Friday, June 22, 2007

Open Theology & Science - Week 1 Recap

I'm currently in Boston at a 3-week seminar entitled "Open Theology and Science". The goal of the conference is to generate new research at the intersection of science, philosophy, and theology in light of the distinctive commitments of open theism (= broadly classical theism + real future contingency + epistemic openness of the future for God). I am one of 20 invited scholars. Even better, I'm getting paid to go.

So far things have been great. Every weekday morning we hear a presentation by an invited scientist or philosopher on matters pertaining to the theme. After that, we have a couple hours of group discussion. The afternoons and evenings are mostly free and include optional sight-seeing excursions into Boston. So far I've gotten to interact with a lot of really neat people and hear from some very stimulating speakers. What follows are a few of the highlights.

On Monday we heard a presentation by philosopher/theologian John Sanders outlining open theology. He spoke about his own experience as the unfortunate victim of an academic witch hunt for espousing politically incorrect theology at a conservative evangelical college. One of the lessons of his experience that he emphasized was the importance of bridging the communication gap between persons of different theological persuasions. Often this can be very difficult and requires a careful "framing" of one's position to avoid misleading connotations. For example, instead of describing open theism as denying exhaustive definite foreknowledge, a locution that plays into the hands of the critics by suggesting a limitation on God's knowledge, he now prefers to speak in positive terms of "dynamic omniscience".

On Tuesday we heard two presentations. The first was by philosopher Thomas Flint, perhaps the leading defender of Molinism, a major competitor to open theism. Flint contrasted open theism and Molinism and presented some arguments in favor of the latter. After him, theologian Thomas Oord spoke on the similarities and differences between open theism and process theism.
In the evening we had a formal debate between Flint and Bill Hasker, a leading philosophical defender of open theism and critic of Molinism. There were no surprises during the debate, with both Flint and Hasker making the standard moves and countermoves that they've each been defending for years. Both presentations were quite witty, though, and made for a fun evening.

The speaker on Wednesday was Philip Clayton, a philosopher/theologian from Claremont Graduate University. A self-professed 'panentheist', Clayton holds a position intermediate between full-blown process theism and open theism. He spoke on what it means to have a real three-way dialogue between theologians, philosophers, and scientists. In his view we ought to allow each discipline a full and equal place at the table. Clayton did generate some controversy, however, because he affirms a strong methodological naturalism according to which we ought never to posit unilateral divine intervention into the natural order. As he sees it, even the possibility of a miracle would be utterly disastrous for science. His main worry, though, is a theological one - if God can ever intervene in the natural order then why doesn't he intervene more than he does to prevent evils like the Holocaust, etc.? Many of the participants objected that there would be no such disastrous consequences for sciences and that ruling out unilateral divine intervention would give up far too much of traditional theism.

Thursday's speaker was retired physicist Howard Van Till. After speaking about how our worldviews or ODoR's (operational depictions of reality)
are acquired and how they shape us in turn, he offered some specific suggestions for science-religion dialogue. Not too surprisingly, he came down in much the same place as Clayton did. He wants to rule out any appeal to supernatural intervention in science. Many of us, myself included, pressed him on this and he wound up appealing to the same theological issue that Clayton raised, namely, why God doesn't intervene more. What was interesting was how Van Till's adherence to strong methodical naturalism has led him to give up most of traditional Christian theology. Over the years he's gone from being a staunch Calvinist to being essentially a Jeffersonian deist, denying the inspiration of Scripture as well as both the Incarnation and the Resurrection.

Regarding the theological issue raised by both Clayton and Van Till, it's a problem for any version of theism that affirms that God could (metaphysically and morally) intervene in the natural order. Process theists deny that this is metaphysically possible - God couldn't do a miracle. Clayton and (I think) Van Till want to say that such intervention is morally impossible. God, they insist, simply wouldn't do such things because it would be a really bad thing if he did. But this really does seem to limit God in an objectionable way since it's hard to see why an all-good, all-powerful being would have to lack either sufficient power or sufficient motive for intervening in the natural world.

Today, Friday, we heard a very stimulating presentation by Robert Mann, a Canadian physicist and astronomer on "God and Time". He spoke about what physics has to say about the origins of the universe, the age of the universe, the nature and measurement of time, and the implications of relativity (STR and GTR), quantum theory, and chaos theory. It was especially refreshing to hear from a scientist who really understood where many of the theologians were coming from and was sympathetic to their concerns. The chief concern of us philosophers was the relevance of relativity theory for the A-theory of time. Mann had a lot of very interesting stuff to say on the matter, though he didn't seem to me to adequately appreciate the distinction between physical and metaphysical questions. The result was a communication gap. In the end, I'm inclined to go with the suggestion that was made by both Robin Collins and Alan Padgett that we ought to take an instrumentalist approach to relativity theory, and possibly also quantum theory as well. Given the incompatibility of the two theories and the long-standing conceptual problems within each, such an approach seems to be sufficiently well-motivated and the most straightforward way of reconciling absolute simultaneity with modern physics.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Divine Relationality and Temporality

Derek, a commentator on my blog, has asked me some about whether essential divine relationality (as implied in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity) entails essential divine temporality. In other words, would God's being essentially an active, loving, multi-personal unity require that God experience continued change and hence divine temporality?

