I have wanted to do a series of posts discussing various topics I find interesting. I love trying to find the cross section between science, religion, and philosophy. Sometimes I have to look really hard to find such a cross section. At any given moment, any two of these areas of knowledge are likely going in such opposite directions that there is no hope of them ever meeting without a major paradigm shift. But I find it fun to try all the same.
I once did a series of posts for Wheat and Tares (M* got pointers to the posts) on epistemology. Epistemology is a fancy word for “theory of knowledge” or, in other words, it’s a word for a theory on how we gain knowledge.
Karl Popper’s theory of epistemology is in the forefront of all other theories of knowledge because his theory is superior to all contenders. However, Popper’s own presentation had some flaws that I felt Thomas Kuhn filled in nicely. (Though Kuhn’s conclusions that there is no such thing as scientific realism seem patently false to me.) My posts made an attempt to integrate some of Kuhn’s better ideas into Popper’s overall framework. In addition, I threw in some of David Deutsch’s improvements on Popper plus some ideas from John Polkinghorne. For those interested, see my summary of this epistemology here.
Of course the posts were pretty much ignored. Who, in their right mind, finds ‘epistemology’ fascinating? I do actually think most human beings would find epistemology fascinating if it were present in the right way so as to relate to everyday life. But apparently no one (including myself) has figured out what that ‘right way’ is.
The reason I chose to do these posts on Wheat and Tares instead of M* at the time was because I, at the time, perceived M* as primarily religious in nature. I had heard W&T was going to be less “blogging about Mormonism” and more “Mormons blogging.” So I signed up.
Since then, I’ve had numerous assurances from the permabloggers of M* that I can do non-religious posts on M* and just pick topics I find interesting and discuss them — though it’s my own problem if no one else finds the topics interesting and if I get no comments whatsoever.
So I have been planning to do more non-religious topics of interest to me. I hope M* readers that are primarily coming here for religion can either forgive the intrusion or, failing that, at least feel comfortable completely ignoring me.
When Knowledge Collides
However, when exploring topics in, say, science, I do not feel it can always be made to square with our current understanding of religion. In fact, often science, philosophy, and religion will often seem to be at odds with each other. To me, this isn’t unexpected. As well see in future posts, even well accepted theories of science often find that they are mutually exclusive from one another and form a contradiction. Its the existence of contradictions that drives science forward.
If it’s okay for atheistic scientists to basically live their lives with seeming contradictions “until more is revealed” I just can’t see why theists don’t have the right to do this too. So if what I write about a science topic runs counter to your personal religious convictions (like, say, you don’t believe in evolution) just remember that there is no way for me to treat a subject of interest in science without occasionally bumping into the, as yet, unexplained. But also remember that if you really want to understand and advance a theory you must surrender yourself to it. The end result is — even for hard core scientists — the need for some level of compartmentalization. Until all knowledge forms from a single theory, this will always be the case.
I do not believe that religion is ‘above’ science or religion in terms of truth content. I have no doubt that religion covers topics closer to the human heart and to human need. In that sense, I definitely believe religion to be more important than science. But religion is (as I’ll explain in future posts hopefully) definitely more abstract in concept than science is. Science is more specific, more computational, and therefore, more repeatable.
However, the reason this is true is precisely because no one has yet successfully attempted to use science to explore the sorts of issues humans find most important. Things like beauty, morality, and our purpose for living. Of course its true that if you’re picking the easier subjects you’ll make progress faster! (If this all sounds mysteriously similar to Karen Armstrong… pretend you didn’t notice. Besides, my beef with Armstrong here was really her assumption that we’d never understand such subjects. Never is much too long for me. I’ll be dead by then.)
There is another reason why I feel it’s premature to get concerned over perceived contradictions between religion, science, and philosophy. It’s the fact that all theories of knowledge start out primitive and less matured and grow more matured over time. At one point science theories were as abstract and immature as religious theories are today. I once wrote a review of a book that did a good job of showing the maturing and development of philosophical theories into modern scientific ones. The truth is that all areas of knowledge start out as abstract as religion is today. Progress in any area of study always moves from abstract to specific.
I actually believe that someday our religions explanations will be as exact as our scientific ones. But, of course, by then we’ll no longer be making such distinctions between religion and science.
My Three Favorite Authors
In doing science and philosophy posts, I’ll be refering a lot to my three favorite non-fiction authors: David Deutsch, Roger Penrose, and Douglas Hofstadter. All three are atheists, darn them, though Roger Penrose seems to be much beloved by Theists.
David Deutsch is my favourite non-fiction author of the three. He considers himself an atheist, though we’ll see that the boundaries between atheism and theism can sometimes become quite thin. Reading Deutsch (and Penrose) helped me to understand that fact.
David Deutsch is a diehard scientific realist – at least in principle. (I hope to point out that he has some notable exceptions.) To him, what the theory says it true is what we’ll accept as true. There is no positivism in Deutsch’s views of the world. You never just use science as just a way to make convenient predictions.
