Sunday, April 6, 2008

Adding Epicycles to God

Consider the difference between the way the history of science has treated the concepts of “heat” and “demons.” Our modern account of heat defines it as the kinetic energy or motion of molecules. When one object heats up another, some of that energy is transferred from one object to the other where the mean level of molecular motion increases. Until the beginning of the 19th century, this exchange of heat was not understood in terms of molecular motion. They postulated the transfer of an invisible fluid known as caloric between the objects. When we began to understand molecular energy levels and motion, the term “heat” was retained, but the definition of heat as caloric was dropped. So the concept, in a new form, survived the expansion and change created by progress in scientific knowledge, but only by radically defining the ultimate nature of the phenomena in question.

Demons had their place in our explanations of things at one point too. During the Middle Ages, erratic, unpredictable, psychotic behavior in some people was attributed to demon possession. But when our knowledge of the phenomena expanded and we began to understand mental illness as a pathology, we ultimately abandoned the concept of demons altogether. The idea was too embedded in an outmoded, non-functional, unhelpful ontology to make it usable in the new scheme of the world. Demons were eliminated in favor of a new concept, “mental illness” explained in the context of a theory that conceived of the behaviors in terms of a physical illness rather than the elaborate metaphysics countenanced by the demon possession explanation.

We are at an important stage in history concerning the concept of God. To be sure, there are people who still harbor a highly anthropomorphic conception of God that varies little from the concept as it was understood by the founders of the Judeo-Christian, and Islamic religious traditions. The analogy between those sorts of believers and someone who still retains a conception of demons as the cause of erratic personal behavior is not inappropriate. But there are many people who, either consciously or unconsciously, would retain the conception of God but who would revise, adjust, and reallign it to fit with our shifting model of the nature of the world we inhabit. This so-called God of the gaps has had a shrinking corner of the explanatory room to occupy. There is less and less need to invoke God as we understand the mechanics of nature better. (Some would have us just replace our account of God with nature.) But those wishing to hold onto the idea have try to argue that evolution is actually the way he created human life. The subatomic particles we have discovered and the Big Bang are alleged to be his handiwork too. (It seems that every hard earned scientific discovery that is initially resisted, suppressed, or discounted by believers fearing proof against God eventually gets coopted in some strange fashion as proof of God.)

But the question, like the question about the concept “heat,” is what room is there left for God in the new order, and what explanatory work will postulating God do for us? If God and his believers continue to backpedal in response to the advances of scientific knowledge what sort of being do we have left? In what ways does the room left by the rapidly closing gaps leave us with something that is worthy of worship, or worthy of the name?

Another conceptual shift from the history of science can help us see the wisdom and value of conceptual revolution.

In the famous account, the Ptolemaic worldview that had the sun orbiting the Earth began to disintegrate as careful thinkers made close observations and calculations. The sun rises and falls as if it was orbiting the earth but the planets have retrograde paths across the sky—they inch forward then go back, then inch forward more, and go back, and so on. As their observations grew more detailed and careful, astronomers postulated orbits within orbits, epicycles within epicycles, in order to explain the movements of the planets and in order to preserve the geocentric model of the universe. By the 16th century, the theoretical system had become baroque to the point of uselessness. Then Copernicus brought a revolution to the data that suddenly resolved all of the discrepancies in the data—the earth must be revolving around the sun.

Belief in God has undergone the same accumulation of ad hoc provisions, speculations, and epicycles. It turns out that he didn’t create humans 6,000 years ago, rather life evolved on its own for billions of years (but somehow that’s still the result of his will.) Centuries ago, God showed himself to humanity regularly, but now that no one sees him we are told that he hides in order to preserve our freedom to believe by faith. Sickness used to be the manifestation of his disapproval, now we know about viruses and bacteria (but all of that complexity in nature, we are told, is evidence of God’s glory.) Prayer doesn’t work (but that’s only because it won’t work for anyone who doubts and lacks faith, we are told.) Our efforts to corroborate and understand the God claims are left unsatisfied ( but that’s only because in his wisdom he wishes us to grown in virtue and intellect, is the excuse.) And so on. For every hard question that lacks an answer, some elaborate provision or excuse, or worse, an ad hoc revision is offered so that the pious can cling to a slender thread of belief. The ultimate trump card for believers is the claim that “we just can’t know what God is really like or how everything makes sense from his perspective.” Similarly a recalcitrant geocentric astronomer could insist that we just can’t understand how really the sun orbits the Earth, it just looks exactly like it doesn’t—it’s just beyond our capacity to understand how all the data could be wrong. It gets more and more implausible to keep hiding God behind these excuses.

