Saturday, July 21, 2012

On Religion. 1. Metaphysics (2/4)

There's two basic problems about the metaphysical claim of religion, and when I say "basic", I mean very, very basic. Basic in the sense of fundamental, ground-level, at root.

Problem the first: the standard arguments in favour of the existence of the supernatural are awful. Problem the second: this is not because these arguments are unsophisticated, careless or poorly thought-out, but because the idea of the supernatural is completely empty.

Let me start, just to be crazy, with the first problem. You can argue for the existence of the supernatural in two ways. You can argue that there's something about the natural world which doesn't make sense, can't be explained, or couldn't exist without the supernatural. So, for example, you could argue (following the Catholic saint and philosopher Thomas Aquinas) that God explains the existence of motion. The details aren't important; what's important is that this argument starts by identifying something that exists in the everyday natural world -- motion -- and then tries to infer that the supernatural -- God -- is what makes this possible.

There's a long tradition of this sort of argument, especially on the Christian side of things. The (in)famous argument from design is another example. This argument, which can be found in the ancient Greek philosophers, but was most famously made by the 18th-century philosopher William Paley, Paley shows us something about the natural world, namely that it, in many ways, resembles a mechanical device. It consists of lots of parts which work together to produce sophisticated and unusual effects. Now, there are some things like that -- Paley uses the example of a watch -- which we know are made by a designer. So, something much more complicated, made of many more parts, which achieves more sophisticated and unusual effects than a watch -- like, say, a living being -- must have been made by a very sophisticated and powerful designer. And that designer must be a supernatural being, namely God.

It's the same basic argument again. Feature of the world must be explained by the supernatural.

These arguments never really work, though. The problem is that they trade on unexpressed assumptions and/or deep ignorance of the non-supernatural alternatives. Aquinas' argument about motion, for example, assumes that motion must start in something unmoving. He borrows this assumption from Aristotle, and it leads in an odd direction. If the movement of one thing must be started by another thing, then that second thing must already by moving. After all, it couldn't transfer motion to something if it weren't already moving itself. That means, then, there must a third moving thing which made the second thing move. And a fourth moving thing. And a fifth. And so on. Ultimately, both Aquinas and Aristotle end up believing in an Unmoved Mover -- something which is in motion, but is itself not moved. Aquinas calls this thing (eventually) God.

But this is in contradiction to our current best physics. (Okay, to be fair to Aquinas, he did live in the 13th century, so it's not like he could've known this.) According to current physical theory, all objects are made up of small particles which are in constant motion. It's only at a limit point of temperature -- absolute zero -- that the motion of basic particles stops. When objects move, then, what's happening is that the particles which constitute those objects are energized -- literally; they receive more energy -- and that energy is translated into movement of the object.

Yes, that is over-simplified. But the point I'm making is not something arcane about modern physics; instead, I'm pointing out how odd the Aristotelian physics that Aquinas' argument relies on really is. There are perfectly good alternatives which don't need an Unmoved Mover in order to explain motion, that can explain motion by appealing to motion that already existed, affected by energy which is either added to the object by an energy source (such as a star), or is redistributed within the object. Nothing supernatural needed.

The same sort of point can be made against Paley. (And it's worse for Paley, because he actually knew about the natural alternative to his supernatural explanation.) Paley seems to confuse the appearance of design with the presence of intent. Certainly some things, like living beings, look like they were designed for certain purposes. And usually when we see things designed for certain purposes, we know that they are designed for that purpose by a designer, a human being who intended that the object serve that purpose. In the case of objects that are not made by humans, though, the appearance of design is just that -- an appearance.

How does this appearance of being designed come about? The short answer is "natural selection", but as with many such common terms, it's not much of an explanation of the process. Here's the gist. You start with a simple living thing, so simple that we couldn't possibly think it was designed, unless we were being really obstinate. So, a single-celled organism, with no complexity and thus no purpose which it serves. We need, first, some instability in this organism. When it reproduces, it doesn't produce perfect copies of itself. Every once in a while, there's a copying error. So, we get variation in the population of one-celled organisms; they aren't all the same.

Now, some of these variations -- most of them -- are either neutral or maladaptive. The former means that there's no benefit or detriment to being different than the other single-celled organisms, where benefit and detriment basically boil down to ability to reproduce successfully. A benefit is thus the ability to have more offspring survive to produce offspring of their own; a detriment is the opposite. So, a difference that is maladaptive, then, is one which produces a detriment to the ability to produce offspring.

