are supposed to chart an evolutionary trend, but if some land animals revert to water (e.g., whales), then that also supports evolution. Increased cranial capacity is supposed to chart an evolutionary trend, but deencephalization (e.g., the downsizing from Cro-Magnon to modern man) also supports evolution. Pedal locomotion is supposed to chart an evolutionary trend, but if some quadrupeds lose their limbs (e.g., snakes), then that also supports evolution. The cone of diversity is supposed to chart an evolutionary tend, but upending the cone ((e.g., the Burgess Shale) also supports evolution. This either looks like a disguised description masquerading as a scientific theory, or else a theory that has been armored against falsification by being made so pliant and compliant with every opposing line of evidence.

However, I’d be the first to admit that I’m only a layman, so I’ll waive these reservations and move on to the next point. The creation account should not be read in isolation from the flood account. It is not merely a question of how the world would look as it left its Maker's hand, but how such a world would look after having been run through the blender of the Flood. Given that a global deluge would lay down a lot of fossils, it is rather perverse to hold the fossil record against the record of Scripture when it is the very record of Scripture that presents a mechanism for the mass production of fossils.

What, exactly, would count as evidence for or against a global flood? Are unbelievers expecting to find a uniform diluvium throughout the world?

But, presumably, any residual diluvium would vary according to variable erosion rates depending on regional topographical and climatic conditions.

Another imponderable is that you cannot reproduce a global flood under laboratory conditions. So it is difficult, at best, to say what the effects would be. We don’t even know what variables to plug in for purposes of computer modeling.

However, a critic would object that this appeal props up one incredible event by invoking yet another incredible event. Where did all the water come from and where did it all go? Where did all the animals come from, and where did they all go?

Now it is only natural to pose these logistical questions. But, as before, they often betray extra-Biblical assumptions, and then convict the Bible of inconsistency. For example, questions about how animals could cross mountains and oceans, fit into the ark, eat the same food, how fresh water fish could survive in brackish water, and so on, all make gratuitous assumptions about the identity of pre- and post diluvian conditions regarding biogeography and biodiversity before and after the flood, the relative salinity of prediluvian seas, the gene pool, dietary restrictions and climatic adaptation, ecological zones, distribution of land masses and natural barriers, and so on. But I don’t own a map of the prediluvian earth. Since the Bible says next to nothing about these issues, it amounts to a massive straw man argument to make the text of Scripture sink under the dead weight of so many extrinsic assumptions. Nothing has been proven one way or the other. Indeed, the argument hasn't budged an inch.

If we confine ourselves to the narrative assumptions, Genesis says that the earth began in a submerged state, and rose out of the primeval deep (1:2-10); so in order to flood the earth I imagine that God merely reversed the creative process (7:11; 8:2)—as Isaiah says: every valley shall uplifted and every mountain and hill laid low (40:4). This is no great feat for a God who measures the seas in the hollow of his hand and numbers the mountains as fine dust in the balance (40:12). So the way to inundate or drain the earth would be to raise or lower the natural barriers to coastal flooding. That supplies both a flood mechanism and a drainage mechanism all-in-one.

As to how the animals migrated to the far corners of the earth, and what they ate, one can only speculate. But the narrative invites a number of suggestions. The flood would leave an abundance of carrion and vegetable matter for animals to feed on. Because the descendents of Noah tarried in Mesopotamia until the confusion of tongues, many animals had a head-start, which may be why we find some animal remains buried beneath human remains. The descendants of Noah knew about shipbuilding, and where sailors go, animals go—as livestock, vermin and game. Transporting live animals by ship is attested elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., 1 Kg 10:22). Ancient circumnaviation has been documented by Charles Hapgood in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (Adventures Unlimited Press 1996) as well as Hugh Moran & David Kelley in The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs (Daily Press 1969).

The flood account has other realistic details. The proportions of the ark are eminently seaworthy. And as one scholar has observed, "the use of birds which could be released for determining the presence and direction of land (Gen 8:6-12) is not a folkloristic invention, but reflects actual navigational practice...A cage full of homing pigeons is not a bad method of direction finding. If it sounds quaint, it is only because we have devised methods more to our liking, but not necessarily better in all circumstances even today," C. Gordon, Before Columbus (Crown Publishers 1971), 77.

