Posted by: dacalu | 28 February 2012

Theoretical Theology

On Saturday, I wrote about the subject of simplicity and claimed that the proper use of Ockham’s razor, or more generally the principle of elegance, in science was to look for the simplest explanation which accounts for all the data and has predictive value. [Frequently two models will compete when one is simpler, but the other more predictive – see my August 2011 blog on Scientific Values.  Science is not really a one theory fits all kind of endeavor.]  I then made the claim that Christianity has some predictive value;  I’d like to follow up on that claim.  First however, we need to clear away some brush.  There are certain claims I am not making.

1) I am not claiming that Christianity has predictive value in science – that is the ability to predict observations of mutually observable physical objects – except through the intermediary of agency and psychology.  I do not think Christianity supports or is supported by claims about fundamental particles and forces.  I do not buy the fine-tuning argument.  [See my article from last Thursday, “To Set Our Hope on Science.”]

2) There is a realm of what I’m going to call theoretical theology.  Much like theoretical science it addresses the ground rules, but may be divorced from application and prediction.  String theory, for example, makes limited predictions that are currently testable.  It does, however, provide for an elegantly simple view of the whole.  So it’s appealing, but not predictive.  Some theology fits in this category.

That said, let us tackle two important areas of theoretical theology – both subjects un-addressed or un-addressable by science, but of interest to humans.

I have long been deeply fascinated by the question of motivation – not in the psychological sense, but in the physical one.  Why do objects fall?  Why do chemical reactions occur?  Why do batteries work and how do they become charged?

Philosophy changed radically in the seventeenth century.  Previously the natural world had been viewed as a collection of living entities, organisms, beings.  Every object was said to incline in a particular direction.  Heavy objects wanted to approach the bottom of the universe.  Hot air wanted to rise toward heaven.  This notion was replaced by the Mechanic Philosophy, a very useful premise that everything in the universe is in fact mechanical.  Atoms want nothing.  Rather, the universe was compared to a giant mechanism, with no internal motivation, only moving parts and impersonal, universal forces.  From a time when everything was thought alive, we moved to a time when nothing was thought alive.

This turned out to be instrumental in the rise of modern science.  It allowed observers to categorize material objects and reduce all physical and chemical reactions to a very small number of entities and types.  Yea, reductionism.  Yea, materialism.  Unfortunately, it also begged two questions.

First, if the universe is a giant clockwork mechanism, who wound it up?  Machines have no internal motivation and must be moved by an outside force.  Computers must be plugged in for electricity and motivated by programers and users.  Ovens have to be connected to the gas and lit.  Otherwise they just sit there.  Philosophers for 200 years after the introduction of the mechanic philosophy thought this was a proof of the existence of God.  Recent philosophers have been more skeptical.  After all, positing a creator ends up with very minimal predictive value in and of itself.  It frequently comes associated with other notions about what kind of creator that is, but focusing solely on the question “creator/no creator,” I don’t see anything that necessary follows.  I don’t see a good reason to go one way or the other.

Many creationists (of all stripes) will argue that a creator means the world is good, but I must admit that that follows from a good creator, not from just a creator.  After all, the Gnostics believed that an evil demi-urg created the world.

As it stands, neither the creator nor the no-creator hypothesis gives us much traction.  There is, I think, an untractable problem.  If we take the Mechanic Philosophy as a given, where does the motivation come from.  Stephen Hawking and his crowd miss the point.  Sure you can say that matter and antimatter spontaneously came into being from a potentiality field, but that simple begs the question, where did the field come from?  Worse yet, matter and anti-matter can only spring into being in a field with an energy input.  Where did the energy come from?

That is neither an argument for or against God.  It’s an argument that empirical observation limited by the mechanic philosophy is insufficient to explain events.  We are ignorant and that ignorance supports neither the claim that that something else must be God or the claim that one day science will completely explain it all.  In fact, I’m pretty suspicious of the secondbecauseI like the mechanic philosophy so well.  Because it’s so useful, I think it’s integral to science, but there’s some places science just can’t go.  One of them is motivation.

Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) posit that a God exists.  That claim is axiomatic, a priori, just a fundamental assumption.  It turns out the assumption can be used in a way that deals with the hole left in our understanding.  We must remember, though, that it is only one piece of the theory.  We’ll build on it later, but by itself, it is neither unreasonable, nor unavoidable.

I want to say that a real problem needs to be solved – the motivation of the universe.  Belief in God solves that problem, but, by itself provides little predictive value and – most importantly – does not fall out of these observations.  It will fall out of other observations and be co-opted as a solution to this problem.

Christians cannot use the cosmological argument as a proof for God.

Atheists cannot use an inverse cosmological argument as a disproof of God.

You can’t get there from here.  Nonetheless, the creator God will turn out to be an important aspect of a theoretical theology.  It’s a unifying metaphor that puts concrete applied theology in context.

Second, if the universe is a clockwork mechanism, does that make all of us cogs.  I hope to return to that question tomorrow.


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