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A dialogue concerning natural religion

Consciousness and ethics

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Figaro: Self-awareness is a very, very odd thing. Thinking about it is liable to cause a headache at best. To say to yourself, I am nothing more than I collection of atoms arranged in a certain way and going about their business is hard to do. It doesnít really feel right. Descartes seemed closer to the mark when he defined our existence as the ability to think or reason7. And we can try to use logic to show just how difficult it is to think and reason if thought is just a physical process.

Think a thought along the lines of "I am thinking that my thought is just an arrangement of atoms." We know that the atoms in question have ended up the way they are by a process that is essentially a random one (so says quantum mechanics) but on a larger scale could be perhaps determined (by Newtonian mechanics). This means that your thought is either random or determined by something else. If random, it is of course entirely invalid. You cannot claim that a random thought has any right to be questioned as true or false and certainly cannot be called the product of reasoned thinking.

If your thought is determined in much the same way as the output on a computer is determined then the first thing that happens is free will goes out the window. Iíll come back to that later. In the meantime, lets look at the events that determine my thought.

All the events that helped to form my thought are caused by other events. In a material universe the only possible cause of events are ultimately atoms and molecules doing their stuff. Now we know that what atoms and molecules get up to is not rational. They have no concept of truth or falsehood when they vibrate in the way they do. It follows that the consequences of their vibrations cannot be rational either. One of those consequences is your thought. This means that cannot believe your thoughts to be true because they have non-rational causes. In short, you cannot reason.

Othello: I would say that the brain is like a super advanced computer. If you give a computer data, it is able to order it and determine truths in a rational way. So, can our brains. Now I appreciate that a computer is man made and so not a fair analogy from your point of view. You would say it does have a rational cause - namely the human mind that you claim is not purely physical. This means that you accept that it can go about things in the reasonable way its creator desired.

Descartes uses a similar argument to prove God exists by claiming we had to have a rational designer as well. But the scientist says no. The human brain is a product of a very long evolutionary process. If it were wired in a way that produced illogical or unreasonable results then its owner wouldnít last long. Natural selection produced a brain that could think straight. As for that quirky human element that we call free will, well, that is the random quantum mechanical process being added to the mix. This gives an illusion of free will overlying a base of reason.

Figaro: I am not about to fall into the trap of saying a computer is rational. It isnít. A computer is just a glorified calculating machine that can do its sums very quickly. And mathematics is nothing more than deductive logic. There is nothing mystical about it, whatever the ancients felt. Maths is, if you like, just about syntax. Back in the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal said that a calculating machine does things that appeared more like reason than anything a mere animal can do but that doesnít mean that a calculator has a will of its own8. I have no doubt that evolution has created a very advanced machine but our will and rationality must be something else because nature alone cannot produce anything except blind calculations. You would also need to claim that if a computer were advanced enough, it would Ďattainí consciousness. This assertion has no basis whatsoever beyond being a necessary conclusion of materialism.

The final things that I think lie outside the boundaries of science are morality and ethics. Some philosophers have also called it the natural law. In Mere Christianity9, CS Lewis makes it the central argument for the existence of God. I do not want to place that much emphasis on morality, but I do want to show that it defies a materialistic explanation.

First, I hope that we can agree that we do have some sort of sense of right and wrong. We donít do certain things, whether it is to kick a puppy or mug a granny. Second this rightness and wrongness is usually learnt rather that known intuitively. For example, a child will happily pull the wings off a fly whereas an adult wouldnít indulge in such wanton cruelty. Yes, there are granny muggers and there are probably grown up fly tormentors too but most people would agree with my examples of right and wrong. Now, despite wide cultural variations, most human beings share this idea and seem to have done so throughout history. Many of the barbarisms of times past and around the world are thought of as necessary evils by their perpetrators rather than being wholesome behaviour. Exceptions to this rule we call evil.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that much of our sense of ethics is hard wired into our brains. It got to be the way it is by a process of natural selection. I find this hard to believe because we have to learn ethics. Also, elements of this natural law seem wholly at odds with what you might expect from a successful species. For example, we protect old people long after they have ceased to be useful. All other animals just leave them to die. We also feel a child should get a seat on the lifeboat, rather than a fully functioning adult, even though the child has much less value as no resources have been used on it yet. It is impossible to imagine why kicking a puppy has become the signature of pointless cruelty.