In response, I submit "no" as the correct answer. My reasoning is as follows:

First, I assume that time requires change. No change; no time. That is a controversial assumption (It has been questioned, for example, by Sidney Shoemaker and W.H. Newton-Smith.), but I think it's right. If so, then divine temporality requires divine change, and essential divine temporality requires essential divine change.

Second, I assume that creation is a free (i.e., unnecessary) act on God's part. Hence, it is not essential to God that he be a creator.

Third, I assume that whatever is not God or part of God, is created by God. It follows that any essential divine change has to be purely internal to God.

Fourth, and crucially, I don't see how there could be change internal to God independent of his decisions vis-a-vis creation. Suppose that God is a tri-personal society of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit essentially loving each other. For this internal divine relationality to imply divine temporality requires either that one of the relata (Father, Son, or Holy Spirit) changes, or that one of the relations (F-S, S-HS, F-HS, F-S-HS) changes. But if God is essentially a Trinity of F-S-HS, then the relations are fixed (unless, somehow, the relata could, say, swap places - but is that coherent?), so any purely internal change in God would have to be a change in the relata.

How, then, could the relata change? Could the Father change in knowledge of the Son or Holy Spirit? Given God's essential omniscience, the answer must be no, unless the members of the Trinity could change in some other respect. And what would that be? Could the Father change in will for the Son or Holy Spirit? It is hard to see how. If the Father is perfectly loving and essentially omniscient, then he necessarily knows and wills the true good of the others, and it is not at all clear why their true good would change. Nor is it clear how there could be any new way for the Father to express love for the Son, or vice-versa. After all, if the intra-Trinitarian love is infinite and perfect, then how could it fail to be fully expressed? And if, necessarily, it is fully expressed, then there is nothing more that Father, Son, or Holy Spirit could do merely with respect to each other?

I have no problem understanding how God could change in relation to creation, in particular to libertarianly free creatures, nor do I have a problem with God's changing in himself by making a free decision to create or not to create. Nor do I have a problem with the intra-Trinitarian relationship changing on account of differential responses on the part of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to a changing creation. But all of those types of changes concern creation and not just intra-Trinitarian relationality.

So I guess I'm just not sure what it would look like for God to be changing purely in virtue of being a Trinity. Perhaps Derek or someone else can help me out with that one.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Probabilistic Modus Tollens and the Design Argument

Philosopher Elliott Sober thinks that design arguments against naturalism commit a fallacy that he calls 'probabilistic modus tollens', which he takes to be an inference of the following form:
Probably, (if p then q).
Therefore, probably, not-p.
Thus, he construes the argument against naturalism from cosmic fine-tuning as follows:
Probably, (if naturalism were true, then the universe would not be life-permitting).
The universe is life-permitting.
Therefore, probably, naturalism is not true.
He then points out that this pattern of reasoning is problematic:
You draw from a deck of cards. You know that if the deck is normal and the draw occurs at random, then the probability is only 1/52 that you’ll obtain the seven of hearts. Suppose you do draw this card. You can’t conclude just from this that it is improbable that the deck is normal and the draw was at random.
Clearly the reasoning in this example is bad, but whether that constitutes a serious objection against design arguments depends on whether such arguments do in fact reason in this way. And here I think Sober is mistaken.

In the card example, there is nothing special about the seven of hearts. The antecedent probability of drawing any given card is 1/52. Hence, we'd be in the same position vis-a-vis the issue of the normality of the deck and the randomness of the draw no matter which card was drawn.

Now modify the example slightly. Before you draw the card an enemy puts a gun to your head and says "Draw a seven of hearts or die." Now there is something special about the seven of hearts. It has been singled out independently of the fact that it was drawn as being of special interest. (It is not the case that any draw would be equally noteworthy.) And now, given that you get only one draw, if you do draw the seven of hearts, a design hypothesis fairly suggests itself. That you drew just the card you needed when it was unlikely that you would do so suggests that the draw might have been rigged. (Of course, this inference would be more impressive if the odds against you were a lot higher.)

