Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Free Parking and Improving the Universe

A redated post

Why didn't God create us with wings on our backs to fly? This is the question John Loftus asks. I can imagine various reasons why God did not choose to do this; I am not at all sure that making humans more powerful would be at all good for nature as a whole, or even for humans in the final analysis. But be that as it may, let me grant, for the sake of argument, that I can't think of any good reason why God couldn't have given us all wings. Exactly what does that buy the atheist? Why is this any different from the argument that says "There are gaps in the fossil record, I can't see how evolution could have make these transition, therefore there is no naturalistic explanation for these transitions and a creator must exist." If I were to present an argument like that over at Debunking Christianity, what would they say, do you think? They would say that there may be an explanation for this particular gap in the fossil record that we haven't figured out. Yet, when atheists are using the argument from evil, they use a gap in our understanding as to why God would permit such and such as a basis for rejecting theism. Why?

Let's take a humbler example. Many Monopoly players try to make the game more fun by collecting all the payments to the bank from various sources and putting them on Free Parking. Then when someone lands on Free Parking, they get all that money. And there is nothing wrong with changing the rules in that way. However, there is a reason why the game itself doesn't do that, which was explained in The Monopoly Book. Monopoly games tend to be long, but the game ends when all but one player goes bankrupt. Taking money that would otherwise have gone into that bank and putting it back into the hands of players slows down this process and makes the game even longer.

Now, I had never thought of that. What looked like an improvement to the game of Monopoly had a downside I didn't realize until it was pointed out to me. So what about my suggestions for improving the universe. The makers of Monopoly are mere mortals. What about a being of infinite intelligence? Is it not at least possible that from the point of view of Omniscience our proposed improvements for the universe really might not turn out to be improvements after all. Think about that next time your opponent lands on Park Place when you have a monopoly there.

23 comments:

Mike D said...

The theme of making changes to the way the world works has been most often explored in film and fiction in relation to time travel. The exposition of the concept concludes that one seemingly minor change actually carries great implications. The challenge with suggesting a change should include an account of all the peripheral changes requried to make it work. I've played Monopoly with the Free Space rule. The whole strategy of the game changes. Success is no longer measured by the wisdom of your investments and savings. Success is measured by how many times you win the lottery. One change of the rules creates a whole new reality with its own set of values.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,

Speaking of improving the universe it would appear that having women's hip bones be a bit wider, or having them open up more completely and more flexibly during birth, would avert a lot of pain, and lower mortality rates for both newborns and mothers during childbirth. There was a pictorial and article about the evolution of upright hominids in National Geographic, "The Downside of Upright," that explained the increased dangers during childbirth since humans have evolved an upright stance simultaneously with a larger cranium. The circle of bone through which the newborn must pass has narrowed as a result of the evolution of the hips for bi-pedalism.

I've mentioned before that I don't think much of philosophy concerning the big questions. We could go round and round over the fact that there's pain and death a plenty on this planet with the young of most species dying soon after fertilization (something like 50% of conceived eggs simply die, even in human beings); or they die during birth (see article); or they die during infancy or early childhood from a wide possible range of viruses, bacteria or even larger parasitic species or even members of the same species or larger predators who feast on the young (in fact a large percentage of the young of ALL species are devoured by such diseases); or they die of starvation or dehydration or natural disasters; or, most importantly, they die before they reach the age at which they are sexually mature and can pass along their genes to the next generation. Even if they survive all that, if they are male, they may get shunned by females of their species who prefer a different male, or they may engage in competitions of various sorts in which one male "wins" and gets to mate with the female while the other may perish or more likely slink off and not get to pass along their genes. So there's a series of "hurdles" each living things passes through before it can get to leave its genes behind.

One could argue that "God" simply invented things that way, all the pain and suffering as added bonuses. All the "designs to defeat designs." Or maybe "God" employed Darwinian evolution and things grew that way. Or maybe "God" isn't exactly the "Christian" or "Greek philosophical" ideal? I dunno.

I do think however that some folks are going to say, "God knows why he did it, so how can we know all the consequences like He has them all figured out? So end of conversation about 'possible improvements.'"

