A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sometimes, You Wanna Just Have Fun

Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence

A physicist named Victor Stenger seems willing to contribute to the mounting pile of evidence that those trained in the metrical properties of physical bodies can't do metaphysics for dog barf.  We will try to accommodate him.

Yes, it's the auld God-does-not-exist-and-I-can-prove-it foolishness through *Science!* 

Believe it or don't believe it, sez I; but don't believe you don't have to believe it. 

Like many narrowly trained, he extends his own tool kit into domains of discourse for which it is not suited, much like a plumber who comes to counsel your teenager on his anxieties.  In particular, terms are always to be understood in the casual ways in which he understands them.  Dr. Stenger would not tolerate this sort of thing if the subject were physics.  "Dark Matter?  Well, dark means it's not lit up, so if we shine a light on it, we should see it."  This would induce a similar eye-rolling to some of the usages in the essay. 

But in any case, said essay provides a number of tasty tidbits for our intellectual noshing. 

A. Absence. 
Lets start with his title: Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence.  Apparently, he believes that believers believe this as an explanation for "why there is no scientific evidence of God."  (Hey.  It couldn't possibly be because God is not a physical body and his existence is not a metrical property.  Could it?) 

He counters the aphorism by using the example of elephants at Yellowstone.  (The last time I read this objection to the aphorism, it was elephants in the writer's bedroom.  Why is it always elephants?) 

Of course, the reason why we believe there are no elephants at present in Yellowstone -- though I suspect mastadons a-plenty were there not too lately -- has nothing to do with the lack of elephant footprints or elephant bones.  It's because outside of zoos, we know elephants no longer live in North America.  This is not an "absence of evidence."  We have plenty of evidence on the habits and habitats of elephants to know that they are not randomly distributed. 

But Dr. Stenger's most serious error is to suppose that by "absence" the old aphorism means "not in a specified spatial location."  This is certainly a colloquial meaning; but perhaps it is not what logicians mean. The aphorism addresses existence, not location.  The absence [until fairly recently] of evidence for the okapi is not evidence for the absence [non-existence] of the okapi.  To say that there are no okapis in Yellowstone says nothing essential about the okapi.  Spatial location for animals is an accidental property, not an essential one.  OTOH, neither is the absence of evidence for flying pink unicorns evidence for their absence [non-existence].  Absence of evidence is not evidence, period.  We have far better reasons to doubt flying pink unicorns than the lack of shed horns. 

B. Higgs boson

In the standard model of particles and forces, Dr. Stenger writes, Higgs bosons pervade the universe and generate mass, the very stuff of matter. 

We'll take his word for it without even asking the Dawkinsian question: "what gives mass to the Higgs boson?"  (And if Higgsy does not have mass itself, how can it give mass to something else?  Alas, I am not a theologian to answer such puzzles.)  More interesting is that if mass is "the very stuff of matter," then without a Higgs boson, stuff would be immaterial.  This seems to provide a basis in physics for believing in immaterial beings; but we'll let it go.  As Heisenberg once wrote, "It has become clear that the desired objective reality of the elementary particle is too crude an oversimplification of what really happens."

Dr. Stenger also writes that if the Large Hadron Collider fails to provide the expected evidence, "a prospect most physicists regard as possible -- then the Higgs boson would be shown not to exist." 

My prediction is more modest.  The LHC will produce something.  You can't spend that much even of European taxpayers' money and not produce something.  Otherwise, what happens when the next funding cycle comes along?  Whatever this something is, it will be called the Higgs boson, along with an astonished press release that the Higgs boson has different properties than originally predicted.  Science marches on. 

Hey, they did it with "atoms," why not with "Higgs." 
Now, with the audience warm-up finished, let's get to the main act.  Dr. Stenger gives four show-stoppers why God does not exist.  Oddly, he does not give the two really serious objections.  But they are not physics objections, so perhaps they do not blip on his radar screen. 