Now we are seeing that the God we believed in during the infancy of the human race just can’t be made sense of on the many fronts of our expanding knowledge of the world. It doesn’t fit with physics; An an infinite metaverse that contains countless varied universes among which ours is a single, insignificant speck cannot be reconciled with a picture of humanity and the Earth as the purpose and pinnacle of God’s creation. Evolution has rendered the God who was invoked to explain the complexity and appearance of design in nature superfluous. Molecular biology and genetics have supplanted God, demons, possession, sin, and piety as explanations of disease and health.

There are those who still have an affection for religion and religious ideas and who cling to the notion that there still could be some higher power out there watching over us. The religious urge dies very, very hard.

But what is clear, and growing clearer with every advancement of scientific knowledge, is that the God hypothesis has even less to recommend it than the Ptolemaic scheme of the sun orbitting the Earth. It takes wilder and wilder gyrations and rationalizations in order to hold onto the view as we mature scientifically, socially, and philosophically. An Iron Age mythology just can’t be reconciled with what we now know about ourselves and the world we inhabit. And at some point it should become evident that making a shift analogous to the one Copernicus did, and giving up theism just makes a lot more sense of the information overall. And once you do, ironically, it feels like the dumbfounded thinker in Plato's cave who emerges into the light after casting off the chains that bound him in ignorance.


NAL said...

... but the stars and planets have retrograde paths across the sky ...

Just the planets, not the stars.

Matt McCormick said...

Oops, you're right. I fixed it. Thanks, NAL.


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Anonymous said...

Negative empirical, inductive assertions cannot be proved.

Anonymous said...

right. thermodynamics in a parallel universe: pressure times volume equals demons times jesus times temperature.

i wonder if they have any trouble with combustion engines?

Anonymous said...

Lets build on this statement.

"There is less and less need to invoke God as we understand the mechanics of nature better."

God and Science are two different things. Science is a philosophy of how to go about things. Follow the Scientific Method and it's science. At the end of the day Science is nothing more than an approximation of reality most often using math. Science isn't reality. It never will be.

Why would I evoke God when looking at the mathematical approximation of the acceleration of gravity? 9.81m/s^2 off the top of my head.

No I'm more likely to want to evoke God when enjoying the beauty of the day.

That science exists and creates models of the world around us does not yet prove or disprove the existence of God. You have again failed to have a valid reason. For science to have any say in the existence of God it has to apply the scientific method. As of today it can't be done except for that part where prayer seems to work at a higher rate than mere chance.

MaryLynne said...

Hey, 4th Anonymous,

You might have missed the point. I'm kind of new to these forums, but what I'm gathering is that it is not about proving there is no God. You can't disprove a negative. I can't prove to you there is no invisible pink unicorn in my garden. You have no evidence that there is, but there might be a whole herd of them as far as we know.

So - I think the point was that dieties have been used to explain many, many things throughout human history. The sun in the sky and the bison migrating and illnesses were proof of a diety. Now that we have explanations for natural phenomena, they can no longer be used as direct proof of a diety. It doesn't prove there is no god, but it lessens the proof for him. Those strange footprints in my garden might be proof of the invisible unicorns, until I catch the neighbor kid playing in my yard in his cleats. Now I have a natural explanation, and the footprints can no longer be used as proof.

I can say, "They are invisible footprints," but that doesn't prove my case. You said "That science exists and creates models of the world around us does not yet prove or disprove the existence of God." Right. But as natural phenomenon proofs are taken off the table through scientific discovery, there are that many fewer places for God to show up, and that many fewer reasons to believe there is such a thing. The blogger isn't proving God isn't, but you aren't proving God is and the things people of faith have pointed to for ages as proof are being discredited.