While others are going to chime in with Voltaire who wrote, "The silly fanatic repeats to me... that it is not for us to judge what is reasonable and just in the great Being, that His reason is not like our reason, that His justice is not like our justice. Eh! how, you mad demoniac, do you want me to judge justice and reason otherwise than by the notions I have of them? Do you want me to walk otherwise than with my feet, and to speak otherwise than with my mouth?"

Some of my own questions concerning how the cosmos works and the inconceivably vast amount of apparent wastefullness it's machinations involve can be found in my tongue-in-cheek piece, "Why We Believe In A Designer," and also see this part of my reply to Dembski:

[The "Intelligent Designer" as the I.D.ists portray him to be] doesn't sound like a highly impressive "micro manager," I mean, "perfecting" so many species only for them to become extinct over and over again.

Here's a question I have, based on three examples from nature: 1) The BEDBUG -- The male bedbug has a penis that penetrates the females abdomen in a traumatic act, but here's the point I want to raise, only a single species of bedbug is known to have evolved to the point that males of that species penetrate the abdomens of OTHER MALES while the first male is inseminating a female. 2) The BOMBADIER BEETLE -- Only one species of "bombadier" beetle has a moving turret to direct its spray, the rest can only spray in one direction, usually covering their own backs, and other species of beetles have similar overall anatomies and have chambers and produce similar chemicals but without spraying anything. 3) HOMO SAPIENS SAPIENS -- There is only one surviving species of human being but multiple known species of primitive primate and hominid species, all extinct. Based on such examples, my question is why does specialization in the cases I have cited always leave behind MANY less highly "specialized" species when compared with the far FEWER number of relatively more highly specialized species? If a Designer is micromanaging the process, then why leave the majority of creatures "behind" as it were? Isn't that more a prediction of evolution than "design?" To put it another way: Why should a Designer require over two billion years simply to move from the earliest known SINGLE-celled creature to the first MULTI-cellular species? Why does a Designer require millions of years to produce human beings from their nearest cousins and also have to leave behind so many extinct primate species and then extinct hominid species in the process?

thinking human said...

Vic, depends whether you enjoy playing Monopoly whether a longer game is a plus or not.

Ed - Here's one more for you: what exactly is the ID purpose of 3,000 species of cockroaches?

nedbrek said...

Remember that the Biblical view of the world is that the world as we know it now compared to the world God created is like a car after a car wreck.

Asking, "Why did GM make a car with a smashed windshield? Wouldn't a complete, sealed one be better?" isn't really useful...

The Discomfiter said...

Vic,

Try to refute this updated Loftusian argument.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,

Humanity can't seem to NOT consider possible ways to "improve the universe," or try and make things "better."

We are homo "invention-us." And we don't settle for what "is," but have invented tools and ways to use them to build even finer tools, giving us everything from agriculture to better dwellings with plumbing to vaccines to writing enjoyable music and finding new ways to make new sounds, all the way to inventing news ways to examine the cosmos and ourselves, and to communicate with each other and store vast masses of information on tiny chips made out the same elements found in sand. If we ceased inventing new things and put down our tools, and let the first fire burn out, or scrapped the first wheel, and simply lived without nothing more than God gave Adam and Eve, then we'd be aboriginies.

No matter where our inventiveness and technological strivings take us, not many of us wish to turn back to aboriginal ways. So, yes, we CAN imagine things "better than they are," including maybe genetically engineering wings for those who want them (which as stated by someone else would sure help us diminish our use of gas).

Maybe the consequences of all our tool making and inventiveness will lead to ecological disasters, maybe even our extinction, but nature has her own ways of knocking off species on a planet, quite a few of them in fact, from a super-sized stellar flare to asteroid and cometary impacts to stars passing too near our own or going nova near us, to a black hole sucking us in, to our own sun dying out, not to mention more local catastrophies as well, from global warming to ice ages to super volcanoes errupting. And at least we dreamed, we peering into the cosmos as far as we could while we were here. (We also kicked the shite out of each other for reasons both noble and insignificant and confusing and psychotic as one could name.)

