Giberson: science has its limits (ergo Jesus?)

July 16, 2011 • 4:38 am

Oh dear, I thought—and I guess I was foolish to think—that when Uncle Karl Giberson left both Eastern Nazarene University and BioLogos, he would stop publishing religious apologetics.  He has not.  The latest is at HuffPo, “Is free will a mystery?”  Don’t worry, it’s not mainly about free will, though it does link to some of our discussions here; it’s about “realities” that are beyond the purview of science.

Responding to my earlier remark that nothing influences our actions beyond our genes and our environments, Karl says:

Many scientists share this view. They reject as unreal anything that can’t be caught in the scientific net. By these lights, nothing transcends science. Fish that cannot be caught in the scientific net do not exist. Free will, morality, and God cannot be caught in the scientific net so they must be fantasies conjured by naïve humans to meet psychological needs.

Such Spartan views of knowledge trouble me, despite my great appreciation for science. Human beings are finite creatures and it seems unreasonable to insist that no realities exist beyond those caught in our scientific nets. Or worse, to suppose that all realities must be such that their scientific descriptions are the only ones possible. Science constantly surprises us by pushing out its frontiers, and even rearranging what we thought was familiar.

You see where he’s going here.  Because science hasn’t yet answered some questions (or can’t with certainty, because we lack either the tools or—as with the origin of life—weren’t there), there must be other “realities” beyond science.  I wonder what “realities” he’s talking about?  Could it be . . . . Jesus?

And who among scientists insists that “no realities exist beyond those caught in our scientific nets”?  I am glad to admit that there are realities out there not caught in those nets. But how can we verify the existence of such “realities” except with science (defined broadly as the use reason and empirical observation)?

Giberson says, “I hasten to add that this is not an argument that a ‘religious way of knowing’ will accomplish what science cannot.”  But given his history, and the fact that this piece appears in the HuffPo “Religion” section, I find it hard to believe that he’s not arguing on some level for faith.  After all, what he dwells on in the last part of his piece—the beauty of physics equations, the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics, and the very comprehensibility of the universe—are things that he’s previously implied constitute evidence for a (Christian) transcendent being.

And his comment on “free will” seems to me almost incomprehensible:

Is it possible that free will represents another type of boundary to our knowledge? Between the determinism understood so clearly on one end of the spectrum, and the quantum indeterminism on the other — neither of which can accommodate any meaningful concept of free will — lies a theoretical no-man’s land where those two incompatible aspects of our world overlap. I wonder if determinism and indeterminism represent two explanatory categories into which so much can be fit that we are too quick to assume that these categories are all-encompassing. And, since free will fits in neither category, there can be no such thing.

First of all, biological determinism and quantum interderminism are not incompatible, just as Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics are not incompatible. They are different ways of describing different levels of the world.  Further, Giberson he neglects the fact that many people—I’m not one of them—see “free will” as something perfectly compatible with determinism. That idea, in fact, is the essence of “compatibilism.”

But underneath it all—I grant that I’m presuming here—is Giberson’s answer to what lies in the cranny between determinism and indeterminism: the God-given soul.

Yes, science doesn’t understand everything, and some things we will never understand.  But we are slowly approaching an understanding of the material basis of behavior.

As for that other stuff, well, I like to quote Richard Feynman:

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Karl here; perhaps he really is struggling to make sense of these issues, and his faith is slipping away.  I hope so! But in the interim he’s still feeding HuffPo readers sly suggestions that there might be a Holy Ghost in their machines.

 

63 thoughts on “Giberson: science has its limits (ergo Jesus?)

  1. Any time anyone talks about a “soul”, all I can think of are the mechanics of ensoulment.

    When an embryo splits to form two identical twins, who gets the original soul and who gets the second one? Why?

    If one of a pair of twins dies in utero and the other survives, what happens to the spare soul?

    If twins fuse to form a chimera, what happens to the spare soul?

    Yikes. L

    1. “If twins fuse to form a chimera, what happens to the spare soul?”

      They fuse into a super-soul and you get James Brown.

  2. Unless Mr. Giberson can come up with a more successful way of knowing than science I will suspect him of talking nonsense. When I stray (even slightly) from reason and experience this happens to me automatically. Why would it be any different for him?

  3. Every undergraduate physics student should know that a quantum harmonic oscillator approaches a classical mass on a spring for high quantum states.

    Quantum mechanics and classical mechanics are neither incompatible nor separate — in fact they dovetail into one another beautifully.

    Isn’t Giberson a physicist?