However, a few of the variations are actually beneficial. This means that the organisms which have them tend to be more reproductively successful. They might reproduce faster, or have more offspring survive to adulthood, or be able to kill off the offspring of other single-celled organisms. (Hey, anyone who told you nature was nice was lying.) Whatever the exact mechanism, these few organisms with a benefit will, eventually, overwhelm the organisms without the benefit and take over the population.

There is a wrinkle here, though, in that what is beneficial in one environment may be detrimental in another. So, say a single-celled organism suddenly develops a slightly higher tolerance to cold. This means that it will be able to reproduce more effectively in cold environments. However, there may be a trade-off; this organism will not do as well in warm environments. So, the cold-adapted organism will take over in cold environments, but will not take over in warm environments. This will then give us two seperate species of single-celled organisms: the original ones, who are in the warm environments, and the cold-adapted ones, who are in the cold environments.

You should be able to see at this point how this process -- which is called "evolution", if you weren't clear -- can give rise to the presence of design. If you keep repeating this process of slight changes from generation to generation, some of which produce benefit, you will eventually end up with a wide range of different species, all of whom seem perfectly suited to their environments. But it's an illusion. It's a function of limited perspective, because we can't see evolution happen on a mass scale, that we think these organisms must have sprung into being, designed exactly as they are by a great creator.

Even if you don't believe in evolution -- or modern physics, for that matter -- one thing you have to concede at this point is that they are totally naturalistic views, with no feature of the supernatural whatsoever. Any view which includes the supernatural, therefore, is going to have a problem. Because such a view wants to start with the natural and argue that the supernatural explains it. But these alternatives show that the natural features identified can be explained without the supernatural.

Although I can't show it here, because that would be a massive undertaking, every example of something in the world that has been trotted out to show that there must be a supernatural force producing it is a failure. And the failures work pretty much like the two discussed above. Once you start looking at what's been assumed, you'll find that there's something that's been overlooked, a naturalistic possibility that is at least as plausible -- in most case, more plausible, but let's be modest -- as the supernatural claim.

Now, there's another possible way to argue for the supernatural which I should say a little something about, and that's the idea that the supernatural is somehow necessary. This is not the claim that the supernatural is the explanation for some natural feature of the world. It's a much stronger -- stronger in the logical sense, of being committed to more -- view, which holds that the supernatural cannot fail to exist.

The most famous version of this argument is what's called the "ontological argument", which is a really terrible name for it, but we're kinda stuck with it due to hundreds of years of use. So. Ontological arguments try to show us that something about the very idea of the supernatural implies that the supernatural must exist, cannot fail to exist, is necessary in the strongest sense. The 11th century Catholic philosopher and saint Anselm had a version of this, as did the 17th century French philosopher Ren&233; Descartes. The outline is always the same, though.

We start by characterizing which features of the supernatural are essential or of greatest importance. Anselm says that the supernatural -- God -- is the greatest possible being that can be conceived. Descartes said something similar; God is that being which can be clearly and distinctly perceived as supremely perfect. The point, however exactly you phrase it, is the supernatural has something essential or basic to it, a fundamental quality.

We then conclude that this fundamental quality is such that it cannot fail to exist. Anselm holds that a being which exists is more perfect than a being which does not, and thus the most perfect being that can be conceived is a real God. Descartes similarly argues that the clear and distinct perception of God as a supremely perfect being would not be such a perception if there weren't a real supremely perfect being which it was a perception of.

It's a weird bit of reasoning, isn't it? It's clearly pretty clever; I've summarized drastically here, but the original presentations are worth looking at, just for the level of care that goes into them. And there are many newer variants which are even more sophisticated. But, for all that, the ontological argument has more than a whiff of sleight of hand about it, almost as if we temporarily looked away while the arguer was pulling the card out of his sleeve or the rabbit out of the hat, thus leaving us disconcerted when it "magically" appears in his hand.

There's actually a lot of attempts to show what's gone wrong with the ontological argument, which are even more careful and sophisticated and complex. I won't get into them, though, as I think it's really enough to show just how weird the logic of the argument is. The exact diagnosis of what the weirdness is, and what sort of weirdness it is, and whether there are other arguments with similar weirdness, can be someone else's problem.

