Friday, June 5, 2009

Evolution and Creation for an 8-year-old

I was putting my 8 year old daughter to bed the other night when a school project got us talking about all the different animals in the world. She had lots of questions all of a sudden;

"Did the mammoths live when the dinosaurs were around?"

I did my best to explain the rough time frames, about how long ago some of it really was.

"What kinds of animals lived before the dinosaurs?"

I told her what I knew about the creatures of the Permian era that were kind of like reptiles but different too.

"And the dinosaurs became birds right?"

I nodded. Close enough. Then she said:

"It seems like they were all invented doesn't it? All these different animals."

I smiled to myself, thinking of Dawkins and Gould and the whole raging debate my 8 year old had tapped into just before lights-out. Here's how I answered her:

"Well, they were invented. Each and every creature at a time was created by God, not just all the birds, but each and every bird, every one that was ever born - just like you and me - we were each created special, down the last hair on our heads. Every time a new creature is born, God created it. Each one is a little different, it's special. That's why you are your own person, a bit different even from your sister, even though you're identical twins. When we have kids they come out a bit like mom, a bit like dad, but also something new too, a bit different every time. So then they have kids and it happens all over again. It's that way for all the things that ever lived. And it happens over and over and over and over, a little different each time, and over millions of years, all these different kinds of animals come to be, just from those little difference. Some die out, and some are the ones we see today. Everything that lives, even the plants and bugs and you and me, got here that way."

"That's neat," she said.

Monday, May 4, 2009

If there is a point, how would we know?

There's virtual deluge on the Science, Religion and Truth front these days. We have Rod Dreher commenting on Dan Everett's book (and they say Christians don't engage the conversion story when it goes from believer to atheist!), and whether truth is somehow dependent on culture, and can it thus be "objective" in the scientific sense.

Then Stanley Fish over at the NYT gets into it with Terry Eagleton's book talking about the other direction, of the secular West spending more and more time talking about God.

What I found interesting in both instances was the subsequent debates - the largely religious commenters gripping with Everette over at Crunchy Con, while the largely Atheist crowd lambasted Fish over at the NYT for his seeming embrace of Eagleton.

Of all the comments, I thought this one at the NYT got to the point of the issue most elegantly:
Science explains a great deal, but doesn’t explain everything. Religion, on the other hand, does not appear to explain anything.

With science or more generally, physicalism, while limited in the types of questions it addresses, we at least understand what it does provide - repeatable, testable, predictive results. Because of this, we know how to tell good science from bad. We don't need to understand physics, we can see the resulting bridge, take medicine, or use a map to know it is true.

But this still leaves us with questions like "is there a point?" and "was there purpose?" When not applied to human actions these questions presuppose answers that are not predictable, repeatable, or testable, so the physicalist refuses them as nonsensical. But then again, we're not going to use these answers to build a bridge, cure a disease or tell us how to get to an office building, so why should the answers have those properties?

Yet we still want to know.

Isn't a better question, then, what kind of criterion should we use for questions and answers of that non physical sort? That is, if there is a point, how would we know it?

Science adopts criterion of testable, predictive and repeatable to define "true" because we intend to use that truth to do testable, repeatable things and need to predict if they are going to work. To answer "does religion explain anything?" we need to start by asking "what are we planning to do with the explanation?"

Friday, April 24, 2009

Scientists zero in, but is choice a supernatural concept?

It seems scientists have pinpointed the part of the brain responsible for "self control." The article is a bit dense for the layperson, but ends with this observation:
"Imagine how much better life could be if we knew how to flex the willpower muscles in the brain and strengthen them with exercises," says Camerer.

Of course, this reminded me at once of a great article on Free Will in the New York times. Michael Silberstein, a science philosopher at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania is quoted:
...every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic or random. "Both are bad news for free will," he said. So if human actions can't be caused and aren't random, he said, "It must be — what — some weird magical power?"
The article immediately proceeds to investigate the various physicalist interpretations of what choice must then be. None of this is "wrong" in the sense that wherever they end up, those processes ARE happening.

But with these advances, ironically, an entirely parallel question seems ever more pressing: is our experience of choice - our insistence that we do have freewill - an experience of something outside the physical? Is choice a supernatural concept?

Think of just two common aphorisms we generally accept without controversy:
1. "No one makes you do anything" - in other words, you ARE able to overcome the environment, the sum total of inputs into your brain. You are not deterministic. Cause and effect stops when you decide to act. Human actions are not "caused."
2. "Judge someone by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin" - in other words, physical factors such as biology and genetics are irrelevant compared to the sum total of the choices we make, by our "character." This supposes that our choices, our "character" is not the inexorable result of biology, physics, environment. Neither is it random. We are each responsible for it, and to be judged by it, by the character WE develop in ourselves.

Consider the time in which we live, the pervasive language of President Obama; "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time." WE are the cause (if we so choose), not the effect. Something similar can be found at the heart of just about every political cause right and left.

Even scientists, hardly known for advocating the spiritual, constantly admonish us to change our attitudes, on everything from the environment to our economic habits. Termites and bees? They're just doing what they do. Invasive species? They spread because they are hardwired to do so. It's pointless to blame them. But not us. WE have a choice, we must act now, we can choose to stop emitting greenhouse gases, to stop our expansion and development into pristine areas, to limit our use of natural resources. All those physical forces that shaped the universe, the Sun, planet Earth, and countless species, they all seem to stop when it comes to us. With us, it's neither nature nor nurture any more. We have a choice. We can be held responsible.

So, are these avowed secularists claiming that if you get enough atoms together in the right combination (i.e. our brain) that these atoms can suddenly disregard cause and effect, or random quantum probabilities, and all the other physical laws that dictates what all the other species do, what all the other atoms in the universe do? I doubt it. So then, what is it?

And even if we accept that our thoughts and choices are constrained by physical laws and the environment around us, if we hold ANY belief that our choices are neither deterministic, nor random then again we have to ask what are they - some "weird magical power?"

And if WE have this experience, why would it only exist in us?