Wednesday, December 12, 2007

O'Leary's Handy Uses For Creationism

In part four of Denyse O'Leary's appreciation of John Lennox's book God's Undertaker:Has Science Buried God?, Ms. O'Leary draws out the usefulness of creationist ideas for the development of science. Based on what O'Leary provides, I'm inclined to just pass on this book, which otherwise would have been one that intrigued me. She doesn't do much to distinguish Lennox's points from her own, though, and having read a fair amount of O'Leary in the past couple years, it's clear that she sees just what she wants to see in whatever she surveys; the posts in this series present quotes from Lennox of dubious value, which she then make a mess of with her own riffage on Lennox's quote.

Here's an example, starting with Lennox:

John Lennox:
" ... the rise of science would have been seriously retarded if one particular doctrine of theology, the doctrine of creation had not been present." (God's Undertaker, p.22)
My initial reaction to that is to roll my eyes, but with just this little bit presented, one would have to look at the larger treatment in the text to make a fair evaluation. I don't know how Lennox supports this statement, but here's O'Leary's expansion:

Denyse O'Leary:
Why is a doctrine of creation important? Lennox points out that it frees science from the idea that we ought to be able to deduce what is happening in the universe from fixed prior principles. If - in contradiction to such an idea - we assume that God is entitled to create what he likes (trilobites, giraffes, and whales, to name some examples), then our duty is to address what exists rather than to set rules for what can exist. Unfortunately, centuries ago, many scientists attempted to proceed by setting rules about what can exist, according to their theories. Many of their ideas were in conflict with reality, and unproductive conflicts were common.
I held off posting on this yesterday when going through the other two sections, as I was sure I just wasn't reading this part right. But having looked at it several times now, the unavoidable conclusion is that O'Leary finds creationism valuable because it keeps us from artificially limiting reality. The examples she gives are baffling. Do we suppose that with a 'creationist view' that we would dispute the reality of the trilobite, the giraffe, the whale? It's as if O'Leary thinks we'd be inclined to say one or more of those things "aren't real" if we can't deduce them from "fixed prior principles". The giraffe may be standing right in front of us, but we are inclined to deny it because we can't deduce if from physical law, and this is what creationism saves us from?

Science is anchored in observation. To the extent any of those three can be objectively observed, we're obligated to accomodate for them in our model of reality. O'Leary has things reversed, so far as I can see here, suggesting that science want to define what's real, then map our observations onto it. That's nuts. We observe, test, kick, scrape, measure, watch and use all empirical tools at our disposal to establish the phenomena, then we define our reality based on that.

I suspect a part of the confusion for O'Leary here is the equivocation of the term "rule" or "law" here. In the creationist model, rules for reality are prescriptive, due to Christianity's metaphysical subjectivism. Reality is realized, and constrained by the will of God.

In the scientific view, the rules are descriptive. There's no underlying prescription, and the 'rules' than are identify are rules only by virtue of their identifying symmetries and uniform dynamics. So, to a scientist, "[setting] up rules for what can exist" is a fantastically confused statement. We don't make up rules for what exists, we just do our best to describe what exists, and how it exists. Descriptive, not prescriptive. Maybe that's a key clue for O'Leary.
Denyse O'Leary:
Having taught sections of the Design or Chance? adult night school course at St. Michael's in the University of Toronto, I also have a clear sense of another issue: A doctrine of creation encourages people to believe that the universe is worth studying because it puts a limit on the things you would need to know in order to understand. For one thing, even by positing an actual beginning of time, it closes off an infinite past in which virtually anything could have, and has, happened.
Here, I believe we have O'Leary projecting her own confusions about the concept or reality on the general population. Even if we grant her premise -- that the masses need things "dumbed down" so as not to exasperate them -- this in no way retards science itself. If anything, creationism thwarts the advancement of science by positing "pedagogical falsehoods" on the syllabus. A concept may make things easier to understand, no doubt, but that is not, in and of itself, scientifically useful. It's only as useful as it is accurate, performative in predictions and explanations, and unfalsified by salient tests.

