Friday, 14 June 2013

Doctor Pangloss conquers the Multiverse

On holiday, I read Why there is Almost Certainly a God (subtitled Doubting Dawkins) by the theologian and philosopher Keith Ward. I'd originally meant to get around to reading Unapologetic, Francis Spufford's defence of religion. It's on my reading list because Spufford's an intelligent guy and a fine writer.

The reason I haven't exactly fallen over myself in my rush to read Unapologetic, and ended up reading Ward instead, is that Spufford explicitly says he's going to duck the central question of whether there's any good reason for supposing that his religious beliefs are literally true ('The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don't talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue').

As far as I can see, 'a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made' defines religion far more precisely than Spufford's alternative definitions  ('a structure of feeling' or 'a way of dealing with the territory of guilt and hope and sorrow and joy'). If religion was nothing to do with truth-claims and everything to do with feeling and experience, then all human beings would be religious (with a few possible exceptions, such as people with extreme personality disorders or crippling psychological deficits).

It's accepting specific claims about the existence and importance of a supernatural realm (generally involving at least one deity) that makes a person a believer rather than a non-believer. Feelings of human solidarity, transcendence, guilt, awe,forgiveness and so on, can't be the defining characteristics of one particular religion, or of religion in general because they can be experienced by people of all faiths and none.*

Ward is  less intellectually dazzling than Spufford, but at least he plods directly towards the matter at issue, rather than dancing sure-footedly around it. He may not very be very convincing, but he does get directly stuck in to some of the the most interesting battles in the turf war between believers and non-believers.

The  proximate cause of Ward's book was the classic gang war scenario of one gang rolling up on another gang's territory and showing ostentatious disrespect. Basically, Dawkins and his posse come on all 'philosophy of religion - is that even a thing?' and Ward's, like, 'screw you, man, theology and philosophy are, like, totally a thing - bitch!'

Then Ward pulls out the blade of finely -honed philosophical thought to cut Dawkins up, good and proper. Or tries to. For a trained philosopher, Ward blunders into a lot of logical fallacies - arguments from authority, begging the question, selective scepticism (if science can't definitively explain something like consciousness, we should be sceptical of science, but we should always reman open to the possibility that God exists and not let little details like lack of evidence get in the way) and arguments that undermine themselves.**

None of this is particularly new or special - in fact, the it's weakness of many similar supernatural explanations and apologetics that sustains my unbelief far more reliably than the polemics of engaged atheists. What is quite special about Ward's book is his interestingly bizarre and unorthodox form of cosmological theology.

Most theologians who touch on cosmology have a far more predictable reaction, being as comfortable with the subject as natural theologists once were with biology. All but hard-core creationists have now pretty much given up biology as a lost cause. There are a few possibly God-shaped holes in biological knowledge (like the proplem of consciousness which Ward highlights, or the lack a widely-agreeed account of how and where the first simple living cells were created from non-living chemistry), but there's a pretty complete, widely-accepted and successful theory that gets along quite well without reference to the world being assembled in seven days, talking snakes and so on. The theological consensus now seems to be that the Biblical creation story is a metaphor, and nobody ever really thought it was the literal truth (I'm sceptical about this revisionism - it's about as convincing the politician who gets filmed promising to peddle influence on behalf of a journalist posing as a lobbyist and then desperately insists that he or she was suspicious from the start and was just 'playing along' with the sting in a way that just happened to look corrupt to the untrained eye).

Cosmology, however, looks like a more God-friendly branch of science. Everything in our Universe suddenly appeared in the Big Bang, a sudden, single act of creation. Scientists either refuse to speculate about what happened before this, given the lack of evidence, or have a multitude of far-out and contradictory theories about what might have happened before the Big Bang (if you can even talk about 'before' with reference to an event which seems to have brought time as we know it into existence).

There's a long tradition of philosophical speculation about a First Cause (if cause and effect work in the world, philosophers argued, then something must have started the process without being itself caused, or the chain of cause and effect would just stretch back infinitely). Theologians have identified the First Cause with God. Therefore, just beyond the Big Bang is a good place for God, the First Cause who brought everything else into being without Himself needing to have been created, because He is the First Cause, right?

For theists, it gets better than that - to some people it almost looks as if the Universe was designed for beings like ourselves:
The fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood. 
 And where there seems to be design, the theists argue, there must be a designer. There may be a scientific consensus that dispenses with the need for a designer in the case of biological evolution, but there's no overwhelming consensus on why the Universe is the way it is, when there are so many other slightly alternative ways it could have been that wouldn't support life. Maybe Biblical creation myth was a divinely-inspired metaphor for such a creation from nothing, using concepts and language accessible to Bronze Age pastoralists.

I'd tend to agree that, even if this isn't evidence for God, it's the closest thing I've come across to evidence that there is something going on that requires a special explanation, in much the same way as biological complexity does. Not all physicists and cosmologists agree that the fine-turning is quite as fine as others have claimed and some point out that it's not quite that remarkable that, at a certain time in the development of the Universe, certain minuscule parts of our Universe are suitable for life, considering that most places in the Universe, at most times, are, have been and will be completely hostile to life as we know it and, anyway, what does 'improbable' and 'probable' even mean in the case of an event that only happened once?

But then again, how do we know that it only happened once? Maybe, if the Big Bang was the result of a natual process that happened once, it might have happened many times, in which case all sorts of universes, life-friendly and otherwise might have popped into existence any number of other times and ours is just one random Universe among many, one which happens to contain a tiny, life-friendly, speck that most of them don't.