The fine-tuning argument is more like the second example than the first. We would not expect a random universe to be life-permitting, just like we would not expect a random card to be the seven of hearts. But that's not all. We aren't interested in any random universe. We're interested in a particular kind of universe (a life-permitting one), a kind of universe that can be singled out in advance as one that an intelligent designer would likely have a reason to be interested in. Hence, given the assumption that this is the only universe "drawn", we have reason to suspect design.

Of course, there is one difference. Maybe this is not the only universe that has been "drawn". If there are or have been a great many universes varying in their physical properties, then it may not be so improbable that a life-permitting one has turned up. As to whether this "many universes" theory is better than the "design" theory or not is a tricky issue, one which I'll set aside for now.

My point right now is simply that Sobel has misconstrued the design argument by overlooking the fact that the inference is being driven by several factors: (1) the low probability of a randomly selected universe being life-permitting given naturalism; (2) the fact that such a universe would likely be of independent interest to a putative designer; and (3) assumptions about the available probabilistic resources. So the form of the fine-tuning argument is not that of probabilistic modus tollens, but rather something more like this:
With very high probability, (if naturalism were true, then a randomly selected universe would not be life-permitting).
Probably, (a life-permitting universe would be of special interest to an intelligent designer).
This universe is life-permitting.
There are no other universes.
Therefore, probably, naturalism is false (and there is an intelligent designer).
This strikes me as a reasonable inference. It's certainly not conclusive as it stands - the fourth premise is particularly open to challenge - but neither is it stupid or fallacious as Sobel suggests.

Ignorance, Incredulity, and God-of-the-Gaps

It is not uncommon in discussions over controversial topics for one side to accuse the other of fallaciously "arguing from ignorance" or from "personal incredulity". In discussions of intelligent design versus Darwinian naturalism the closely related "God-of-the-gaps" objection is frequently leveled. I believe that most attributions of these fallacies are uncharitable and undeserved.

Consider the argument from ignorance:
There is no evidence for X.
Therefore, X is false.
Clearly, this is invalid. If the only information we have bearing on X is that there is an absence of evidence for X, then the inference is clearly fallacious. But is it typically the case that that's the only relevant information available to the arguer? Let's change the argument slightly:
There is no evidence for X.
If X were true, then we would have evidence for X.
Therefore, X is false.
This is a perfectly reasonable argument strategy. It fact, it's an instance of modus tollens. Hence, whether one commits a fallacious argument from ignorance depends on whether or not one is justified in believing the appropriate if-then premise connecting the lack of evidence for X with the claim that X is false. And in many cases we are justified in believing that premise. For example, suppose that I have lost my keys and think they might be near my nightstand. I go to my nightstand and do a thorough search of the area and do not find the keys. There is no evidence that my keys are near my nightstand, but in the light of my search my keys really should have turned up by now if they had been near my nightstand. So I do not reason fallaciously if I conclude that my keys lie somewhere else. I suspect that many (if not most) allegedly fallacious arguments from ignorance are like this. They are really instances of modus tollens with a unstated conditional premise.

Now consider the argument from incredulity:
I cannot imagine how X could be true.
Therefore, X is false.
Again, this is clearly invalid. If the only information I have bearing on X is my own inability to imagine how it could be true, then the inference is clearly fallacious. But now consider the following:
I cannot imagine how X could be true.
If X were true, then I would be able to imagine how X could be true.
Therefore, X is false.
This revised argument is not fallacious, but a valid instance of modus tollens. As before, everything hinges on the conditional premise. If I take myself to be highly intelligent and informed about matters related to X, and if I've seriously tried to come up with a plausible argument for X, then I think I'd be in a pretty good position to affirm that premise. I suspect that many (if not most) allegedly fallacious arguments from incredulity are really instances of modus tollens with a unstated conditional premise.

Finally, the so-called "God-of-the-gaps" fallacy can be handled in exactly the same way.
X is a fact that stands in need of explanation.
There do not appear to be any adequate naturalistic explanations for X.
Therefore, there is a supernaturalistic explanation for X.
As it stands, this is problematic because the fact that there does not "appear" to be an adequate naturalistic explanation may be due to intellectual laziness or ignorance on my part. But if I've done my homework well - if I am sufficiently intelligent and informed, if I have identified decisive flaws with existing naturalistic explanations (if any), and if I have seriously tried and repeatedly failed to come up with a workable naturalistic explanation, then I can reason cogently as follows:
X is a fact that stands in need of explanation.
There do not appear to be any adequate naturalistic explanations for X.
If X had a naturalistic explanation, then we ought to have come up with an adequate one by now.
Therefore, there is a supernaturalistic explanation for X.
In conclusion, we ought to be very careful before accusing people of committing these types of fallacies. If the person has done enough to justify the relevant conditional premise, then there is no fallacy. Whether the person has done enough to justify that premise may, of course, be disputable, but that's where the dispute should focus.