Ingersoll summed it up, "Bar me from the garden of Eden if you must, but I am going to bite the apple of knowledge first."

Edward T. Babinski said...

Dear nedbrek,
Not every Christian agrees this cosmos is a "car wreck," as you put it.

Besides, if you take the primeval history portion of Genesis (chapters 1-11) literally, why is it so much better to believe that God ruined his own perfect creation, building in such things as "carnivore genes" all hidden away inside all of those vegetarians just waiting to pop out and re-create the world into a form of hell, including poisons, fangs, volcanoes, viruses, bacteria, large craniums of human fetuses trying to squeeze past the deadly narrow hips of womankind? God wrought all that.

And how exactly is it so much better to believe that God literally drowned his creation with the excuse, "I repent that I made man in the first place?"

Sounds to me like if you take the primeval history portions of Genesis (chapters 1-11) literally, then God took a bite of forbidden fruit so personally that he "drove His own car" into the "ditch" you mentioned.

Not to mention that if you take Genesis 1-11 literally you wind up with a God who couldn’t think of anything better than flooding the whole earth to kill the people He was after. That’s like burning down the barn to kill some rats, or using a sledgehammer to debug a rosebush. Even the world’s dumbest surgeon doesn’t use a guillotine to remove a mole on someone’s neck.

I don’t know who the worst sinners are on this planet, but I am quite sure that if a High Intelligence wanted to exterminate them, It would find a very precise method of locating each one separately. Carelessly murdering millions of innocent children and harmless old ladies and dogs and cats in the process is absolutely and ineluctably to state that your idea of God is of a cosmic imbecile.

A “God” intelligent enough to design even a molecule, let alone a whole universe, would, if he-she-or-it went loony and decided to take up murder, still be intelligent enough to murder only the people he-she-or-it disliked. Accepting the dubious Warren Commission Report, even Lee Harvey Oswald only hit one innocent bystander (the governor). The early Old Testament “God” appears not only as crazy as Oswald but clumsier, stupider and generally less civilized.

“Bible believers” are constantly telling us how wicked the people were who lived in the days before Noah’s Flood. In Biblical plays and movies you can practically feel the evil oozing out of them. By Jupiter, you can almost see it! But could they have done any wicked thing that hasn’t been done by folks after the Flood? Conversely, if you examine the worst corner of the globe at its sorriest moment in history you will still find, by any reasonable standard of decency, a fair number of decent people. And, don’t forget the children!

Die-hard Bible believers answer curtly that the children were part of the cancer that had to be cut out! Their poor limited God had no choice, I suppose. He couldn’t let pre-Flooders corrupt the purity of post-Flood generations. The fact that Noah got stinking drunk after the Flood and was shamed by one of his own sons whom he subsequently cursed, only points toward how much worse things would have been had Noah rescued a single pre-Flood baby by stowing it away aboard the ark. I shudder to think what might have happened had that rescued child’s progeny one day wandered into Sodom and Gomorrah, thereby staining the reputation of those two cities.
_______________

The Deluge: A punishment inflicted on the human race by an all-knowing God, who, through not having foreseen the wickedness of men, repented of having made them, and drowned them once for all to make them better--an act which, as we all know, was accompanied by the greatest success.

Voltaire, Dictionary of Theology
_______________

QUESTION

Why did God fill the world with his own children, knowing that he would have to destroy them? And why does this same God tell me how to raise my children when he had to drown his?

Robert Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses

Mike D said...

Ed, you are too dismissive of Nedbreck's "car wreck." The vast majority of Christians agree that creation "groans" [Romans 8:19-22] under the affects of sin. This is relevant to complaints about how God could have created things better. If we assume that everything we observe is the way God created it, we can easily err. Christians tend to agree that the world was created good but is far from good now.

The biblical history of faith includes fist-shaking at God. Sometimes the fist-shaking is at God's goodness to people who harm others. Believing in the goodness of God is no simple task to the thoughtful.

Steven Carr said...

