Monday, July 21, 2008

Am I a weird naturalist?

My concept of the natural happens to exclude God, since on the working definition that I operate from, teleological and intentional explanations are basic explanations. But God has a character, a nature, and if we knew enough about that character we would be able to predict God's actions. To some extent people are able to predict the actions of God. So if that makes God natural by your definition, I have no trouble with God being natural, or even, for that matter, God being physical.

In defining the physical, my dissertation advisor Hugh Chandler once, in class said that physics is whatever physics quantifies over, and some theories quantify over God, therefore if those theories are true, then God is physical.

Biology is the science of living things, theology is the science of God. Gosh, maybe I'm a naturalist after all. Just a weird one.

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11 Comments:

At 7/21/2008 10:12:00 PM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

To some extent people are able to predict the actions of God.

I disagree. To no extent can anyone predict the actions of God. There's plenty of superstitious, post-game speculation out there, but no prediction and no "science of god".

Moreover, God has to be predictable in practice to be explanatory. All you have to do to see this is substitute "Theory of Everything" (ToE) for "God".

Physicists don't have a ToE, but some hope to find one. Imagine that you and a physicist are having coffee together, when your coffee mug teleports to the other side of the table.

You: "Wow! Never seen that before!"

Physicist: "Me neither. But I can explain it. That teleportation is explained by the Theory of Everything!"

You: "Really? What does the Theory of Everything say?"

Physicist: "Ah, well, I don't know what the Theory says because we haven't formulated or discovered it as yet. However, any Theory of Everything would, by definition, predict that event."

What's wrong with this?

Clearly, the physicist is attempting to explain something with the mere placeholder (or name) for the theory instead of the theory itself. What the physicist should say is that he could explain the teleportation IF he knew the rules of the Theory of Everything and could make predictions with those rules.

Similarly, when people say God explains X, they really mean that if we knew the mind of God, we would have a predictive explanation for X. However, we don't know the mind of God so we don't have an explanation. Not unless the fictional physicist is allowed to keep his explanatory power too.

One more question. Imagine that I declared my ToE to be deterministic, but unknowable. Do I even have the pretense of a predictive explanation? Would my ToE have more explanatory power than "fate"?

 
At 7/22/2008 12:18:00 AM , Anonymous Nullasalus said...

I'd agree that it's possible to take such a view. In fact, I'd take it myself.

In fact, couldn't someone argue that this was how science got off the ground in the west - the idea that since the universe is the product of a rational mind, and humans too have rational minds, we should be able to successfully investigate and understand nature itself?

Granted, you can argue God is beyond and separate from creation - but I don't find any more reason to therefore regard God as a non-naturalist 'thing' than it would be to regard a computer simulation as somehow 'not natural', because it takes place in a reality beneath our own.

And it's not to say there couldn't be a competing naturalist explanation of 'just is' either. Either way, I believe I see and sympathize with Victor's reasoning.

 
At 7/22/2008 06:56:00 AM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Nullasalus,

In fact, couldn't someone argue that this was how science got off the ground in the west - the idea that since the universe is the product of a rational mind, and humans too have rational minds, we should be able to successfully investigate and understand nature itself?

I don't see it.

1) Assume we are rational.

2) Assume the world can be studied rationally, as we are doing here.

(your argument starts here)

3) Assume the world was created by a rational mind.

4) Assume (again) that we too have rational minds.

5) Assume that rational minds only create rational worlds or that we happen to be living in one of the rational ones.

6) Therefore, we are rational and the world can be studied rationally, as we are doing here.

The argument is circular. The conclusions are needed to make the argument itself. God is redundant because we can simply assume we have rational minds in a rational universe and go about our business.

Personally, I suspect that some forward-thinking Christians made this (invalid) argument to church leadership in order to persuade the church to permit scientific investigation (for the first time in almost a thousand years), and the ploy worked.

 
At 7/22/2008 08:53:00 AM , Anonymous Nullasalus said...

Doctor Logic,

Not quite.

1) Assume the world was the product of a rational mind.

2) Assume a world created by a rational mind could be investigated (at least in part) by rational minds.

3) Assume we have rational minds.

And there's a tidy justification for the project.

You don't need to assume the world is wholly rational, that we are wholly rational, or that the rational is wholly open to investigation.

Granted, you can just try to brute-force the idea of 'nature is open to rational investigation, and I have no idea why it would be' - it's just awkward and unpersuasive, especially in a pre-science context. Easy to see why it took a theistic viewpoint to really get the project off the ground.

 
At 7/22/2008 10:35:00 AM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Nullasalus,

What I am saying is that you are already assuming you can reason about the world around you when you employ an argument that concludes that you can reason about the world around you.

Suppose you think your rational faculties don't work. In that case, you can't make your argument because your faculties aren't up to the task. If you assume your faculties are up to the task, why should you think you can reason about God and the world? You cannot, so the proof fails unless you first assume you can reason about God and the world. However, these first assumptions about your abilities cannot also be the conclusions of your argument unless the argument is circular.

