The Advent of Teleology

February 4, 2013

I was recently watching an interview with theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin that was conducted as part of the Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s PBS series, Closer to Truth. A couple of things struck me about the interview. The first is Vilenkin’s humility. While he is certainly no believer and at most holds a Spinoza-esque view of an impersonal God, Vilenkin is certainly humble with regard to the idea of God. This is refreshing in light of the arrogance one typically sees amongst those scientists who are advocates of New Atheism. As a Christian I am never offended that someone doesn’t share my belief in God – in fact in a world where God allows men to choose their responses to Him, I would expect a certain number of people not to believe in God. But there is no reason for epistemic arrogance displayed by New Atheists, who have no warrant for the certainty they invest in scientism, materialism, and naturalism. So to see measured responses of the sort Vilenkin gives is refreshing.

But the other thing that strikes me about the interview is Vilenkin’s references to the underlying laws of physics which exist independent of the universe itself, as he calls it, a Platonic existence. For those who aren’t familiar with Plato, he imagined our universe was a reflection of a deeper reality, an ideal reality. To that end Vilenkin expresses the notion that mathematics itself isn’t merely a human a construct, but an underlying reality waiting to be discovered by us.

Vilenkin’s view here comport on some levels with those of another thinker, philosopher Thomas Nagel who recently wrote the book, Mind and Cosmos, which is a critique of the reductionist view of the universe suggested by Neo-Darwinism. Lest you take Nagel to be a creationist, he is in fact an atheist, though again a thinker of the sort Vilenkin is – thoughtful, epistemically humble and willing to be skeptical of things other atheists seem certain of. He suggests in his book that the universe has an inherent ‘mindfulness’, a tendency that inclines it to follow a path that eventually leads to us. In this he channels another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed the ends to which nature tends were inherent in nature itself.

Where both men seem to be arriving, albeit through different means, is at teleological view of the universe. For those not familiar with the term, generally speaking it means that processes bear attributes indicating they are being shaped toward an end – or that those processes have a purpose.

For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological. Only in the 20th century did the reductionist notions of materialism and naturalism really begin to predominate in the sciences. But as Nagel points out, such reductionism essentially fails to explain certain aspects of nature – particularly the minds ability to explore the universe. More generally materialism fails to explain many aspects of the universe – it’s fine-tuning, the origin of the information driven machinery of life as well as human consciousness – or consciousness generally.

Of course Christianity has and continues to offer an inherently consistent answer to the question of the teleology we see in the universe. When Genesis describes God speaking the universe into existence it provides the bridge between the underlying principles, the forms that exist in the eternal mind of God and the reality that we experience as the universe. We see not only the receptacle of the natural laws that govern nature, a place both outside the universe and consistent with it, but we see how such laws could be invested in the fabric of the universe itself. A Christian view of the universe encompasses both Plato and Aristotle.

It also aids us in understanding why our minds comprehend the universe at all. If it is true that we are ‘created in the image of God’ then we derive from God the ability to conceptualize the principles that underlay the structure of nature – we are both the product of the mind of God, and we share with it the ability to comprehend its works.

That modern thinkers are beginning to see the underlying purpose of the universe is no surprise. If men are honest observers, whatever winding roads they might follow they arrive back at the same place despite their desires to end up somewhere else.

As a Christian I believe the universe was structured so that, as Romans says, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” If that is true, then the simplest man or the most sophisticated thinker should be able to observe nature and have some notion that it exists for a purpose – and that certainly appears to be the case.


The Necessity of Meaning

January 15, 2013

The Atlantic recently featured an article called the There’s More to Life Than Being Happy which considers the difference between mere happiness and having purpose. The piece outlines the difference between the fleeting and selfish desire to be happy versus the lasting value of outward focused meaning which can endure even the greatest suffering. The article highlights the life of Viktor Frankl, a prominent 20th century Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who wrote a seminal book on meaning inspired by his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp called, Man’s Search for Meaning. The article explains the essence of the Frankl’s understanding of what lay at the core of those who survived the horrors of the concentration camps:

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”

In reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many conversations I have had with atheists, particularly those of the New Atheist variety concerning the importance of meaning. Whenever I point out (as I often have) that the materialism and naturalism upon which New Atheism is derived essentially renders human life without purpose, atheists begin by pooh-poohing the importance of meaning and then blithely claim that meaning can be created for oneself. Frankl’s witness seems to undermine that proposition; it’s not so easy to lie to oneself when circumstances dictate otherwise. In a concentration camp either one has intrinsic purpose beyond the experience or one succumbs to the suffering.

But the absence of meaning doesn’t just weaken our ability to face suffering; it also corrupts us and increases our tendency to cause others to suffer. In his examination of the motivations of the Nazi regime, Frankl came to this conclusion:

If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone.