Objection 1. The Objection from InformationIt would seem that God does not exist, because God has a plan for the universe, and a plan is information.  "Now, information only exists when it is embodied in some physical system, and we know that there is a limit to how compact information can be." In the beginning, the universe was confined to "a tiny (but not infinitesimal) region of space" which was "far too little to specify the universe that evolved from it."  Thus there was no room "for some specific plan of creation to be embodied in the universe from the beginning."  Therefore, a God with such a plan can be ruled out "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Adv. 1.  It's hard to know if this is a parody or not.  Given the question-begging inherent in " information only exists when it is embodied in some physical system," is it really all that shocking to get your own prior assumptions back from a circle of reasoning?  The misapprehensions here are daunting.  Yet, I will daunt, it being late at night as I write this and I am feeling puckish. 

a. The confusion of creation with the beginning of space-time is to the side, since Doc doesn't take this anywhere.  One curiosity: Einstein famously declared that space and time lacked objective existence, so how could the "universe" (which Stenger seems to think is a thing rather than a set) occupy a tiny region of "space."  What space?  Space only exists where matter exists.  Furthermore, the "universe" is by definition "everything that physically exists" and if "space" somehow does physically exists it must be part of the universe, which makes the initial universe bigger, etc.  Perhaps he relies on the old 19th century vision of absolute space? 

b. The confusion of evolution with the development of the universe.  Evolution is a specific engine supposed to drive the origin of species through overbreeding, competition, and natural selection.  It is hard to see how that applies to the universe.  Of course, he might be using "evolution" in a colloquial sense; but more likely he is using it as a power word to invest his argument with Darwinian mojo.  

c. The notion that the God supposed by the Christians wrote his "plan" down as a set of instructions, rolled them up and stuck them inside the ur-block, that these instructions must be physical, and so that there is no "room" for "God's Plan" in the initial universe simply misses the point.  The God of the Christians is not "in" the universe any more than Shakespeare is "in" Hamlet.  No matter how diligently Horatio and Hamlet may review the opening scene, they will not discover "Shakespeare's Plan" for them.  That "information" is simply not embedded in the opening scene of the play.  It is in the mind of Shakespeare, and to Shakespeare the entire play from beginning to end exists as one unified object.  This is analogous to the way in which the Christian God is thought to know the world.  So if God infuses his plan into the world, he does so at every instant of the world, beginning to end.  Creation, say the theologians, is continuous.   

Dr. Stenger's argument could also be construed an argument in favor of God's existence.  If there was not enough information in the universe to build the universe, then the extra information had to come from somewhere else. 

Objection 2. The Argument from It Only Looks Designed.  It would seem that God does not exist because observations in physics, cosmology, and biology have been scoured for evidence of design that should be there if there were a designer God. None has been found. Biologists find evidence of randomness and haphazard arrangements that would be called incompetent if they were designed. No matter where scientists cast their eyes, the universe looks just like it should look if there was no divine design.  Therefore, there is no God.  Many people "cannot see how the order of the universe can have come about naturally."

Adv. 2.  P. Davies writes [New Physics] "It is one of the universal miracles of nature that huge assemblages of particles, subject only to the blind forces of nature, are nevertheless capable of organising themselves into patterns of cooperative activity.”
A. Einstein, also rumored to be a physicist, writes in a letter to M. Solvine: "But surely, a priori, one should expect the world to be chaotic, not to be grasped by thought in any way. ...[But] the kind of order created, for example, by Newton’s gravitational theory is of a very different character. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by man, the success of such a procedure supposes in the objective world a high degree of order, which we are in no way entitled to expect a priori. Therein lies the miracle which becomes more and more evident as our knowledge develops.” 

a. Start with the false dichotomy between "designed" and "natural."  Recall that the Christians have a doctrine of secondary causation; i.e., that  God created matter with natures capable of acting directly upon one another.  Just as a clarinetist uses a clarinet to play the concerto, just as a batter uses a bat to make a home run, so too does the Christian God use the natures he has created to Make Stuff Happen. 

b. Improbability is not the same as "designed."  Moderns who have used this argument, equating evidence for design with improbability under currently known natural laws, miss the point as widely as does Dr. Stenger.  Both are overly influenced by scientism, and the notion that matter is dead and so must be "pushed" from the outside.  However, the traditional understanding is that God is the author of the natural laws, and his design can be seen in the consistency and mutual workings-together of those natural laws.  For example, Thomas Aquinas appealed to the likelihood, not the unlikelihood of nature.  His famous Fifth Way starts from causes leading "always or for the most part" to the same effects.  IOW, the very existence of natural laws is the evidence for design in nature.  Otherwise, as Einstein puzzled, we would expect chaotic behavior to be more likely. 

Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.
-- Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268

c. Randomness is not haphazard.  Dr. Stenger writes "Everywhere biologists look they find evidence of randomness and haphazard arrangements that would be called incompetent if they were designed."  But what seems incompetent design to a physicist may seem like the best choices to the design engineer, given the limitations of the materials and production processes.  If the Christian God uses nature as his instrument, as the Christians believe he does, then his creation will be subject to the limitations of nature, just as a geometer who limits himself to what can be demonstrated with staight-edge and compass cannot trisect an angle.  The greater art is that accomplished in spite of limitations and defects, such as writing poetry as a sestina, or playing tennis with a net.  It is useless for the Stengers to claim they could rack up a higher tennis score if they did not have that net in the way.  

In any case, random variation tends to accumulate into predictable patterns: the Gaussian distribution, the Poisson, etc.  This is not the same sort of thing as "haphazard" or else neither casinos nor insurance companies would be profitable. 

d. What does undesigned look like?  When Dr. Stenger writes "the universe ... looks just like it should look if there was no divine design," he blow it completely.  An undesigned universe would look chaotic, as Einstein expected.  In the Christian view, absent a creator, the universe would not seem different; there would be no universe at all.  A created and designed universe ought to have a natural order.  What indeed would an undesigned automobile look like?  What fool would say that Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A is completely explained by the physics of vibrating reeds and the frequencies produced by opening and closing holes on the tube?  A more perceptive listener might detect "natural laws" among the chord progressions, identify tonics and dominants, dismiss the occasional dissonances as "random noise."  There is no need for the Sharon Kam hypothesis, let alone the Mozart hypothesis.  Is there? 

e. Speaking of random, a side issue that sometimes irritates statisticians is this business about randomness causing something.  Randomness is not a cause of anything.  It is an abstraction, not a physical thing.  (There are two main sects of unbelievers: those who ascribe everything to chance and those who claim everything is determined.) 

Everything that happens is caused by another thing, either by intention of an actor (like a petunia seeking the light) or by some natural law (as an object falling in a gravity field).  What we call "chance" is really the intersection of two or more lines of causality, as illustrated in the following passage from IN THE LION'S MOUTH: 

Consider the man who is struck on the head by a hammer while walking to his lunching place.  Everything about his perambulation is designed, which is to say, intended.

 He is hungry – it is that time of day for it – and he habitually takes his lunch at a cafĂ© two blocks distant from his workplace.  It is a sunny day, so he wears no cap.  None of this is by chance. 

Likewise, the workman atop the roof of the building half a block along the way.  He, too, ceases work for lunch and, habitually, leaves his tools unattended.  As he rises, his foot nudges the hammer which, in obedience to the inexorable laws of action and reaction, nudges back and so starts to slide.  Its slide is determined by the god Newton, who teases it down the slanted roof tiles until it falls into his clutches and is pulled to the street below, even as the unfortunate lunch-bound is passing beneath. 

Ah, what ill luck, say the street sweepers as they cleanse the blood and brains from the duroplast walkway.  Yet everything that has happened was the result of the intentions of the actors or the laws of nature – and there are those who say those laws are but the Intentions of a greater Actor.  We call it “chance” and we marvel because our superstitions desire that concatenation be as meaningful as causality.  The man was brained by the hammer.  It must mean something.  There must be a connection!  And so poor Fate is made the scapegoat of intersecting world-lines.  Having become all tangled up in the threads, we incline to blame the weaver.

Objection 3. The Argument from God's Uncooperativeness.  It would seem that God does not exist because regarding the supposed power of intercessory prayer, "well-executed experiments by reputable institutions ... have failed to find that prayer improves the recovery of hospital patients." 