But when Bible-believers reply to their critics, their critics then do an about-face and accuse them of indulging in unbridled speculation and profligate appeal to miracles. Well, what can you say? When they pose questions the text was not designed to answer, they thereby invite conjecture.

3. Physicalism

Many unbelievers argue that mind is reducible to matter. If so, then this undermines belief in the soul, and other discarnate minds, whether God, angels or demons.

Popular prejudice notwithstanding, idealism enjoys a prima facie advantage over materialism inasmuch as we know our mind better than our body or the external world, for whatever we know about our body or the outside world is filtered through the mind. I don't say this to negate either the body or the outside world, but merely to make the point that the burden of proof sits squarely on the shoulders of the materialist. And it is unclear to me how he can ever dislodge that burden. It is like a room with a one-way door.

There is a presumption in favor of the immaterial mind. As Dr. Johnson puts it in popular terms,
Matter can differ from matter only in form, density, bulk, motion, and direction of motion: to which of these, however, varied or combined, can consciousness be annexed. To be round or square, to be solid or fluid, to be great or little, to be moved slowly or swiftly one way or another, are modes of material existence, all equally alien to the nature of cogitation...Consider your own conceptions...You will find substance without extension...What space does the idea of a pyramid occupy?" Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose (Rinehart, 1971), 706-07.

Simply stated, a sensation of blue is not a blue sensation. Now a materialist may say that these mental properties, although apparently immaterial, are an emergent or supervenient or epiphenomenal property of matter, like the sound coming out of a radio. But there are several impediments to this claim:

i) Experience presents us with a seeming or real dualism. Unless we have some overriding reason to deny dualism, why should we question this primitive datum? Why insist on a reductive analysis? If we already knew that dualism was illusory, then there would be reason to do so, but it looks as if materialism begins with a baseless assumption—all the subsequent argumentation is trucked in to fill in the hole of that otherwise unfounded assumption.

ii) If a materialist could indeed map mental properties back onto material properties in the same way we can draw a one-to-one correspondence between the sound coming out of the speaker and the circuit board, then he would at least have a working model of the relation between mental and material properties; but, to my knowledge, neuroscience, after decades of research, has yet to advance beyond rosy promises and picturesque metaphors. Designing a machine (e.g., robot, computer) that can simulate certain aspects of human behavior doesn’t go any distance towards reducing the human mind to a physical system. To begin with, we already know that a machine is a material device; therefore, to treat this as properly parallel to the mind assumes what needs to be proven. Moreover, a parallel phenomenon doesn’t explain the original phenomenon, any more than I can explain how sound comes out of a speaker by turning on another radio. It may explain a robot or computer, but it doesn’t explain the brain and map mental events back onto brain events. Unless a materialist can chart a causal, one-to-one correspondence, then words like "emergent" or "supervenient" or "epiphenomenal" are checks drawn on an empty bank account.

iii) And even if we could set up a one-to-one correspondence, what would that prove? Savages hear weird voices issuing from a ham radio. They infer that there must be little people inside the box. They test their hypothesis by impaling the box with a spear. And the voices stop. Yet the explorer tries to explain that the signal does not originate from the box, but comes from spooky radio waves broadcast by a remote radio station. The savages seem more scientific, and the explorer more superstitious.

iv) Not only does experience present us with a seeming or real dualism, but it subordinates one to the other. We must begin with the mind—with our own thoughts, concepts, images, ideas and intentions. Everything we receive from the outside world must take the form of pure thought to be thought of at all. The object of thought is thought. At this level, subject and object are one and the same thing. This is not to deny that many or most of our ideas have their ultimate origin outside the mind, but in the order of knowing, mental properties are prior to material properties, and material properties are only accessible via mental properties; that being so, why assume, and how would you prove, that the order of being is in the reverse?

It is as though I were locked inside a room with closed-circuit TV. I can receive information from the outside world, information about the outside world. But from within my studio I cannot retrace the process of transmission. What is presented to consciousness is encrypted information and virtual imagery—like a closed-circuit TV. I cannot retrieve the plaintext from the ciphertext and reconstruct the real constitution and configuration of the outside world.

v) Our perception of the material world is indirect, whereas we enjoy immediate access to our own mental states. Therefore, the notion of an immaterial substance is a primary and primitive datum, whereas the external world lies at the end of an inference. So the materialist has inverted the standard of comparison.