    1. I think biological determinism is incompatible with quantum indeterminism, unless we are very careful about how we define biological determinism. Mutations, the building blocks of evolution, are quantum events often caused by the indeterministic interaction of a cosmic ray or UV light wave with a small molecule. This means the pace and direction of evolution has an inherently indeterministic component, though as in Newtonian mechanics, there are certainly laws governing their mean behavior.

      1. Lou Jost

        Mutations, the building blocks of evolution, are quantum events often caused by the indeterministic interaction of a cosmic ray or UV light wave with a small molecule.

        I think you might be confused. We classify mutations and we know their causes (virus, radiation, chemicals, etc.). Do you think that because radiation, typically under the purview of physics, can cause a specific type of the many classes of mutation that somehow evolution is governed at the quantum level? That would be a trivially general statement since everything comes down to physics. Politics is a quantum event by this logic.

        I never heard mutations described as building blocks. Not saying it’s necessarily inappropriate but we already have the protein as building blocks of life metaphor.

        1. Hi Gillt,
          We agree that mutations are often caused by UV light or cosmic rays. Especially in the case of UV light, this is a scattering problem with a very large amount of quantum uncertainty about any particular outcome.

          So the occurrence of an important class of mutations is not even close to deterministic. This means that “running the tape again”, we would not get the same mutations in the same sequence, and the reason is not our ignorance of initial conditions or the practical difficulty of prediction, but a lack of causality in principle.

          I did not say that “evolution is governed at the quantum level” but that the pace and direction of evolution has a quantum-mechanically indeterminate component.

          You say that any such statement is vacuous, since everything is based on QM. But it should be obvious that mutations caused by the interaction of a molecule with a light wave are completely within the quantum realm, and quantum indeterminacy applies directly.

          Mutations are one of the more important sources of variation, the raw material for natural selection and random drift. Sorry if that seems an odd thing to say, but I think it is accurate. In this sense, mutations are the building blocks of evolution, though I probably should have qualified that, since there are other sources of variation.

          1. I did not say that “evolution is governed at the quantum level” but that the pace and direction of evolution has a quantum-mechanically indeterminate component.

            The quantum indeterminacy of any particular point mutation event has no significant effect on the pace or direction of evolution. Mutations collect at a very stable rate — so stable as to enable us to use the “molecular clock” technique.

            Another way to think about it is that from an evolutionary point of view, it doesn’t really matter what caused the mutation. Once the mutation happens any indeterminacy of the quantum interaction is irrelevant. Natural selection only sees the mutation, not its causes.

  4. scientists … reject as unreal anything that can’t be caught in the scientific net.

    No. Scientists reject as unknowable and therefore irrelevant anything that can’t be caught in the scientific net.

    If there exists a massless, chargeless, charmless particle that doesn’t interact with any other particle, then it woould be real but forever unknown to us.

    This unseen particle deserves the name “God particle”. If God acts in our real world, then we would have a Feynman diagram that shows how he acts. Without this, Giberson’s god is at best unknowable and absolutely irrelevant. But the simplest explanation is that he doesn’t exist.

    That Giberson, Feser and others fail to understand this basic scientific thinking shows that they fail to understand science itself.

    1. Scientists are also constantly shrinking the net size and building bigger nets.

      Also, it’d have to be a damn stupid fisherman to conclude that no fish exist smaller than his net size.

      Even if we wanted to continue torturing this analogy, the fisherman would find smaller fish in the intestines of the larger fish.

      Sorry, Unkle Karl. When an analogy starts off that blindingly obviously bad, I turn off. Your rhetoric would be improved with better analogizing.

      Cheers,

      b&

      1. Too bad the analogy is yours 😉
        Too bad that you should not torture analogies -= they should only be used to illustrate a point.

        The point though is that there is no point in speculating about what has slipped through the scienitific net (as you put it). If it doesn’t affect anything, it doesn’t exist. At least that is the reasonable assumption. Otherwise produce the evidence and the net will be finer and you will have increased done a bit more…science!

    2. “If there exists a massless, chargeless, charmless particle that doesn’t interact with any other particle, then it woould be real but forever unknown to us.”

      Would that still be a particle? Isn’t it like buttered bread without butter, without bread, and without any other toppings or spices?

  5. Human beings are finite creatures and it seems unreasonable to insist that no realities exist beyond those caught in our scientific nets.

    Much less reasonable is to insist that we can understand realities beyond those caught in our scientific nets. This is classic naturalists think they know everything crap, and Giberson ought to be above it by now.

  6. Giberson

    They reject as unreal anything that can’t be caught in the scientific net.

    question begging as metaphor and not true. If Giberson declares something by default un-netable then he should define how he knows it is un-netable AND exists in the first place. If not he sets himself up for scientists questioning his grip on reality.