Deutsch is a physicist by training, and most people still think of him that way. But in reality, he is the modern torchbearer for Karl Popper’s philosophical views on the philosophy of science and theory of knowledge. In fact, I feel Deutsch can truly be said to have advanced Popper’s original views and improved upon them. Therefore, I personally feel Deutsch is less a physicist and more a philosopher. But then I think the distinction between those two isn’t always so obvious.
My feeling is that Deutsch is what an ideal modern philosopher would look like. An ideal philosopher would not be trained in ancient philosophy, per se, but would instead be trained in science and the philosophy of science. Then they’d attempt to see what sort of philosophical ramifications come out of our best theories and explanations.
It seems to me that modern philosophy is taught more like a history class. I know this view of mine isn’t popular amongst people interested in philosophy, but I’m entitled to my opinion. And my opinion stems from the fact that in science you never study ancient scientists, you only study whatever the current formulations are. This is because (as Deutsch loves to point out) science is about truth. It doesn’t matter who came up with what idea or what so-and-sos views on some subject are. You just study the truth and that is that. No so with Philosophy. In philosophy we study so-and-sos opinions, usually starting with the ancient philosophers. Then we move forward and ‘improve’ upon them.
Of course the reason we study philosophy more like a history class than a science is because ‘philosophy’ stops being philosophy once it matures to the point that it becomes a science. Therefore “science” is what Kuhn calls “a paradigm” whereby everyone basically accepts the same view. Philosophy is what Kuhn calls “pre-paradigm” where it’s still normal to split up into various schools and everyone will hold a different opinion. Once a philosophy matures to the point that it’s no longer abstract and can start making definitive and useful predictions based on computation, we no longer view it as philosophy because all the other competing ‘schools of thought’ are now dead and only the prevailing paradigm avails – at least until a new one is found.
Kuhn argues this is why ‘social sciences can’t get no respect.’ Once they mature to the point that they have an agreed upon paradigm there will be no need to ask “are social sciences really sciences?” because it will be obvious that they are.
That being said, I think Deutsch makes a very convincing case that a great deal of topics that we still consider “pre-paradigm” are in fact settled matters and we’re just being obstinate.
I think Theists should consider Deutsch required reading, personally. His view of reality is so optimistic and so human-centered that you can’t help but feel that you’re starting to discover hidden truths about God. Deutsch also spends considerable time demonstrating just how bad most of Dawkins’ anti-theistic arguments are. Oh, they are close friends, by the way.
Ironically, that is precisely why Deutsch may be deeply troubling for some Theists. His hidden agenda seems to be to advance science to the point where it can answer all the deep profound questions human’s care about that right now we are forced to turn to religion for. That is specifically what I perceive Deutsch is trying to do: advance science in the ‘hard areas’ so that science will play the role religion (and sometimes philosophy) now play in our lives.
In a strange sort of way, this makes Deutsch far more challenging to Theists than Dawkins brand of atheism. Let’s face it, Dawkins — at his best — does nothing more that mock religious people. He has yet to come up with a coherent argument for why religious people should care about the materialistic worldview he is advancing. In fact, he seems to have not even come to grips with the fact that this is the key argument his particular worldview owes us. As far as I can tell, Dawkins best answer to this question so far has been an appeal to Truth as its own end – which is, of course, really a hidden appeal to faith in God. This just makes Theism all the more attractive.
Deutsch, by comparison, has no need to mock religion; for his approach (if successful at some distant future date) would effectively supplant religion by engulfing it. Therefore Deutsch never feels a need to mock religion because his theories very existence presents the only real challenge to religion ever conceived. Whether or not you see this as an ‘attack’ on religion, or ‘proof that religion was basically right all along’ seems to be somewhat subjective. I choose to read him more like the latter and I find him full of incredible gems.
Oh yeah, and you can’t read Deutsch without having your brains fall out of your head and start screaming ‘oh man! oh man!’
Like many Theists, I just love Roger Penrose. It’s hard to read any serious attempt to discuss religion in a scientific way without having Penrose quoted ad nauseum. Further, Penrose is the author that has done the most to actually teach me what quantum physics (and other physics) really mean. This is because Penrose does not shy away from math.
Because of this unwanted math-stuff, he’s difficult to read. But it also means that when you’re done reading Penrose, you don’t understand some set of fuzzy analogies about science — you understand the science itself! I am planning to try to take some of Penrose’s mathematical examples, dumb them down a bit more, and see if I can explain some really fascinating subjects.
The reason theists love Penrose is because he’s an iconoclast in almost every area he touches. For example, he doesn’t (unlike Deutsch and Hofstadter, along with the vast majority of researchers) believe in the strong AI hypothesis. The Strong AI hypothesis is a theory that the brain is a computer (note: not an electronic computer! The difference requires some explanation.) and therefore we can, in principle, build machines with real intelligence comparable (or beyond) our own.