Likewise, if morality is a man-made collection of rules, it is very hard to work out where it came from. The process of society improving over time is meaningless without some sort of ethical ruler to measure against. The only natural ruler we have is natural selection, that is dominance over other species. Our sense of morality seems to be utterly divorced from that concept. It has more to do with protecting the weak rather than replacing them. Interestingly even our old friend Professor Dawkins has a problem with this point. At the start of The Selfish Gene10 he says a world where his genes are allowed full sway isnít one in which he would want to live. What he doesnít explain is where his desire for a better world comes from.

Any truly Darwinian ethic would be similar to that proposed by Nietzsche. Most people at the time found this horrifying and the events in the first half of the last century have further shown the human race is not interested in Ďscientificí morality. I will return to this when we look at free will.

My personal belief is that we have to treat others well because we are all empathic. Our ability to know what others are feeling is something that forces us to behave well towards them. This empathy might, I suppose, be an inherited characteristic that human beings have gained by an accident of evolution. But I doubt this is the case, as it would not seem to be a positive aid to survival. It doesnít seem to be essential to teamwork and many other animals co-operate perfectly well without it.

Othello: I think morality is simply a tool that has developed to allow mankind, a social animal, to live in societies. Our enormous brains mean that we are individuals and could not be expected to be blindly obedient like a worker ant. Put people in a situation where societyís bonds can no longer constrain and all morality breaks down. I donít want to cite a fictional example but The Lord of the Flies11 is a good illustration of what could happen. You only have to look at the way people in Germany and Russia were conditioned to carry out terrible atrocities to realise how weak morality is. More recently, the massacres in Rwanda were a graphic proof that even today man will revert to being an animal in the right circumstances.

I must also take issue with your point about these ethical standards being universal. They most certainly are not. What shocks us today was happening here once upon a time. The dreadful tortures we see in the London Dungeon were instruments of policy not three hundred years ago. For much of history, the majority of the populations were kept in abject slavery and even early Christianity sees no problem with chattel slavery.

Simply put, fairly soon mankind found that to live together you couldnít just do what you liked. We learnt that to be treated well you had to treat others the same way. Do unto others what you would have done to you12. It is true that some aspects of morality do not quite seem to fit this template but man is a very complex animal and any one-dimensional attempt to explain him will fail. We can all make choices and if some of us empathise better than others do, we might choose to place a higher value on life. But most of us can be conditioned out of these responses in the right environment.

Free will

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Othello: Last time we met, the question of free will got rather kicked into touch while we were talking about morality. I have thought a bit about it now and I want to touch on a couple of points. Firstly, however, I think I should define what we mean by free will. I must confess that I have been doing some reading following our discussions so I hope I am better equipped to tackle this issue.

First Ė definitions: free will means the ability to make choices that come from within ourselves rather than being fully traceable to outside factors. This does not mean that our choices are not heavily influenced by stimuli of various shapes and forms. But we do have the ability to ignore some of that and do something perverse. We can also swim against the tide and do things differently for no better reason than we want to.

It is interesting to note that whereas I could, in theory, drop that pint of beer on the floor, I cannot make myself forget the dreadful argument my wife and I had on Sunday or believe that the moon is made of blue cheese. Up to a point free will really means I can make my body do what I want it to rather than control what I think and feel.

The ability to make choices necessarily means we have the ability to be wrong. Indeed, by my own admission, I often am. But this ability to make choices is only really the random element of our nature. Physics explains that atoms work by making random jumps between distinct energy states. If the brain is, in any sense, a quantum machine then it will sometimes act in a random way. But the randomness is channelled into paths by the determinist workings of the brain. The result is the ability to make decisions where the evidence is weighed up but the final tiebreaker is a random event. Hence, free will is quite possible in a materialist world and further my argument about where morality comes from is valid.

Figaro: Your argument is valid in that it follows from your premises.  By defining free will in such a way that it can be random, you allow it a place in a purely material universe. Quantum mechanics has long disturbed theists. In Miracles13, CS Lewis just cannot bring himself to accept it. Other thinkers feel that even if the transition between energy states appears random to us it doesnít seem like that to God. Likewise, they claim that Heisenbergís Uncertainty Principal does not hold if God is doing the measuring.

Having studied Physics at university, I donít have many problems with quantum mechanics. The randomness is a product of wave particle duality. A wave is spread out so when it has to behave like a particle it can do so in a variety of places. Most likely it will act near the middle of the wave where it is strongest but it could do so further out. The only metaphysical point I would make about quantum theory is that it seems to leave room for free will.

