Thursday, April 03, 2003

Design vs. Chance vs. Causality

I think I have two frustrations with Dennis Prager. Both have to do with his religious views. The first is his complete denial of any possibility of a secular right. Prager speaks highly of Conservatives on the right and their Judeo-Christian values. He denounces Liberals and their secular values. He recognizes that there is such a thing as a religious left but he thinks they are either completely misinterpreting their religions or are in some way insincerely religious. A secular right however, of which Objectivism would be the main (in my view the only true) example, simply does not exist for him -- at least he never talks about it. This is evident in Prager's frequent denials of the possibility of a non-religious basis for morality.

The second of my frustrations with Prager came up today during an interview with Larry A. Witham, author of By Design: Science and the Search for God, a book which from the description that amazon quotes from Publisher's Weekly "surveys the ongoing dialogue between scientists and theologians about the relationship between science and religion." Generally, Prager berates people for expecting science to provide anything other than mere descriptions of nature. Science, Prager thinks, cannot provide fundamental explanations, for that we need religion. Prager also argues that religion should not be looked at for detailed natural descriptions. It is a mistake to interpret the sacred texts too literally. Thus, science and religion are like apples and oranges. Science discovers the "how," while religion reveals the "why." The two should not and cannot conflict. Nevertheless, during the interview Prager clearly pressed for the theistic point of view by argueing that any attempt to explain the universe without God is doomed to absurdity because such an attempt would have to conclude that everything we experience is a result of a fundamental randomness or chance. It is this last that I have to challenge.

Randomness, chance, accident: These are not concepts relating to inherent properties of objects. Rather, they are descriptions of a relation of one or more entities' actions with respect to some purpose. If the entities act without relation to any known purpose they are presumed to be random. Thus for example, genetic mutations in evolution are termed random. Why? Because such mutations happen regardless of the purposes or goals of the organism involved. There are in fact perfectly good biochemical and physical reasons and causes for these mutations but these causes are entirely independent of the survival goals of the organism involved. In other words the mutations happen for a reason but the reason is not related to the organism's needs. The mutations do not happen in order to help the organism (or hurt it for that matter). They are purposeless. Thus they are termed chance, accidental or random mutations but they are not inherently random -- they happened because of definite physical causes relating to the specific molecules involved. They are not causeless. And here lies the crux of the matter. The choice in looking at the universe is not merely purpose/design vs. randomness. Randomness as an inherent property does not and cannot exist. The alternative to purpose vs randomness are the laws of identity and causality. Identity is the law which describes the fact that everything in the universe has a nature, it is something and not something else. Causality then takes the fact of identity and applies it to action. Causality is the law of cause and effect, the fact that things act the way they act because of the kinds of things that they are.

If one is not already a theist, the application of the term "random" to the whole universe is really quite mysterious. With respect to who's purposes is the universe's operation supposed to be random? The universe just is, it does not and cannot have any purposes. And since the universe is all that there is there could not be anything outside of it with respect to which it could have purposes. Only conscious organisms within the universe have purposes and it is only with respect to their purposes that entities can be described as acting randomly (i.e., apart from their purposes) or deliberately (i.e., determined by their purposes). (More broadly, this point can be expanded to all living things, as all living things are goal directed, having been genetically programmed to be so). The evaluation of the whole universe as random or chance is improper and relies on a prior assumption that God exists and the universe somehow exists independently of God's purpose.

Finally let me counter the point made by Prager during the show that he cannot understand how all sorts of things make sense in the universe without God. You cannot have infinite regress. The facts are that the universe exists, human beings exists and human beings are able to make choices and think conceptually. The reason for the existence of great works of art and other human achievements are obviously human choices, thinking and action. The credit goes to the creators and discoverers of these things not to God. As to the natural laws -- here the explanation ultimately has to be that's the way things necessarily are. Religious people gain nothing by saying in effect: A self-sufficient universe is not enough, I need a self-sufficient God. To that the obvious retort is: And why did God create the world in the way he did? Well the fundamental answer given by religious people of all times is that God's purposes are ultimately unknowable. Since there is absolutely no evidence for God, and in fact to the extent that God is defined at all the concept is self-contradictory, I will remain loyal to the reality that I see everyday and accept no supernatural fairy tales.

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