Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Which I Foolhardily Take on Frank Tipler

I found this article via a link from intelligent design proponent William Dembski's blog Uncommon Descent.  Frank Tipler is a very serious cosmologist, and I find it frankly intimidating, as a scientific layman, to take issue with his arguments.  But I find them more than a little odd, and much of the oddness has very little to do with physics.  But then, I find it rather odd that Dembski, even if he's far from your typical young-earth creationist, would link so enthusiastically to this article.  Tipler is a rather unusual sort of Christian, as you can see from the article: he is not only a strict determinist, he identifies determinism with God's omniscience, which I'm pretty sure is a regarded as heterodox even by Calvinists.  "Things must happen this way" and "a Creator dwelling outside of time knows things will happen this way" are not the same statement and neither implies the other.

Tipler also asserts, in passing, that there is no real difference between organisms and machines: everything is a machine.  To be sure, Dembski probably has no real quarrel with this particular point; comparisons between living things and machines are a recurrent motif in their works.  Still, there's something mildly odd in seeing Christian apologetics come round to the position, seen as quite radical and materialistic in the 18th century, of La Mettrie's L'Homme Machine.

Tipler is commenting on the same book by Angelo Codevilla dealt with in an earlier post.  He sees the "ruling class" as dominated, intellectually, by "Darwinism" and the belief that the universe must, at bottom, be non-deterministic, stochastic and unpredictable, in which species and institutions are contingent (cf. Gould's comment in Wonderful Life that if we "rewound the tape" of life's history we'd surely get nothing like Homo sapiens),  and a "country class" dominated by the Newtonian view that the universe is rigidly deterministic and in which human beings were a foreordained outcome.  He states that Christians and Jews have never objected to common descent or having monkey ancestors (apparently I've been badly mistaken about the religious affiliations of a lot of prominent young-earth creationists -- and more importantly, so have they been), but only to the idea that nothing in nature made our arrival inevitable, the idea that we might never have evolved and that something else, perhaps intelligent, perhaps not, might have evolved in our stead.  To quite a few creationists, that we are radically separate, in kind and lineage, from other animals is at least as important as (if not indeed part and parcel of) the idea that we were foreordained.

Now, when Tipler says that we've known for decades that quantum indeterminacy is the result of interference from other universes, I cannot say whether he's right that this is the only sensible interpretation of the evidence or the equations; I can only note that, as a matter of empirical fact, quite a few physicists and cosmologists seem not to have got the message; they hold to rival interpretations of quantum theory that dismiss parallel universes and hold that the indeterminacy is quite real.  But when he says that Christians must accept determinism, I think this is a sense of "must" I have not previously encountered; I've run across Christian writers who in fact embrace indeterminacy as the key to free will and deny emphatically that the future is foreordained (even if it is foreknown by God).

Side note: I think Tipler is wrong when he says that "Darwinism" is incompatible with determinism.  He quotes a passage from Darwin in support of his view: "[If] we assume that each particular variation was from the beginning of all time preordained … natural selection or survival of the fittest, must appear to us superfluous laws of nature."  But having argued other people's actual opinions against Tipler's views of what they "must" think, I shall now turn around and point out that no matter what Darwin may have thought at a particular point in time (for at other points, he saw natural selection as compatible with determinism), if determinism is in fact true, then natural selection can be viewed as simply one level of explanation: how determinism looks when viewed at a particular level of detail.

Side note two: if the sort of multiple universes (the Everett "many worlds" interpretation) Tipler speaks of are real, then determinism is real: every possible outcome must take place.  We are foreordained by nature, but so are myriad different species of intelligent dinosaurs, and so are uncountable myriads of myriads of worlds where life never progressed beyond pond scum.  If human nature is foreordained in this sense, every possible sort of human nature (and there's no particular reason to suppose that the range of possible natures is narrowly limited) is foreordained and exists in some parallel universe (and for that matter, we cannot avoid the question of whether human nature in this universe is exactly what Tipler or Dembski expect or hope it to be).

I'm wondering how many ID advocates (never mind mere "I didn't come from a monkey" biblical creationists) would be quite happy with that sort of determinism, a determinism that still leaves humans as nothing special, and "foreordained" only in the sense that countless contrary possibilities were equally foreordained.  The Creator invoked by Tipler is rather sharply different from the Creator invoked by Ray Comfort, or even by Benjamin Franklin, and I think it's a bit misleading to talk as though calling them the same thing makes them the same thing.

Not such a side note: Tipler is mainly interested in whether human nature is foreordained or contingent, not in whether the properties of complex systems such as the U.S. economy or society can be predicted in detail.  Indeed, it seems to me that the goals of political conservatives and opponents of social engineering would be served by pointing out that however deterministic the world is in theory, in practice we just cannot have enough data to say for sure what the future holds, what the judgment of history will be, or what the effects of our own actions will be: the opponent of state planning wants a world of Darwinian contingency.  The article is a fascinating if perverse take on the Obama fans versus the Tea Partiers, but I'm not sure either side would recognize Tipler's interpretation of them.

9 comments:

  1. I agree, it seems an odd argument for rejecting natural selection. If we take the multiverse seriously, by the way, doesn't it also follow that there are worlds in which people commonly and casually "quantum tunnel" through walls? I'm not sure exactly what would be the religious or philosophical or political implications of that.


