But does it work in theory?

In a recent course offered by Homebrewed Christianity (which is “pay what you want”, so doesn’t cost anything significant to get access to), Tripp Fuller asks John Cobb to start laying out foundations for Process Theology in the first talk/interview. I started writing this when the course was current, but stalled for a while… Now, bear with me here, as I attempt some philosophy – I don’t regard myself as particularly competent with philosophy, as we’ll probably see…

Sadly, Cobb starts with attempting to put in place a foundation via reinstating the concept of telos, i.e. “final cause”. Now, this causes me an immediate difficulty, because I am for most purposes a scientific materialist. I say “for most purposes” because I do not remotely think that this means that everything can be reduced to material things – for example, the concepts behind this post are not in any trivial way material things, nor are the words I’m selecting to write it (despite the fact that what you’re seeing when you read it is material inasmuch as it is composed of the activation of minute particles of material on a computer screen – that is merely the symbols, not the significance).

In particular, I don’t see any of the Aristotelean “causes” other than possibly efficient cause as being truly causes (though Aristotle’s terminology could probably better be rendered as “explanation”). “Material cause” (i.e. what something is made of) doesn’t cause something to be what it is – after all, the example Wikipedia gives of a table could be made of wood, but it could also be made of metal, stone or plastic. Yes, you need a material suitable to the end result – you cannot, for instance, make a table out of water (unless you freeze it). “Formal cause” (i.e. the shape or arrangement of something) also doesn’t cause something to be what it is. You can readily envisage, say, a table made out of water, but you are not going to get a table except in peculiar circumstances, such as an “Ice Hotel”.

“Efficient cause” is defined in the linked article as “consists of things apart from the thing being changed or moved, which interact so as to be an agency of the change or movement”. This is broadly what I would call “cause”, though I would question whether the removal of things inherent to the thing being changed or moved is valid – often, a thing will only be changed or moved if its inherent properties permit that. You cannot make a table out of a liquid, a gas or a plasma, for instance. Note here the implicit inclusion of an “agent”, the examples being human, biological entities which are capable of forming intention. Aristotle is, I think, right in saying that things do not change unless more than one “cause” is operative, but not right if this implies that there is always a conscious agent producing that change.

“Final cause” is what is often called “telos” by philosophers. It can commonly be rendered as “purpose” or as “design”.

So, what is Cobb’s argument? Broadly, it seems to me that it is this:-
1. Scientific materialists (possibly all scientists) consider that the only causes are efficient causes.
2. It is patently obvious that there are objects for which there are final causes (telos).
3. Scientific materialism’s account of causation is therefore wrong.
4. (Implicitly) Everything has a telos.
5.(Implicitly) There must be a conscious agent producing that telos.
6. (Implicitly) That agent can, absent a human (or perhaps animal) purpose, only be God.

#1 is, in my experience, plainly wrong for most scientists. The more hardline logical positivists did suggest that things not reducible to statements verifiable by scientific method were cognitively meaningless, but virtually everyone has abandoned that extreme stance, even if they once toyed with it. All the scientists I’m acquainted with would admit that there is meaningful dialogue which does not consist of scientifically verifiable statements.

It is also the case that most scientists I know do not attempt to make philosophical statements. If pushed hard, the most they are likely to say is something along the lines of “we do not yet have a theory to explain any regularity which we observe in this situation”. Even for physicists, this includes a staggering percentage of what they conclude must, in some sense, materially exist (for some sense of “materially” and “exist”). Ordinary, visible matter makes up around 0.5% of the universe as currently understood, with dark energy making up just less than 70% and dark matter just over 30%. 99.5% of what physicists think must, in some sense, exist, we can’t see or interact with. More simply, the scientists are saying “this is something we cannot currently predict for you”.  Physicists, by definition, do not do metaphysics!

#2, on that basis, would be accepted by almost every scientist I know, accepting that specifically biological entities of sufficient complexity can formulate teloi (OK, there are a very few who think that even humans don’t actually formulate teloi, as we’re predictable machines). Many think that it is not impossible that nonbiological entities might possibly formulate teloi, such as machine intelligences. This does not remotely mean that everything which exists has a telos (see #4).

#3, Given that #1 is incorrect, this is not a valid conclusion.

#4 is ostensibly not part of the argument, but is strongly implied by 1-3. Clearly, it’s equivalent to saying “All swans are white. But some swans are black. Therefore all swans are black”.

#5 is even more implicit, but might be postulated as at least a possibility you could derive. It is not wholly clear to me how a non-conscious agent could formulate something we would describe as a purpose, but non-conscious agents do frequently combine to produce results which look like a telos. The game of life and the Mandelbrot set are two examples. Both look organic, as if they have an inbuilt telos, but actually merely have some very simple rules. Of course, you could claim that both had a telos, set by the individual who programmed the system, but in both those cases, the algorithms involved are so simple that it’s fairly easy to contemplate that they could occur spontaneously and, indeed, the game of life is designed to mimic the kind of behaviours we see in living organisms which are too simple to ascribe a telos to.

#6 does not follow, particularly not in positing that such an agent is singular or, indeed, has any other god-like qualities aside from being not obviously apparent.

Cobb throws in two incidental suggestions which are often used to bolster arguments for God. The first of these is the allegation that scientists have to accept the “many worlds” hypothesis in order to explain what we observe, given any sensible degree of freedom.  This really isn’t the case. Really, only Physicists are prone to this view, which tends to accompany denying the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, and most of them will sensibly say “shut up and do the math”, avoiding speculating about metaphysics, which is, of course, not their field. Chemists, Biologists and the softer sciences generally aren’t concerned with this area. In addition, it isn’t just an attractive speculation to non-Copenhagen-interpretation physicists, it’s tempting to anyone who wrestles with free will –v- determinism as a dichotomy, which can include theologians.