Much of our mental life is spent in a dream state. Dreams are immaterial, although they simulate sensory awareness. Far from being a vague philosophical abstraction, the notion of an immaterial substance is a universal of human experience.

vi) If computers have already reproduced certain feats of human cognition (e.g. speech/ pattern recognition; game-playing; problem-solving), and if they have pulled off that feat without benefit of consciousness, then consciousness or spooky mind-stuff is not a defining property of reason, human or otherwise. Computers are smart without having recourse to beliefs, intentions, and so on. Already, computers vastly surpass our capacity to store information and perform numerical calculations—not to mention chess.
While many people in AI research seem to find this line of reasoning persuasive, it is fallacious:
(a) Computers process electronic signals. There is no understanding involved. The signals have a symbolic meaning for the computer programmer or user, but not for the machine.
(b) A clock tells time better than I can in my head. Does that mean that a clock is smarter than I am? Although the purpose of a clock is to keep track of time, and it can tick off the seconds, minutes, and hours more accurately than I can, this is not a purposeful action from the viewpoint of the clock, since the clock doesn’t have a viewpoint.
(c) That brings us to a related point. Automation tempts us to personify objects. No one would attribute intelligence to a sundial. Why then for a digital timepiece? Again, a library can store more data more accurately than I can re-member. No one would attribute intelligence to a library. How does computer "memory" differ in principle? Somehow computers acquire this specious mystique.
(d) The fact that certain tasks can be broken down into algorithmic steps doesn’t imply that our reasoning process is algorithmic. A recipe is an algorithm, but that doesn’t mean that the order in which the ingredients are added mirrors the process of reason. Are we hard-wired to add the ingredients in just that order? No, it’s a matter of culinary chemistry rather than brain chemistry.
(e) The fact that machines can simulate aspects of human reason and even perform those tasks more efficiently may foster the illusion of artificial intelligence, but the analogous fact that very primitive devices can simulate this effect (e.g. abacus; sundial) shows that the inference is fallacious. Again, we noted that breaking a task down into a stepwise order doesn’t parallel our thought process, but is simply a practical adaptation to the physical constraints of the task.

vii) Another argument for materialism is that head trauma results in mental impairment. And this implies the identity between mind and brain, or so goes the argument. The effect of mood- and mind-altering drugs confirms that identity.
(a) It should go without saying that this isn’t a scientific observation. People have known for millennia that a bump on the head or puff of weed can impair or alter mental function. That isn’t an argument against monism, but opponents of dualism often act as if neuroscience has introduced a new line of evidence which forces us to reexamine old assumptions.
(b) If you damage a telephone, that will impair or destroy its capacity to send and receive signals. Yet it’s the person at the end of the receiver who initiates the signal. The telephone is just a medium. It’s easy to propose more sophisticated examples. I would say the same thing about the brain. It coordinates body functions and sets up an interface between the mind and the external world, processing sensory input.

To claim that the human mind is analogous to a computer ignores the introspective deliverance of consciousness. Our thought process is not formalizable. Much of our knowledge is tacit. Even at the conscious level our reasoning is largely non-propositional. That is to say, consciousness rarely engages in an extended interior dialogue or visualizes its operations. Sentence fragments and scattered images from memory punctuate our self-awareness. Even if an observer could tap into our consciousness, what he saw and heard would be unintelligible to him since its significance is private and privileged. Our mental contents aren’t filed like a library; rather, their organization is more fluid and fleeting— patchy impressions, intense memories, free associations. It’s more akin to the oblique logic of a dream. What lies on the surface is already a broken syntax—while the semantics of thought—the meaning, moods, and tenses—are hidden from inspection and must be supplied. It’s a code language of analogy and allusion, context-dependent on the uniquely individual response of the original subject.

The stock objection to dualism is the difficulty of envisioning how two different substances (mind and matter) can interact. By way of reply:

i) As Hume pointed out a long time ago, causation is invisible. Causation is something we infer, not something we observe. So if this is a problem for the dualist, it is not less a problem for the materialist.
ii) In the past, Newtonian physicists believed in action-at-a-distance, while, at present, most quantum theorists believe in non-locality. Why hold dualism to a higher standard--especially when interactionism seems to be an immediate deliverance of our daily experience?
iii) Sooner or late, any model of causality must fall back on direct causation. To posit a causal nexus only pushes the cause-and-effect relation back a step.