Sunday, October 04, 2015

To ignore a result call it a pressuposition

By Mathew Goldstein

Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College. He is associated with Princeton University's Witherspoon Institute.  He promotes the views of Thomas Aquinas and expresses views similar to those backed by the Vatican on his blog and in his books.  He has a loyal following among like minded theists.  Let's examine some of what he says in his recent article Scientists Should Tell Lawrence Krauss to Shut Up Already.

He starts by pointing out that the lack of mention of God in the game of checkers does not suggest that God does not exist and then he argues that likewise "the fact that scientists need make no reference to God when doing physics, biology, or any other science doesn’t prove—or even suggest—that the existence of God is doubtful."  This is a good illustration of a bad analogy.  Checkers has nothing to say about what is true or false about how the world works while science addresses that very question.  So in this context they are opposites, not equivalents.  What checkers says is indeed irrelevant to this question while what science says is very relevant.

He writes ".... science cannot answer the question why there is any world at all, or any laws at all. To answer those questions, or even to understand them properly, you must take an intellectual vantage point from outside the world and its laws, and thus outside of science. You need to look to philosophical argument, which goes deeper than anything mere physics can uncover.... Krauss is looking in the wrong place when he confines himself to science to find some reason to affirm a divine uncaused cause."  While it is true that we need more than a "mere" foundation to build a house, it is nevertheless also true that we should build houses anchored securely in a solid foundation.  Although it is not immediately apparent, professor Feser starts with this reasonable observation that physics, like a foundation for a house, is incomplete, and then quietly segues into the untenable position that physics is irrelevant.  He articulates the reasonable first position but then he adopts the unreasonable second position.  And all along the way professor Feser falsely stereotypes Lawrence Krauss as someone who fails to acknowledge that there is more to life than physics.

He says "The reason is that physics confines itself to describing the mathematical structure of the world, since only what can be so captured is susceptible of strict prediction and control. The inner nature of the reality that has that structure necessarily falls through physics’ methodological net."  There are emergent features of our universe not captured by the equations of physics.  This is one reason that we also have chemistry and biology.  We similarly have social sciences like economics and law and philosophy.  And we have food, music, art, recreation, etc.  All are important.   Not even atheist physicists like Lawrence Krauss claim otherwise.  But when it comes to the ultimate questions about how our universe works at the foundational level, a.k.a. "the inner nature of reality", we have no better alternative than physics.

He then says "It is thus comically inept for Krauss to assert in his recent article that 'the more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems.'"  Krauss is correct.  Any answer to the second question of whether the universe has some human centered purpose is dependent on first determining the workings of the universe.  Philosophers like Feser who insist on disconnecting their answer to the first question from the answer to the second question are the ones who are being comically inept.

He says: "The reason is that purpose—what philosophers call teleology or final causality—is an irreducibly qualitative notion. Hence it cannot be captured in quantitative concepts."  Contrary to what Feser keeps saying, physics is not a-priori confined to finding equations or to quantitative concepts.  If the universe is mechanical then it can be described quantitatively by equations, otherwise it cannot be so described.  As it turns out, through no fault of the innocent physicists, our universe is mechanical and therefore it can be described by equations.  In other words, the pervasiveness of equations in physics is a result of a qualitative property of the universe.  This is a lucky result from the point of view of professional scientists but it did not a-priori have to be this way. If the universe were not mechanical, not material, not physical, then there would not be equations describing its function and physicists, along with the rest of humanity, would have to manage the best we could with that result.

Physics is about more than quantitative concepts.  The equations of physics describe the mechanical functioning of our universe.  Understanding that our universe functions mechanically is a necessary starting point for evaluating its purpose.  The irony here is that theism is built upon a recognition of the centrality of understanding the function of the universe to determining its purpose.  This is a primary reason theists keep insisting there is a god.  Theism reasons backwards, starting with a demand for cosmic purpose and then inserting an imaginary god into the functioning of the universe to provide the cosmic purpose.  So when theists like Feser complain that physics tells us only about the functioning of the universe and therefore tells us nothing about the purpose of the universe they are employing an inconsistent double standard.

He then says: "If you confine yourself to quantitative concepts—as physics does—then you are guaranteed not to find purpose even if it is there."  This is false.  If the functioning of the universe exhibits cosmic purpose then physicists, and scientists more generally, are capable of discovering this fact.  If, for example, the weather is better where more people spend more time worshipping in a Catholic church then this pattern can be detected and once detected will be reported.  When we quantify weather in terms of high, low, and average temperature, humidity, etc., we are facilitating, not obstructing, our qualitative understanding of the weather.  The equations of physics are a result of our universe being mechanical, material, and physical.  The resulting equations are powerful evidence that our universe is self-confined to being mechanical and material.  But professor Feser will not admit this because his theism takes priority over the facts, so he declares this result to be a presupposition.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What do you understand by teleology?