I can't think of any downside to God helping doctors find a vaccine for HIV.

Does this mean God should help doctors find a vaccine for HIV?

nedbrek said...

Edward T. Babinski:
I'm going to respond in pieces...

"Besides, if you take the primeval history portion of Genesis (chapters 1-11) literally, why is it so much better to believe that God ruined his own perfect creation"

We ruined creation. We handed it over to Satan. Reread Genesis 3:18, "[Because you are separated from Me] Thorns also and thistles shall it [the ground] bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field". The world does not function correctly without God (and we pushed Him out).

"And how exactly is it so much better to believe that God literally drowned his creation with the excuse, "I repent that I made man in the first place?"

Sounds to me like if you take the primeval history portions of Genesis (chapters 1-11) literally, then God took a bite of forbidden fruit so personally that he "drove His own car" into the "ditch" you mentioned."

Genesis 6:12 "And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth." All flesh. Noah was the last to carry the uncorrupted seed of the woman (who would be fulfilled in Christ). Everyone and everything else was broken (possibly even more broken than now). God didn't decide to corrupt everything, that was us. And we made God sad.

Victor Reppert said...

Steven Carr: I can't think of any downside to God helping doctors find a vaccine for HIV.

Does this mean God should help doctors find a vaccine for HIV?

VR: I can't see how the bacterial flagellum could have evolved. Does that mean that it didn't evolve?

Mike D said...

Steven Carr: I can't think of any downside to God helping doctors find a vaccine for HIV.

Does this mean God should help doctors find a vaccine for HIV?

mdarus: You have made a dramatic shift from the idea of some that God could-have/should-have created the world without HIV to God could-help/should-help humans mitigate the evils in the world.

One of the interesting up-sides to evil is the opportunity for people to experince significance and purpose in the eradication of the affects of evil.

Matthew said...

"Why didn't God create us with wings on our backs to fly?"

Here I was thinking: "Uuuuh, that's almost as stupid as John Loftus' "can prayer change the past"-argument.

"This is the question John Loftus asks."

And here I was thinking: "Wow, I should have seen this coming."

Matthew said...

Steve, maybe God thinks it's better not to get HIV in the first place.

Maybe God knows that you almost never get HIV if you don't have sex before marriage and if people would not have sex before marriage, HIV would be almost completely gone.

Maybe God should command people not to have sex before marriage.

GOD, WHY HAVEN'T YOU TOLD THEM?

Oh, wait ...

Mark Frank said...

I can't think of any good reason why God couldn't have given us all wings. Exactly what does that buy the atheist? Why is this any different from the argument that says "There are gaps in the fossil record, I can't see how evolution could have make these transition, therefore there is no naturalistic explanation for these transitions and a creator must exist.

There are important differences between the two arguments:

(A)
Hypothesis: There is a benevolent, omnipotent God.

Data: there are unexplained bad things in the universe – people can’tfly/there is much suffering etc.

Conclusion: the lack of an explanation is evidence against the existence of such a God
(I would concede that this is only an argument against benevolent, omnipotent deities. Limited or malevolent deities are not affected).

(B)

Hypothesis: There has been continuous evolution from a common ancestor based on Darwinian principles

Data: there are unexplained gaps in the fossil record

Conclusion: the lack of an explanation is evidence against Darwinian evolution

Differences

In a sense both arguments are valid – the data (if true) present a problem for the hypothesis. So argument (A) buys something for the person who doesn't believe in a Christian deity and argument (B) buy something (very small) for the anti-evolutionist. - but there are massive differences between them which greatly affect the strength of the two arguments.

1)
There are some unexplained gaps in the fossil record but gaps keep on getting filled in objectively verifiable ways e.g through discovery of intermediate forms. I am not aware of any such objective solutions to questions about God’s purposes.

2)
Those gaps in the fossil record that are not filled can potentially be filled through research, experiment and observation. It is not clear how to solve questions about God’s purposes – debate, revelation, Bible study? In any case it is clearly going to be a very different process.