We start with a concept, an idea we have. That idea has a feature. This feature implies that the idea is of a real thing. There's problems with every step in this sort of reasoning. First, not everyone has the same concept of what the supernatural is; it's a loose concept, after all, and it's implausible that everyone shares the same idea. Second, not all ideas of the supernatural share the same features, let alone the feature of being perfect. (More on that in just a bit.) And, third, it seems very weird to conclude that an idea is of a real thing because of some feature of the idea. Usually, it works the other way around: we know our ideas are of real things because of the way the things are. So, my idea of a zebra is of a real thing because I can go and find some real things which match my idea. I know my idea of a unicorn is not of a real thing because I cannot do so; any things which match my idea are fictional objects, not real ones.

Now, what's gone wrong here? Why are these arguments bad? The people who advanced them aren't ignorant or stupid; and the arguments themselves are pretty carefully put together. There's even long, long debates about how such smart people could give us arguments that are this bad. I think it's because of the second problem I mentioned above: the idea of the supernatural is completely empty. And given that, it's impossible to have a serious debate about whether the supernatural exists. It's a debate without any real content, because the word "supernatural" doesn't actually mean anything.

I don't intend here to say that "supernatural" has no clear meaning or a disputed meaning. A word like "liberty" has a disputed meaning; it means slightly different things to different people, depending on overall political or ethical orientation. However, the different meanings are clear (more or less). It's a case where there are several possibilities, and arguments arise over which of the possibilities is better. Similarly, a word like "small" has an unclear meaning. The central idea of the word is straightforward -- it's the opposite of big, it's related to tiny -- but exactly which things count as small, where the boundary between small and big lies, and so on, are not settled. And, really, probably can't be settled; "small" seems to be a word that will never be clear.

But what can we make of "supernatural"? If we look at the construction of the word, it just means "above natural" or "beyond natural", which is unhelpful. After all, these are just metaphors. The natural isn't a place, so you can't literally be above it or beyond it. Metaphors are nice to illustrate a point, often quite vividly, but they don't actually make a point on their own. I mean, if I tell you that light is a wave, that's a nice metaphor: you know what waves are like, so you can get the idea of light flowing in a similar way. But that doesn't actually tell you what it means to say that light is a wave; that work is done by a stack of physical theories which take a while to explain (but everyone really should have at least a passing familiarity with).

You could also, I suppose, say that "supernatural" means "not natural". But that's pretty useless, too. After all, you can tack "not" in front of anything; it's a purely formal move. "Unreal" just means "not real"; "unwanted" means "not wanted"; "undead" means "not dead". And the list goes on. In no case does this actually tell us anything about what the unreal is like, what it is to be unwanted, and whether anything is actually undead. Why not? Because all we're told is what these things aren't.

Now, I hasten to add, often being told what something isn't is a useful way to triangulate on what it is. If I know that, say, the undead aren't dead, then that can help me to discern what they are like. I know that the dead don't move around, so I expect the undead to move around. And so on. But when it comes to the natural and the supernatural, taking the latter to be not the former doesn't serve that kind of purpose. And that's obvious once you start looking at some of the ways the supernatural gets characterized.

For example, the supernatural is a realm beyond time, space and causality. I mean, really: what is this supposed to mean? Every single thing I have experienced in my life is a thing within space and time, is a thing with a location and a duration. Furthermore, every single thing I have experienced is related to other things by cause and effect; it causes some things to happen, in certain circumstances, and it is caused to undergo change by other things, again in certain circumstances.

To make matters worse, I have literally no idea what a thing outside of space, time and causality is. I can't think of a thing like that. And, really, neither can you. Our thoughts are of things we can possibly experience. Maybe not things we have actually experienced -- we can creatively imagine, after all -- but at least possible objects of experience. So, things which have locations in space, durations in time, and stand in cause and effect relations.

In fact, the possible objects of experience have lots of other features too, which we are unable to conceive of things without. So, saying the supernatural is without space and time is like saying it is without perceptible qualities, like colour and shape for objects, timbre and pitch for sounds, and so on. Everything that we are capable of thinking of, bringing to our minds at all, has some qualities we can perceive, at least potentially.

In short, "supernatural" is a label people pull out when they don't want to say something is natural, but haven't a clue what it's actually like. So, we get metaphor -- beyond natural, above natural -- and arbitrary nonsense -- beyond space and time -- instead. The term "supernatural" is thrown around like it means something, such that religious people even say that the supernatural exists, but really, at heart, the term has no meaning at all.

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