I became acquainted with the last stages of corruption in my second concentration camp in Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: Introduction to Logotherapy, 1982, p. xxi)

This captures as much as anything why as a Christian I see it as critically important to argue against the materialism and naturalism of New Atheism; it is damaging to the well-being of individuals and it is ultimately damaging to society as a whole. Apart from seeing in men the image of God and believing that He has a plan and purpose for our lives we have no substantive basis for hope and meaning.


Good Reasons to Believe

January 14, 2013

I enjoyed this recent clip from a discussion at a Cornell forum titled The Finite and the Infinite: Two Scientists discuss Nature, Knowledge, and Faith with MIT nuclear physicist Ian Hutchinson and  Cornell theoretical chemist Roald Hoffmann. In it Ian Hutchinson briefly gives five types reasons for believing in God, which include arguments, evidences, immediate personal experiences, organization and utility.  I think it is important that he highlights all five because understanding what is true requires not only that we find some evidence to justify our belief, but that the claims we are considering are inherently consistent across a range of thought processes – that is that the logic is consistent with the evidence, which is consistent with one’s personal experience as well as with history and the ability to apply the knowledge.

This explains in large part why I am a Christian – I have found the truth claims for Christianity to be consistent when considered from several different angles. It is a holistic thought process. That is why I came to eventually abandon materialism and naturalism as viable philosophies. A clip from the discussion is below:


Observations

January 3, 2013

“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”
—C.S. Lewis
The Case for Christianity, p. 32.


Free Will and Evil

January 1, 2013

As often happens during times of great tragedy of the sort we saw recently in Connecticut, there are a number of questions about how a good God could allow such events to occur. I personally think much is explained by the existence of free will and how if God did intend to create mankind as creatures with free will, inherent in that act was at least the possibility they would do acts that lead to the suffering of others. This video is a succinct presentation about the connection between free will and evil, and how it frames our view of the goodness of God.

I would further contend that we intuit this connection between free will and evil actions. For example when one considers much modern fiction, when the plot involves humans creating a self-aware artificial intelligence, more often than not the intelligence turns on its creator, i.e. man. From HAL of 2001 a Space Odyssey to Skynet in the Terminator movies or the intelligence that oversees The Matrix we see there is an inherent realization that whenever an intelligence can choose to operate outside the parameters for which it was designed there is the possibility it will use that power to destroy.

In fact, I would argue the notion of evil is much more problematic from the perspective of atheistic philosophies like naturalism and materialism than it is for the Christian. As no actions within those philosophies can be considered inherently evil, and as those beliefs render free will illusory, there is no ultimate explanation for why we categorize some human actions as evil and others as good. If there is neither intention for our behavior nor a plan for our existence then our actions merely are what they are, no different than the behavior of any other organism on the planet.

A Christian has no such dilemma; our belief is rationally superior to atheism because it can coherently acknowledge the horror of suffering and reality of evil, empathizing with the sufferers while gently and lovingly affirming the goodness of God.


The Programming of Life

December 19, 2012

There was a revealing article recently on ScienceDaily concerning a novel approach to determining how life originated. Up until now most scientists have been trying to chemically synthesize the organic compounds integral to the structures of life in hopes of determining how life might have originated through natural processes. To say the least this has been an abysmal failure. There is in fact no evidence that living organisms originated through unguided natural processes. One of the reasons it has been a failure is because scientists have attempted to reconstruct the chemical structures of life, while ignoring the fact that life at its core is an information processing system – something I have been pointing out for years. Now it seems that some scientists are finally coming to the same conclusion:

Now, a novel approach to the question of life’s origin, proposed by two Arizona State University scientists, attempts to dramatically redefine the problem. The researchers — Paul Davies, an ASU Regents’ Professor and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and Sara Walker, a NASA post-doctoral fellow at the Beyond Center — published their theory in the Dec. 12 issue of the Royal Society journal Interface.

In a nutshell, the authors shift attention from the “hardware” — the chemical basis of life — to the “software” — its information content. To use a computer analogy, chemistry explains the material substance of the machine, but it won’t function without a program and data. Davies and Walker suggest that the crucial distinction between non-life and life is the way that living organisms manage the information flowing through the system.

I for one applaud this change of strategy because at least it acknowledges the right problem. That being said, I am certain they will face the same frustrations those focused on the chemical origin of life have because information systems simply can’t originate apart from the intention of a mind.

Perhaps it will take a few more decades of failure for science to realize this obvious fact.

 


Observations

December 10, 2012

Those who deny the existence of the spiritual shouldn’t complain when our celebrations becomes exercises in materialistic consumption.