    1. Scientists don’t say “if science can’t detect it, it doesn’t exist.” What they do say is “if science can’t detect it, neither can you.”

      Which is on pretty firm ground: if people can detect X, then science can collect those observations under properly controlled conditions to test hypotheses, etc.

      1. Giberson

        Fish that cannot be caught in the scientific net do not exist. Free will, morality, and God cannot be caught in the scientific net so they must be fantasies conjured by naïve humans to meet psychological needs.

        You know what anglers call that explanation? A whopper.

        God is the fish that got away and you totally had to have been there. When god swam into view Giberson leaned over the boat and said “Jesus Christ, we need a bigger boat!”

        1. Oh, I’m pretty sure they are mighty Thor, and would pull the Midgård snake out of the sea if only that annoying science-giant Hymer would stop cutting the line.

  7. This is why I think the naturalism of contemporary philosophy is so destructive to religion. Giberson is clinging to religion to explain morals, meaning, and free will and naturalistic philosophers saying “Hey, we’re going to give 100% naturalistic accounts of all of those things.” Religion is deeply lazy in that it throws its hands in the air and says “Mystery!” and wants to leave it there. It’s really appropriate that Dennett has calls these people “Mysterians”.

      1. Oops, sorry Jerry, I just posted the hyperlink, didn’t realize the site would convert it to an embed.

  8. Giberson: “They reject as unreal anything that can’t be caught in the scientific net.”

    Giberson seems to be claiming that there is a finer net that can catch that which science misses. Perhaps he could demonstrate the power of his non-scientific net and discover something useful and real.

  9. There are gaps in the scientific net, therefore we can trust the cosmology of ancient literature. One of these days I’d like to see an apologist genuinely resolve the problem posed by the non-sequitur that goes “Jesus did magic, therefore his pronouncements about god are right and his morality is binding.”

  10. Invariably, people who want to believe in the Supernatural fall back to the “can’t know everything, therefore…supernatural is ok!”

    I cannot know personally, that a map of Australia is a true representation of that landmass, even if I walked the entire shoreline. Yet for a variety of (no need to repeat here) reasons, I have access to maps I “know” accurately represent Australia.

    The fact that you can be rendered (biologically) totally unconscious, and no “soul” remains conscious (why would it be affected by chemicals?), illustrates that there is no soul. Nothing to fly away after you die to some supernatural realm to meet some supernatural being. The physics do not support it, the chemistry does not support the notion of the soul, and the evidence demonstrably gives high certainty to the nonexistence of the soul.

  11. Giberson says, “I hasten to add that this is not an argument that a ‘religious way of knowing’ will accomplish what science cannot.”

    Right then. So what else has he got? Doesn’t that negate the bulk of the rest of his argument?

    Is it possible that free will represents another type of boundary to our knowledge?

    In order to make that claim stick, he would have to establish that free will exists. Until he does that, his attempts to use it to represent anything is quite empty. Musing on that is as pointless as using the dragon in my garage to represent boundaries to knowledge.

    1. There are numerous bounds to human knowledge – some bounds are fundamental while other bounds exist simply because humans haven’t explored enough yet. Sensible people accept the (current) limits of their knowledge and strive to improve their knowledge in subjects that interest them. Deities are not valid explanations for the unknown. Whether free will exists or not doesn’t matter at all – it won’t change the fact that there are things we simply don’t know, some things are unknowable, and much will be discovered in the future – lack of knowledge is universal and it’s OK (well, so long as not too much is lacking).

  12. Ah, Gibberish as usual. As for ‘free will’ and determinism, I disagree that humans are necessarily deterministic even though we can show that some processes are deterministic. Now even if we assumed humans were indeed deterministic (I suspect behavior is probabilistic though the odds can be strongly influenced by prior events), why should determinism preclude the existence of ‘free will’?

    1. why should determinism preclude the existence of ‘free will’?

      You would have to presage that by specifying which definition of “free will” you are using. Otherwise it’s all talking past each other. Giberish seems to be referring to contra-causal free will (or so I interpret from the context).

    2. What can “probabilistic with the odds strongly influenced by prior events” be described as freewill? Seems to me that is not freewill at all. And what do you mean by freewill being “probabilistic”? Each neuron has about a thousand inputs. If it reaches a certain threshold it fires, if not it doesn’t. That’s about as probabilistic as it’s gets. And it’s all…determined! Or do you think there is a quantum connection?