Denyse O'Leary:
Assume, for example, that our theory of the universe does not include a doctrine of creation. We might assert - as some cultures have - that the universe is supported on an infinite series of turtles who (in some greater infinity) are swimming in an endless sea. Why study it? The information gained from one turtle may be no use in interpreting another, and then - even if you could get to the end of the turtles (which you cannot, because the series is infinite) - you would then confront the endless sea. All the information you have accumulated is a mass of interesting sludge, really. The prospect of understanding the universe is actually impossible. Lennox aided my understanding of this question by noting that the Jesuit Fathers who visited the advanced kingdom of China in the early modern period had difficulty at first persuading the Chinese scholars that many features of the universe can be understood by simple equations. They had not expected to find the unverse comprehensible in that way.

I don't know of any cultures that suppose that "the universe is supported on an infinite series of turtles". This objection isn't material to O'Leary's point, but it's indicative of the kind of ... "whatever!" approach she brings to science and the philosophy of science. From what I can find (see here, for example and here), Hindu culture has imagined the earth (as opposed to O'Lery's use of 'universe' here) as borne on the back of an elephant, which stood on a single tortoise, and that's about as close as I can come to finding support for her statement here. The Wikipedia article on "Turtles All The Way Down" attributes the "infinite turtles" idea to a single person, someone sparring with Bertrand Russell after a lecture. I won't make a bigger issue of this than just to note: when you start looking at the "building blocks" O'Leary uses, even those often are imaginary, or widely mistaken.

But suppose we are presented with a "turtles all the way down" cosmology. Now what? Well, to the extent you could verify it, you'd have a most significant answer. There are fewer more profound answers to be had, if the theory checks out. Oddly, O'Leary claims this would all be "interesting sludge, really", in yet another example of her command of the language. "Sludge"? She then announces that this would render the prospect of understanding the universe "actually impossible". Yet, she's just posed the foundations for understanding the universe. If the reality is "turtles all the way down", something we can verify, or even just verify that these turtles really do extend a very, very, very long way down and that they do somehow "support the universe", then a significant level of understanding the universe has been "actually achieved".

I know, I know. O'Leary's paragraph here is more incoherent than it is wrong.

I'm just sayin'.

Just to really get things thoroughly confused, O'Leary points to mathematical principles as a useful means for modeling and describing our universe, an approach that apparently hadn't occurred to the Chinese before some Jesuits introduced the idea. But that's not creationism at all, and in fact is the very antithesis of creationism. In proposing math as a key resource in understanding the universe, the Jesuits were proposing a perfectly materialist model of the universe. There's nothing "creationist" about the inverse-square law. In fact, maths are the building blocks for the "non-created" model of the universe, a universe governed by impersonal physical dynamics, rather than the arbitrary will of God. I can't think what O'Leary imagined the pedagogical value of math to be in terms of creationism, but for now, I'm thinking she's as confused about what Lennox is really saying as she is on the cultural popularity of "turtles all the way down".

Denyse O'Leary:
So a doctrine of creation imposes limits on what we must understand in order to gain a picture of our universe. That is critical for science as we understand it. If we assume that if the Big Bang happened roughly 13.7 billion years ago (conventional dating), then anything that could not have taken place within that period by random movements alone either did not happen or happened because of exterior or prior guidance. Or something else? At any rate, we are justified in seeking an explanation.
I'll agree that creationism imposes limits on understanding. But this is positively perverse, epistemologically. And the example she gives demonstrate this. If we are to discover a process or phenomenon that exists and requires 20 billion years of running to reach the state it is in now, we'd have to revise our estimates of the age of the universe. QED, so long as we have reason to trust the calculations on the process timeline. The existing estimates are where they are based on the demands for a model that harmonizes all that we have to go on. If you change the evidence and facts in view, then the estimates might very well need to be changed to accomodate it.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Came here from ATBC - good work dude. I'll come back and read more later.

J-Dog, aka GLarson -
Banninated from UD