Thursday, July 30, 2009

Coming Up Snake Eyes

I'm currently rereading two books: Fred L. Pincus's Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth (Boulder: Rienner, 2003), and Mary Midgley's Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning (Routledge, 1992). Midgley is an interesting character, and though I have some disagreements with her she's one of my favorite living philosophers. She has the distinction, minor though significant, of having hurt Richard Dawkins's feelings in what Dawkins called a "highly intemperate and vicious paper", and I'd love her if she'd never done anything but goad that pot into calling the kettle black. Besides that, and more important, I've learned a lot from her, and I hope I'll be as lucid at 90 as she is.

Anyway. On page 14 of Science as Salvation Midgley quoted C. S. Lewis (from Christian Reflections, page 89):
We find that matter always obeys the same laws which our logic obeys ... No one can suppose that this can be due to a happy coincidence. A great many people think that it is due to the fact that Nature produces the mind. But on the assumption that Nature is herself mindless, this provides no explanation. To be the result of a series of mindless events is one thing; to be a kind of plan or true account of the laws according to which these mindless events happen is quite another ...

Unless all that we take to be knowledge is an illusion, we must hold that in thinking we are not reading rationality into an irrational universe, but responding to a rationality with which the universe has always been saturated.
I think Lewis has it backwards here: why not say that logic obeys the same laws matter does?  Lewis seems to be falling prey to the Shabby Friar fallacy, where one marvels that the Lord has so arranged things that rivers flow past the larger towns.  He also conveniently ignores traditional Christian polemic against logic, "the Devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore" as Martin Luther called it.

Earlier, on page 12, Midgley had repeated a famous anecdote about Albert Einstein's resistance to the indeterminacy of quantum theory:
Disturbed by the implication of real disorder in Bohr's interpretation of quantum mechanics, Einstein said, 'God does not play dice'. Bohr replied, 'Einstein, stop telling God what to do.'
Midgley says that those who tell this story "seldom offer a carefully secular paraphrase to show just what [Bohr] had established, nor do they explain why this language struck these great men as so well fitted for their purpose." What occurred to me as I read it, and again when I turned the page to read Lewis's remarks about a rational universe, was that this was the only time I've encountered Bohr's rejoinder to Einstein's quip. Probably I just hadn't been paying enough attention. (In Rebecca Goldstein's philosophical novel The Mind-Body Problem [Penguin reprint, 1993], the narrator says that later in life, Einstein conceded, "Who knows, maybe He is a little malicious" [225-6].)

Einstein's position was circular: he didn't believe that God played dice with the universe because his concept of God, like that of the heretical seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, was deterministic, and he held "that a person's actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star. 'Human beings in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free but are as causally bound as the stars in their motions,' Einstein declared in a statement to a Spinoza Society in 1932." He rejected the notion of a personal "deity who could meddle at whim in the events of his creation. ... Scientists aim to uncover the immutable laws that govern reality, and in doing so they must reject the notion that divine will, or for that matter human will, plays a role that would violate this cosmic causality." But this was Einstein's conviction, one that he shared with many other scientists, not the result of his scientific work but a preconception he brought to it. It looks like C. S. Lewis, who thought of matter obeying "the same laws which our logic obeys", agreed with Einstein on this issue.

On the other hand, I can see that for many people, theist and non-theist alike, an impersonal universe is too disturbing to face. Later in Science and Salvation, Midgley notes that for some scientists "the prospect of an eventual end to human life, however distant, is so awful as to deprive life now of all meaning. And the belief that some kind of post-human being, somehow produced by us, will in some sense survive seems to [them] enough to render it meaningful again" (21). Which reminds me of Wittgenstein's rhetorical question about 'eternal life' in the Tractatus (6.3412), "[I]s some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life?" I've noticed that quite a number of science fans believe, against all likelihood, that the human race will survive until the Heat Death of the universe, which is not expected for a few billion years yet, and are eager for us to migrate throughout the universe to make sure that the human race won't die out when we blow up this planet. (As though we wouldn't do the same to the new places we moved to.)

A good many people look to belief in God for stability in the world, to give them absolutes, to give them a reliable ground for their values and other beliefs. Such people seem to think that if there's no god, the universe is chaos. "If there is no God, then everything is permitted!" Dostoevsky warned in The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe so, but you'd never conclude that from looking at how people, including Christians, imagine their gods. (I've argued that if God exists, just about everything is permitted.) Maybe God does play dice with the world; Christians and Jews attribute a great deal of not just irrationality, but outright capriciousness to their god. God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, etc. -- there's a rich vein of proverbial lore about how irrational God is, and I don't find that comforting.

In his book Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Harper, 1958), for example, the philosopher Walter Kaufmann retold a rabbinical parable in which God shows Moses a vision of the second-century rabbi Akiba, who was martyred by the Romans. Akiba interprets the Torah so wonderfully that Moses marvels, "Lord of the world, you have such a man and yet you gave the Torah through me?" "Be still," God replies, "that is how it entered my mind." Moses asks God to show him Akiba's reward for knowing the Torah so well, and God shows him Akiba's horrible death. Shocked, Moses protests: "This is the Torah, and this is its reward?" "Be still," God replies, "that is how it entered my mind." (Notice that in this story God does not reply that Akiba's martyrdom wasn't his fault, that he couldn't interfere with anybody's free will, that he suffered along with [and even more than] Akiba -- he declares that it was his whimsical doing.)

Worse yet, mythology about every god I've ever heard of depicts them as erratic, vengeful, malignant -- Yahweh as abusive husband, for example, in the Hebrew Bible, or as abusive father in the New Testament. And who knows? Maybe this is the true state of the world. My point is that a personal God, like the god of Judaism and Christianity, gives no warrant for a secure, stable, rational world. I think his existence would make the world no less frightening than his non-existence would. If the universe is orderly, it doesn't need a god to run it; if it's chaotic, I'm not reassured that it entered Someone's mind to make it that way. When I consider the images of divine beings that human beings have created, or the distant scientific futures they've imagined, I wonder what kind of "meaning" they're looking for.