The second is to invoke the “fine tuning” argument. If, this argument goes, many physical constants were even slightly different from those we observe, life would never have evolved (and, indeed, neither might any of the universe as we observe it), and thus there must be some kind of design, and thus designer, and so on. Again, this is an argument which most scientists tend to relegate to the category of “we don’t know enough to speculate”. My personal favourite speculation there is to note that yes, we do not know how, at a finer level of detail, physical constants came to be what they are, but that does not mean there is no mechanism which links them, i.e. constrains what they might be. We just don’t know what it might be.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt of the existence of God (for some value of “exist” and some value of “God”). I just don’t like weak arguments for God’s existence as a foundation on which to build pretty much anything, and I strongly suspect that Douglas Adams’ well known lines “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own argument you don’t. QED.” “Oh, dear”, says God, “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.’ (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) have more than just comedic impact. More to the point, in my “best guess” conception of God, which is panentheism, everything is in God (just as God is in everything), and I hold to the principle that a set cannot reasonably contain itself with a remainder, so if my conception is correct, we cannot have (within God) a full conception of what God is, far less prove that God exists from within God. I’m a mystic, so can say (and have) “I don’t need to believe in God, I experience God”. In other words, any “proof of God” is going to prove to be a weak argument.

In addition, in striving to convince, it seems a suboptimal strategy to start by telling a significant portion of the audience that they believe something they probably don’t.  So why do this?

It seems to me that here lies a vital difference between the philosopher and philosophical theologian (Cobb/Fuller) on the one hand and the scientist, at least the experimental scientist, on the other. The tendency of the philosopher or theologian seems to be to start at the bottom (or drill down further to try to find a bottom) and then build up (the number of theologians I’ve come across wanting to start with a “doctrine of God” is considerable, and philosophers seem to revert to talking metaphysics at the drop of a hat). It’s really common for philosophers to start by saying “first define your terms”.

In contrast, experimental scientists notice a set of phenomena and try to find regularities in them sufficient to advance a hypothesis – then test the hypothesis by creating more and novel  phenomena (experiments). You could say that they start at the top and work down.

This was something I noted at this year’s Wake during sessions involving Richard Boothby and Peter Rollins, both of whom are primarily philosophers. Indeed, I tried to underline this difference by picking up on comments by Richard about art and suggesting that philosophers maybe go for photo-realism, and think it “better than” impressionism – sadly, there wasn’t time to develop that with further questions. (I respect photorealism, but generally much prefer impressionism, in which to a significant extent “less is more”).

The thing is, I think that what we do in thinking about our perceptions starts by looking at them impressionistically, or possibly even in cartoon form. There’s too much detail to form any general description (and the word “general” there is already a clue to the fact that we’re drawing a cartoon), and we make sense of it (notice regularities, form hypotheses) by radically simplifying what we perceive. Sure, we can then add detail (complicate our model), but what scientists are doing in formulating hypotheses is radically simplifying first, and then adding detail. In much the same way, many artists produce a sketch (which generally looks fairly impressionistic) and then add detail if they want to be more representational.

Of course, we prefer our hypotheses about reality to be coherent and consistent, and that tends to be the province of the theoretical scientist and the philosopher. However, at the end of the day I have no patience for the reputed response of an economist when told that something works in practice – “Ah, but does it work in theory?” If it doesn’t work in theory, the theory is wrong, not the practice. This is what underlies most experimental physicists’ reaction to wave-particle duality (which is a favourite of philosophers and theologians attempting to suggest that science lacks adequate foundation) – the wave hypothesis works in some circumstances, the particle hypothesis works in others, and it really doesn’t matter whether one or the other (or neither) is “correct”.

Experimental science doesn’t work from foundations upwards, it works from phenomena downwards. Going back to art, it’s like the process of abstraction. The experimentalists abstract, the theoreticians and philosophers play with those abstractions and try to make them fit together. It seems to me, though, that in the process they are inclined to forget that they are talking about abstractions, about impressionistic pictures. The arch-perpetrator of this was, of course, Plato, who considered that those abstractions (“forms”) were the real things and that every actual thing being represented was an inadequate approximation to that reality, rather than that forms were an inadequate approximation of reality and should be treated as such. To me, this is so much the opposite of the actual situation as to cast doubt on everything Plato was involved with…

The further you go down, it seems to me, the more abstract/impressionistic you become, and the less able to be precise about anything. Of course, this means that philosophical efforts to dig deeper into the foundations of our concept-structures are bound to find contradiction (Hegel),  endless recursion of language (Derrida), nothing but differences (Deleuze) and/or nefarious motivations (Foucault). Unfortunately, the overall effect of these endeavours has been to cast doubt on the whole concept of truth, because, for the philosopher, truth has to be absolute and precise. Thus, rather than accept that our concept structures are impressionistic or cartoonish, we see the demolition of any idea that something could be more or less true – if it isn’t absolutely true, it’s false, undependable. There lies the basis for “my truth”, which is frequently devoid of much connection with reality.

Personally, I blame the illusion of certainty. We think that we need our concepts to be precise, exact, certain – but if, as I suggest, they can’t be that, we discard them completely as in error. Any scientist knows that in experiments it is important to realise that there are going to be errors, and quotes results with a plus-or-minus amount. An impressionistic painting may not be precise or exact, but it certainly conveys meaning – and often does this more successfully than does photorealism.

But you don’t necessarily end up with just one image, as Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral show…

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