It's usually when the idea of a Multiverse comes up that theolgians get less comfortable and start tut-tutting, saying that cosmologists have gone too far and are indulging in silly speculation. This isn't surprising - if you're committed to the idea of an intelligent creator, a cosmology that incudes one, unique, special act of creation that eventually lead to people like us (and would not have done, had the underlying constants been slightly different), sounds far more attractive than a Multiverse where the special circumstances that lead to humans  exist in a tiny subset of a vast array of randomly variable universes that make up the Multiverse.

Keith Ward is at least fresh and surprising among theologians in embracing the idea of a Multiverse. He has quite a bold vision of how God fits into such a Multiverse. Given the unimaginable scale of our own Universe, my mind's suitably boggled at the idea that one sentient being created it all and can comprehend and control it all whilst micromanaging His creation to the smallest detail ('Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.' - Matthew 10:29). But that's nothing compared to Ward's God, who has an even more challenging workload, not only managing one entire Universe down to sparrow level, but contemplating every possible alternative universe and bringing into being the ones He finds good, then being active and present in all of them.

This interesting notion all seems to be part of a attempt to explain the "problem of evil."  Why does evil happen? Because, according to Ward God isn't omnipotent. Or rather, Ward claims that God is omnipotent, except that omnipotent does't mean what you thought it meant (i.e. able to do absolutely anything, not limited in any way, that sort of thing).

It's quite interesting to follow Ward's thought process. He considers the idea that there might be lots of other universes, maybe an enormously large or even infinite number. In the latter case, everything that's physically possible might actually happen in some universe, including the really bad stuff:
Tegmark has argued further that, in an infinite array of universes, everything will happen an infinite number of times. Not only will I kill and eat my mother in some universe, I will do it over and over again. That thought is unbearable enough to make God a moral necessity.
According to Ward, God sits in the space where universes are created, thinking about all the different types of universe that could exist. Being supremely good, he doesn't allow evil universes teeming with cannibalistic, matriciadal philosopher-theologians to come into being at all, but only creates universes like our own, which He finds good.

But if He's all-powerful and supremely good and only allows good universes to come into being, why is there pain, suffering, injustice and all the rest in our universe? Because, says Ward, God's omnipotence is a limited sort of omnipotence, bound by the what the physical laws of nature allow (which might sort of make sense, although it makes it tricky to claim that the same supreme being also intervenes in our world and suspends physical laws at will every time He feels minded to perform a miracle):
 This is a universe of distinctive sorts of good, which could only exist in an evolutionary, emergent, law-based universe....perhaps beings such as ourselves could only exist in a universe with laws like the ones we have...

This may not be the best of all possible worlds.But it may be the only universe that we carbon-based life-forms can actualize. God may well desire such life-forms. In that case some evils must exist in our world.
Ward might protest that 'This may not be the best of all possible worlds', but that's more or less where his argument is going.

Think about it. God could, create any sort of universe. Being good, He doesn't create universes that would contain unbearable evil. He thinks it good to create a world containing beings like ourselves and, being good, He makes that universe as good as He can. But there are physical constraints on how to constuct a universe containing beings like us, which mean that our universe, although as good as He can make it, is sub-optimal and contains evil.

In other words, God did the best He could with the available materials. We don't live in the best of all worlds, but we do live in the best of all possible worlds, at least the best of the ones that are possible for beings like ourselves.

Philosophers might want to think twice before asserting that we live in a world created for our benefit by a benevolent deity who couldn't possibly have done things any better, because, as Pooh Bear discovered, 'you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.' People like Voltaire, for example:
Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove to admiration that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles, therefore My Lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten, therefore we eat pork all the year round: and they, who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."
Candide, Chapter 1

Got that? Lisbon earthquake and such notwithstanding, this is the best of all the possible worlds that a benevolent creator could have created for us, given the materials He had to work with. As subsequent history has confirmed:

This might not look like the best of all possible worlds, but at least it's better than the one where Keith Ward eats his mum.***

So there you have it. Where in the Multiverse would we be, without philosopher-theologians (or should that be 'metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigologists') to explain it all to the rest of us?

 *Some believers either think, or pretend, for rhetorical purposes, that all unbelievers are dessicated calculating machines, incapable of such feelings. If they're daft enough to believe it, or dishonest enough to assert it without really believing it, that's their problem - I'm not going to waste my time knocking down such a feeble straw man.

**For example, he cites the authority of pre-Darwinian philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley, Kant and Hegel to argue against a materialist explanation for biological complexity that didn't appear until Darwin, rather than actually addressing the theory he claims to refute.

And there's a lovely bit where he takes Dawkins and followers to task for selectively quoting some of the more violent and barbaric passages from the Old Testament without acknowledging that 'Later prophetic reflection leads to a greatly modified view of what God really requires .. What the Bible offers is a history of the development of the idea of God in ancient Hebrew religion' which shows 'how religious ideas developed over thousands of years.' OK, the Bible is more than just the nasty bits, but isn't this idea of gradual development, refinement and modification of ideas just  the sort of thing you'd expect from the sort of culturally specific traditions created by changeable, fallible humans, rather than the unchanging, timeless wisdom that you'd expect from a genuine divine revelation?

***Original image courtesy of Fungus Guy, published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.