Adv. 3.  The idea that physical scientists may conduct a "well-executed" experiment on a non-physical thing is astonishing.  There are more prior assumptions here than you can shake a stick at.  Start with the notion that God is a vending machine into whom you can intert the proper number of prayers and -- hey, presto! -- out comes a miracle.  As Mark Shea is fond of saying, "God, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, will do exactly what He wants."  (For that matter, so too will humans, chimps, and sundry other self-willed entities.)

In these "well-executed" experiments, did the "reputable scientists" insist that no one else in the entire world should be praying for the well-being of everyone?  Churches routinely pray for everyone, even those in the "control" group.  Or does Dr. Stenger that only the prayers chanted then and there over a specific person are supposedly effective?  The whole thing is so ludicrously untestable that one must hope that the reputations of the reputable scientists did not suffer. 

He writes, "intercessory prayer [should] have a better batting average than what you would get from the normal operation of the natural world," as if the normal operation of the natural world were somehow out from under the control of the Christian God. 

Objection 4. The Argument from Fortune Cookies.  It would seem that God does not exist because "the Abrahamic God is believed by his worshipers to talk to people and provide information they otherwise did not know."  Thus, "all you have to do is find a few examples where a truth has been revealed that later was confirmed." This has not happened; therefore God does not exist. 

Adv. 4.  Leave aside the prophesies that have been held to be confirmed.  They were all done in poetic and metaphorical language, and physicists are often deaf to poetry.  Like fundamentalists of other stripes, they insist on a remorselessly prosaic literalism.  (Understandable: it's how you do science.)  But I can't help but suppose that Dr. Stenger means predictions of the future or cute metrical facts about the physical world.  That is: of facts rather than truths.  His notion of "revelation" therefore misses the mark.  Augustine of Hippo writes:

In the Gospel we do not read that the Lord said: ‘I send you the Holy Spirit so that He might teach you all about the course of the sun and the moon.’  The Lord wanted to make Christians, not astronomers.  You learn at school all the useful things you need to know about nature.” [Contra Faustum manichaeum]

Revelation is not about which horse will win the second race at Naraganset, or that Mars has two moons.  The Orthodox, Roman, and other churches say that the Holy Traditions reveal that: Jesus is the Word; we should love our neighbors as ourselves, we should feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, love our enemies, and so on.  These aren't things that are "later confirmed."   

However, there are some revelations intersect with statements about physical nature. A few of them are:
  1. "God created," therefore, an objective universe exists.  Perhaps someday there will be independent evidence confirming this. 
  2. "God endowed material things with the ability to act on their own," therefore, there are natural causes of natural things.  Perhaps someday this can be "later confirmed." 
  3. "God designed the world," therefore, those natural causes will work "always or for the most part" to the same ends.  This could be later confirmed by the discovery of consistent natural laws.  For example, if sodium and chlorine were to combine "always or for the most part" into salt; or if natural selection resulted "always or for the most part" in a species better fit for an environmental niche.
  4. "God is a rational being," therefore, the universe is rationally ordered.  This could be later confirmed by the discovery that rational relationships and natural laws all work in harmony with one another. 
  5. "God ordered the world 'by number, weight, and measure,'" therefore, the "laws of nature and nature's God" are knowable by numbering, weighing, and measuring.  This could be later confirmed by the discovery of numerical relationships.
  6. "God gave [us] knowledge of natural things" [Wis.7], therefore, the study of nature is a worthy occupation, even is not the highest occupation. 
  7. "All mankind is descended from a common ancestor."  Someday perhaps some biological test could be developed, call it a DNA test, that would "later confirm" that all humans belong to the same species. 
  8. "The original sin of selfishness is inherited by all descendants of the common ancestor."  Someday perhaps some biological test could identify some mode of inheritance by which a "selfish gene" could be passed on from the original mutant humanoid to all descendants. 
Thus, by Carnap's procedure for scientific induction, the hypothesis (God exists) is held more probable if more of these consequences are later confirmed: That there is a rationally-ordered, objective universe, operating according to immanent natural laws knowable to human reason; etc. etc. We can only hope that these will be later confirmed.

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