 
At 7/22/2008 12:29:00 PM , Anonymous Nullasalus said...

What's at question isn't just whether I am a rational agent, but whether nature is itself rational (In the sense that nature operates in an orderly, reasonable and understandable way.) It could be the case that I am rational, but nature is not - maybe it's subject to behaviors that defy rationality at its base, maybe the behaviors are subject to irrational and fundamental change.

I'm not offering a theistic proof that the world is rational. In fact, I'm not really offering any kind of philosophical proof at all. It's a justification for investigation from a theistic point of view. "If I'm a rational agent, and God is a rational agent, I have reason to entertain the possibility that God's creation is amenable to investigation." And so the investigation begins.

 
At 7/22/2008 01:07:00 PM , Blogger Victor Reppert said...

I expect the laws of nature to remain stable and not be changed because that is what I expect from a rational being. You expect the laws of nature to remain stable because...they always have been.

I am immediately aware of the workings of an intelligent mind. I know what such a mind is like.

 
At 7/22/2008 06:27:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

" expect the laws of nature to remain stable and not be changed because that is what I expect from a rational being. "

Really? Rational beings change their minds all the time. I would expect the laws of nature to change at the whim of the mind that supposedly brought them into existence. Especially in light of the evidence of that beings activity in the Christian Bible.

 
At 7/23/2008 06:42:00 AM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Nullasalus,

It could be the case that I am rational, but nature is not - maybe it's subject to behaviors that defy rationality at its base, maybe the behaviors are subject to irrational and fundamental change.

I see at least three problems with this.

You are taking the approach that, generally, we ought not assume that experience is intelligible. However, that in itself requires a belief that questions about intelligibility are intelligible.

We can try to rescue the idea by assuming that reasoning about reasoning (meta-reasoning?) is intelligible axiomatically. In which case, you might still argue that we cannot know that other domains of experience are intelligible. So theology and nature may be unintelligible unless we assume them to be intelligible.

But in trying to reduce the number of assumptions, you end up substituting many assumptions for one simple assumption. Instead of simply assuming nature is intelligible, you assume there is a God, assume questions about God are intelligible, assume God is rational, and assume God uses his rationality to make nature and himself intelligible to you. There's no economy, and I've never seen a better target for Ockham's Razor.

The third problem is that the assumption of intelligibility (induction) underlies rationality itself. I don't think there's any penalty for assuming intelligibility.

 
At 7/25/2008 02:01:00 AM , Anonymous Nullasalus said...

"You are taking the approach that, generally, we ought not assume that experience is intelligible. However, that in itself requires a belief that questions about intelligibility are intelligible."

Not really. In fact, it seems that you're spending so much time trying to tortuously reword what I say into something more complicated and wholly other in the hopes of knocking it down that you may well not be grasping my words at all.

Sure, there's an 'Assume there's a God' - we're talking about the theistic perspective here. But there's no 'Assume God is rational, assume God uses nature to make himself intelligible, assume questions about God/nature are rational' going on. If you believe God could be a rational agent, and that God created nature, you have then and there good justification to investigate nature.

God does not have to be assumed to be totally rational. Nor does nature. Nor do you have to speculate about God's purposes, or elsewise. You can get by on 'may'. You don't need the prospect of total success, or fatalistic 'God wants me to investigate' thoughts to justify the project. "I am a (partly, if you insist) rational agent, some things such an agent produces can be understood. Nature may be produced by a (partly, again if you insist) rational agent." is plenty of justification.

And yes, you can put your hands on your hips, glare, and declare "Yeah well, I can just assume nature may be rational, for the reason that it just may well be rational period! My idea is simpler! Ockham's razor!" At that point, it'd be worth pointing out that using Ockham's razor suchwise in a situation of pre-scientific speculation about nature is rather awkward. Second, you invite an argument on whether it's an accurate use of the razor anyway, since a brute force "It just could be!" may be reducing entities beyond necessity.

Finally, your argument seems to be 'Okay, so the justification worked and science did rise under western theism, but I can think of a better justification to have started it off!' To which my reply is, "That's nice. Then go ask yourself why the western theist's reasoning is what led to the rise of science."

Wait, I can imagine. "It just did, there's no reason." Mmm, gotta love those simple "explanations". ;)

 
At 7/25/2008 07:03:00 AM , Blogger Doctor Logic said...

Nullasalus,

Sorry for the confusion. I thought you were making a stronger claim about theism being a more likely and more rational starting point for science, and you weren't saying that at all.

As for history, what do you think of Ancient Greek science? Scientific investigation predates the argument you're making.

Systematic investigation of nature was around a long time before this "rationality of god" argument. Christianity halted science for a thousand years, and it's misleading to suggest that Christianity gave us science. Christianity all but destroyed science, and then used the "rationality of god and nature" argument as an excuse to let it continue.

 

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