    Indeed, it seems to me that the goals of political conservatives and opponents of social engineering would be served by pointing out that however deterministic the world is in theory, in practice we just cannot have enough data to say for sure what the future holds....

    My response to the common conservative argument -- that state intervention is to be avoided in part because actions always have unintended consequences -- is to note that inactions also have unintended consequences.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ergh, how can you stand Uncommon Descent? It's such a vile blog.

    Tell you someone you might enjoy. Terry Hurlburt

    http://www.examiner.com/creationism-in-national/terry-hurlbut

    He's a notch or two up from Ray. He has some scientific understanding. But he's still a dishonest idiot.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not sure why you're so apprehensive about countering his claims. While it is true he uses more honest attempts at "Science proves God" kind of evidence than someone like Ray, the flaw in his points seem to be, as usual of honest creationists, logical rather than factual (from what I'm seeing, anyway).

    Steven said (although I am unclear if this Steven or Tipler talking): "...if the sort of multiple universes (the Everett "many worlds" interpretation) Tipler speaks of are real, then determinism is real: every possible outcome must take place."

    I'd have to disagree with this point. If the multiverse interpretation is true, then it implies the inevitability of events, asserting anything will happen, since the probability of "event X" approaches 1 as the amount of universes/universi/whatever increase, but it does not logically follow (to me, at least) that the certainty of "event X" suddenly translates into the necessity for "event X". I find "inevitability" and "necessity" to be wholly different descriptions since necessity seems to imply and end result or goal, while inevitability does not.

    So far as I understand it, a Multiverse does not mean we are preordained by nature, just that we are merely an inevitable outcome of it. The same seems to go for Tipler's use of the Schrodinger equation. It may provide support for the inevitability of our quantum state by pushing the probability of it towards 1, but the claim that our quantum state therefore must occur is not supported by it.

    Tipler seems to assert that certainty of events equate to a necessity of events, and that is the logical flaw I see in his article.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Jeffrey replied to me:

    I agree, it seems an odd argument for rejecting natural selection.

    I think Tipler is less offended by natural selection than by contingency. For all that natural selection itself is the antithesis of randomness, there's still a lot of randomness in the process: from which mutations selection has to work with to which environments are doing the selecting (presumably you don't get ice ages because evolution "wants" to select for traits that aren't favored in warmer, wetter climes).

    Indeed, the nested hierarchy itself is as much a product of chance as of necessity: if natural selection could simply optimize each population to its environment, without having to work around inherited history and the vagaries of which mutations showed up, convergence would completely swamp the effects of separate phylogenies.

    If we take the multiverse seriously, by the way, doesn't it also follow that there are worlds in which people commonly and casually "quantum tunnel" through walls? I'm not sure exactly what would be the religious or philosophical or political implications of that.

    I'm not sure. Such worlds would be an infinitesimally small fraction of all possible worlds. The much more common (if still vanishingly rare) worlds where this happened only once or twice in history would have weird anomalies in their history that would probably not have much impact. The freakish world where this happened commonly would probably produce beings so mentally and physically different from us that we'd have trouble regarding them as "people" (I don't just mean, e.g. the intelligent dinosaurs I mentioned as a possibility -- I mean beings whose evolution was shaped by the fact that lots of times, you could run through solid rocks).

    My response to the common conservative argument -- that state intervention is to be avoided in part because actions always have unintended consequences -- is to note that inactions also have unintended consequences.

    Well, yes, but then at least you don't have the frustration of saying "we worked so hard to make X happen, and got Y." And I think the usual position is more along the lines of "beware of people whose ideas involve making society conform to some detailed theory of how the world works" -- though in practice, that attitude is not limited to leftists or progressives.

    ReplyDelete
  5. MorallyGodless replied to me:

    I'd have to disagree with this point. If the multiverse interpretation is true, then it implies the inevitability of events, asserting anything will happen, since the probability of "event X" approaches 1 as the amount of universes/universi/whatever increase, but it does not logically follow (to me, at least) that the certainty of "event X" suddenly translates into the necessity for "event X". I find "inevitability" and "necessity" to be wholly different descriptions since necessity seems to imply and end result or goal, while inevitability does not.

    The particular passage you respond to is in my own words, though I think it is a reflection of Tipler's thinking on the matter. I myself didn't mean to suggest that "inevitable" is the same thing as "foreordained;" this is what I was hinting at when I noted the distinction between omniscience and inevitability. Tipler, though, seems to conflate the two ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  6. BathTub replied to me:

    Ergh, how can you stand Uncommon Descent? It's such a vile blog.

    Tell you someone you might enjoy. Terry Hurlburt

    http://www.examiner.com/creationism-in-national/terry-hurlbut

    He's a notch or two up from Ray. He has some scientific understanding. But he's still a dishonest idiot.


    I was just hunting around for something to blog about and came upon that. I don't spend much time on Dembski's blog but the link looked interesting. I shall check out Terry Hurlburt, thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  7. One thing that's never really come up at the Swamp, is Circular Sye and Presuppositionist Apologetics. Ever played around with that?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ugh, just he mention of Sye reminds me of his frustrating some Christians choose to be.

    ReplyDelete
  9. thank you for some of these web articles is very impressive and qualified to compete alat bantu seksualitas and may continue to post quality articles article and useful for everyone

    ReplyDelete