Having a famous scientist come out against something like the Strong AI hypothesis is a real boon to many Theists because many Theists are dualist and traditional Cartesian dualism (the most common variety of dualism) predicts that the Strong AI Hypothesis must be false. (Much as a literal reading of Gensis predicts evolution to be false.)
However, a word of caution here. First, Mormons are not Cartesian dualists. We sometimes slip into believe in Cartesian dualism because we are Theists. But there is nothing in Mormonism that insists on a strict Cartesian dualism. In fact, D&C 131:7-8, if read in the most obvious reading, indicates that Cartesian dualism is false. Second, it is possible that the computational view of mind will turn out to be religion’s next Evolution. This is because the Strong AI hypothesis is the majority view for some fairly strong reasons that I’ll have to explain in future posts. So my personal feeling is that it might make sense to be non-committal on this front rather than definitively coming down against the computational view of mind. I hope, through future posts, to suggest the best ways to be non-committal until more information is available.
Penrose also loves to harp on the fact that certain popular but often anti-theistic notions, such as the ‘Anthropic Principle’, are bad explanations. They don’t really explain what they set out to explain. Even the theory of inflation, which is exponentially growing in popularity (pun intended), has suffered under Penrose’s pen. For Penrose, an explanation needs to really explain something or he’s not interested.
However, it’s a mistake to think Penrose is anything but a scientific realist himself. For example, he may not believe that electronic computers will ever be intelligent, but he does believe that there will be some future type of computer that will be. So, in a sense, he’s actually in favor of the strong AI hypothesis himself, albeit based on some future, as yet undiscovered, theory of computation.
However, in the meantime, many theists (particularly classical theists more so than Mormons) will find in Penrose that the enemy of their enemy is their friend.
I’ve also found that Penrose is also widely quoted in fiction. His iconoclastic counter theories are just the sort of thing that works well with science fiction.
However, a word of caution is warranted with Penrose, for I have come to realize that he is an epistemological Rejectionist at times. Many of his books are careful to explain what is wrong with the current theories but fails to come up with an alternative explanation. What saves Penrose from the follies common to Religious Rejectionism is that he has spent a life time trying (and usually failing) to come up with alternative explanations. So he’s no mere murmuring Rejectionist in the wilderness or on the Blogernacle. Penrose has created whole new theories of physics – such as Twistor theory – in his pursuit of alternative explanations.
Douglass Hofstadter is most famous for his amazing Pulitzer prize winning book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. With a name like that, how can you possibly go wrong?
The really amazing thing about this book is that you aren’t even sure what it is about until he finally braids its eclectic mix of topics all together near the end. In fact, the book is about the Strong AI hypothesis – is it possible to build a thinking intelligent machine? Hofstadter’s answer is ‘yes’ and he even gives a high level theory on how to do it based on Godel’s incompleteness theorem.
A significant portion of the book is teaching you the Godel in completeness theorem so that he can then address his theory of human intelligence. You’d think such a subject would be dry. It’s not. For example, he actually uses an ongoing set of Lewis Carroll-style dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise — famous for having run a foot race where the much faster Achilles could never catch the slower Tortoise because whenever Achilles closes half the distance the Tortoise is always a bit further ahead ad infinitum. (Interestingly, Penrose’s main object to the Strong AI hypothesis also uses Godel’s Incompleteness theorem. I guess it can be used both for and against the Strong AI hypothesis.)
Hofstadter is really a joy to read if you like varied and interesting subjects. And given our current state of knowledge about human intelligence – which is nearly non-existent – any theory is better than no theory. So I’m willing to suspend disbelief long enough to see what he has to say. Hofstadter is also a leading researcher in the area of Artificial Intelligence.
Deutsch vs. Penrose
An interesting side note out of reading theses authors is that I discovered Hofstadter and Penrose by reading Deutsch. This is particularly interesting because Deutsch and Penrose agree on basically nothing. For example, Deutsch, based on Popperian epistemology, believes we must accept the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. Penrose does not accept it. Deutsch, based on the same epistemology, believes in the Strong AI hypothesis. Penrose doesn’t. (At least not in the current incarnation of computational theory.) Penrose is a Platonist, literally believing in a Platonic reality of forms that somehow (he doesn’t know how yet… the rejectionist) intersect with our minds. Deutsch thinks that’s ridiculous.
The one thing that Penrose and Deutsch have in common is a belief that science can teach us about the sorts of things we normally leave to philosophy or religion. Therefore Deutsch finds his greatest opponent in Penrose for they are advancing mutually exclusive theories about the true nature of reality. But they both agree that there is something very very ‘special’ about reality and that blunt materialistic-atheism, as is common amongst scientists, has taken some wrong turns and done our science an injustice.