3)
(B) has an additional conclusion which does not appear justified.
“ therefore there is no naturalistic explanation for these transitions and a creator must exist”
The equivalent for (A) would be
“therefore there is no supernatural explanation for these bad things” and this clearly does not follow.

Blip said...

Mark Frank,

I'm having trouble seeing the "massive differences" - with regard to 1), transitional forms are contestable, they are (very rarely) complete skeletons and usually end up as extrapolations from a peculiar shaped hip-bone or whatever.

Additionally, there is a consensus in philosophy that, for example, the logical argument from evil doesn't work, and now attention has been switched to the evidential formulations. And new theodicies are always being proposed/rejected etc. Why isn't this objective progress?

I'm not sure what you think warrants the differences being significant rather than insignificant- they don't seem that different tot me.

Mark Frank said...

Blip

I think you will find that transitional forms vary in completeness but importantly they are observations that are predicted and turn out to be there.

Transitional forms are not the only data. You might for example think that the presence of marsupials in South America was a problem for common descent but the discovery of plate tectonics combined with older marsupial fossils provides a strong explanation. It is a web of different types of observation: fossils, geology,genetics, cladistics etc all of which support each other.

Anyone who thinks that any issue in philosophy is settled needs to read more history of philosophy. The consensus moves this way and that, but rarely settles. In my day the consensus was that the way to do philosophy was carefully observe our ordinary use of language. The only time that you ever get a lasting agreement on a philosophical issue is when it becomes science.

The reason is that philosophy is not subject to the test of prediction and experience - only to other philosopher's arguments.

Suppose all philosophers were in consensus that a new of flying machine would work - but it had never been tested. Would you fly in it?

Rob G said...

"if you take the primeval history portion of Genesis (chapters 1-11) literally"

This doesn't follow from belief in some sort of primeval Fall. Numerous Christians accept the idea that God created the universe, without interpreting Genesis literalistically. The same is true for the Fall.

**If a Designer is micromanaging the process, then why leave the majority of creatures "behind" as it were?**

There is nothing in Christian theology that requires belief in the idea that God micromanages the universe.

Blip said...

Suppose all philosophers were in consensus that a new of flying machine would work - but it had never been tested. Would you fly in it?

I guess not; I'd say the philosophers were speaking beyond their expertise.

There is a fair bit of consensus in philosophy though - the failure of logical positivism and of phenomalism, say. This seems like progress to me.

Nor is philosophy immune to prediction and confirmation - for example, if Aristotelian essentialism is true then we would expect there to be non trivial properties that essential are essential to persons. Kripke's discovery of the essentiality of origins to a person's identity can be construed as a confirmation of this theory.

And I don't really see much consensus in science either. People still debate to what extent evolution is true (ID etc.), and whether or not the Big Bang is true (Fred Hoyle is still pumping out steady state theories, and controversy still rages about the interpretation of redshifts etc), and whether or not the earth is the center of the universe or not (there are still modern geocentrists). So no settled agreement here!

Blip said...

I think the difference between philosophy and science is one of degree, not of kind.

Blip said...

Oops, Fred Hoyle died in 2001! But I was told he was sceptically to the end.

Eric Koski said...

On a naturalistic and Darwinian view, it would be most surprising if there weren't 'gaps in the fossil record': http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/30/reflections-on-an-oyster/.

The bacterial flagellum is 'irreducibly complex' and hence couldn't have evolved: http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/design2/article.html.

Eric Koski said...

I'm still waiting for the explanation reconciling smallpox, dengue, cholera, filariasis, malaria, influenza, bubonic plague, pancreatic cancer, leukemia, and the Lisbon Earthquake with a perfect and loving God. Admittedly, the evidence isn't all in.

Interestingly, there is probably now more human talent and energy going into the theological enterprise than at any past time in human history. Paradoxically (perhaps), this is due to the cultural surplus made possible by scientific advances. So it's no surprise that new theodicies are being proposed; what's harder is to show that they really convey new insights or are improvements over what preceded them.

I suppose I should express myself with greater care, lest someone think I'm indeed proposing that new evidence will provide a God-vindicating explanation of disease and natural disaster ...