        1. Though outside of the Chopra, who believes that “quantum” means “magic will power over the surroundings”, people don’t seem to want too much randomness in their freedom-soup.

          They’d rather have neither causes nor randomness in their cuisine.

  13. “Countless physicists have wondered about the uncanny ability of mathematics to accurately describe phenomena in nature.”

    What kind of nature would it be if mathematics couldn’t map it?

    A universe without any equations to describe it. Would that not be uncanny?

    I notice that Giberson doesn’t see fit to mention compatibilism.

    Lol.

      1. Homo Sapiens are at their best discerning patterns out of “noise”. That is our hunting heritage, seeing the outline of the deer hiding in the leaves. Those without superior pattern recognition did not fare well enough to pass on their genes.

  14. What is a ‘religious way of knowing’? Is it “this experience feels like an experience of God”? Is it “this music is so beautiful there just must be a god”? Is it “I love that person so much that…” or “this is just so amazing that…”? Granted that these experiences are real experiences, how does he know that they are actual knowledge? One can accept that the believer believes it’s God speaking, that the music is beautiful, the love is deep and transforming, the amazement is genuine, but I cannot see the slightest reason to suppose that any of them actually provide knowledge of God. The believer believes, and that’s all.

    1. “I love that person so much that…”

      Unless the continuation is meant to be “I will worship that person”, I fear that the affection would miss its mark.

      1. “I love this person so much that there must be a god” is not only possible but common. The fact that you think it misses the mark says something about you, not someone else. My point is as stated.

    2. I think you mean the believers believe – each their own mutually exclusive god. Will the real god please stand up.

  15. The fact that Uncle Karl knows were here and doesn’t engage is a sign of his intellectual cowardice. He writes crap and he knows it.

    “Higher planes” and “other ways of knowing” are all signs of mental retardation, rather than intellectual prowess.

    BS, Karl. I call BS on you and your entire enterprise.

  16. To add quantum indeterminism to an organism’s decision making process does not create a “variety of free will worth wanting” as Dennett said in “Elbow Room”. Suppose I have a random quantum event amplifier in my brain. The amplifier flips decision switches in my brain at times so that my actions are in principle unpredictable no matter how much is known about my physical conditions at the time I make the decision. Thus my actions are undetermined. Does that make me free? Am I any more free just because some of my actions are modified by a quantum coin flipper instead of being determined by a strict causal chain? It wouldn’t seem to me to be a variety of free will worth wanting.

    Dennett, like Hume before him, is a compatibalist. He thinks that determinism is only a moderate challenge to conventional notions of responsibility. There is a variety of free will worth wanting that we can hold to in the face of determinism. Nietzsche famously thought otherwise. He thought that determinism is a huge challenge to conventional morality and that the scientific understanding of human behavior would be the foundation of a moral revolution. BF Skinner thought he was the prophet of that moral revolution. Quine was no compatibalist either.

    1. I’d have to say that your amplified freedom would only make you incapable of adequately interacting with the world. People, cars, entertainment, work would all be unmanageable for you. And you for them.

      1. I agree. Evolution has shaped our brains to make ‘decisions’ that promote our survival. Adding quantum probability as a sort of random veto of the decisions honed by evolution would be a particularly bad idea. It cannot happen to any significant degree.

    2. The confusion of compatibilism as I see it is as follows.

      Our conscious will is produced (determined or not) by processes beyond our conscious control within our brains. The expression of our conscious will – our actions – are determined by factors outside our control without our brains. Sometimes we are able to act according to our conscious will, sometimes not.

      To say that because we can sometimes act in accordance with our consciouus will we therefore have free will, isn’t saying anything about our will as such. It’s not saying our will is free. We may sometimes be able (be “free”) to do what we want to do, but this ability, this “freedom” is not a property of the will. It’s a figure of speech.

      1. From a compatibilist position you are confused: you deny the existence of something you call “free will” that has no coherent definition in the first place.

        A compatibilist is just saying “free will” means exactly what we use it to mean — the apparent capacity for choice among several courses of action — but that the phenomenon in question is deterministic (even though it doesn’t feel that way).

  17. Hmm, is it possible that “caused”, “not caused” and “partially caused” represent a false trichotomy?

    I somehow doubt it.

    But of course, when we discover a new fish, we bring it into the world from the magirealm.

  18. Just dumb.

    “Humans are finite” yep and so is the universe, and so is everything contained within it. Therefore INFINITY!

    And special pleading. You ever hear an apologist actually explain HOW jebus’s dad went about the “first cause”? Nope, just the ole’ It’s a mystery(tm).
    Science can’t explain everything = bad! Religion can’t explain everything = good!

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