Going back to your definition, I suppose I must add "and is not arbitrary" to the first sentence.  So, free will means the ability to make choices that come from within ourselves rather than being fully traceable to outside factors  and is not arbitrary. I think most people would accept that free will means some sort of volition rather than random chance. In any case, I am unaware of any research that shows that decisions are partly driven by quantum mechanics. Until there is and the main body of scientists accepts it then your idea is a theory rather than a scientific explanation. And of course, for what it is worth, I actually donít feel like I am acting arbitrarily.

Suppose you were left sitting by an unattended tray of chocolate brownies. They are not yours but smell very good indeed. There is no chance of your being caught if you pounce on one. Do you? If you donít then your moral principals have won and if you do then your lust for chocolate has come out on top. Neither of these results is arbitrary and but it is equally hard to say that they are determined. You have a free choice. Not only that, you understand that either choice is possible. It is this ability to see that we could have done things differently from what we did in fact do that makes us believe we are free.

This feeling of freedom is very strong de facto evidence that we are in fact free. Unless there is concrete evidence to the contrary, it is not reasonable to claim otherwise. If you continued to insist we were not free willed you would be like those people who still believe Genesis is the literal truth. They discount all evidence that the earth is billions of years old by saying it could have been made to look that way. Likewise, the materialist claims that however much we seem to make free choices we are actually the victims of an illusion that just makes us feel free. His conclusion is as much based on his predicate (that the universe is purely material) as the creationistís is (that Genesis is literally true).

But lets assume you are right and we have no free will. All our actions are determined either randomly or by external causes. All these causes are also either random or caused. There is, of course, a heated academic argument going on about where our personalities come from. Some, like the biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University, claim that our brains are hard wired before birth and we are programmed by our genes. Others, like the old school of sociology, claim we are products of our environment. Itís the old nature versus nurture debate. Letís just assume it would be some combination of the two. It hardly matters for the sake of my argument.

You said that we can make wrong decisions. In a purely material world, we need to find some sort of objective measure to determine right from wrong. Evolutionary theory provides a template where we can call a decision successful or unsuccessful but I would hesitate to say it gives us right and wrong. If our decisions are not the product of minds then any idea of responsibility disappears. Compassion becomes selfishness if the only reason for morality is that we want to be treated well ourselves. Most of the ideas that spring from extending survival of the fittest to psychology are rightly rejected as abhorrent. Scientific reasons for this rejection are rarely given. It is faulty logic to say the unpleasantness of the conclusion invalidates the premise. I would therefore expect a little more effort to explain these unwelcome consequences.

Let me mention just a few. I must make very clear I totally disagree with all these scenarios.

Firstly, feminism would appear to be a big mistake. Men and women are adapted for different roles and any attempt to change them is against nature. So, of course, is homosexuality. Since homosexuals cannot have children, they are pretty close to useless. The same could be said of anyone who is infertile or celibate through choice. That these people offer something to society is not a valid Darwinian answer, as we would then have to destroy severely handicapped people who are only a drain on resources (and a big drain at that). How homosexuality or the desire for celibacy ever became so common in the first place is a question I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to.

Since no one is responsible for their actions, it becomes pointless to blame them if they do wrong. Of course, their view of right and wrong is as valid as societyís is but the stronger of the two wills prevails. It doesnít mean the miscreants shouldnít be punished but the factors determining that punishment will be harsh. We would want to deter others, ensure the criminal doesnít re offend and minimise the cost. Killing them quickly seems to fit the bill although perhaps re education through labour might be more effective.

You can see that I am describing what fascist and communist tyrannies are actually like. It comes as no surprise therefore, that both systems pride themselves on being rational rather than sentimental. For the later, atheism was the official Ďreligioní. I admit that fascists have found the Catholic Church useful at times but I doubt they have much time for the philosophy of love. The Chinese persist in accusing human rights activists of imposing their own standards on matters they do not understand.

My view is that the Chinese communist party is evil incarnate and should be opposed in every way possible. The same is true of other rational tyrannies. I further believe human life is sacred and should be cherished in all its forms. But I believe in good and evil and do not hold they spring from natureís dark impersonal forces.

Othello: This is a typical attempt to make anyone who does not accept your point of view into a Nazi. I am a liberal-minded person who objects at least as strongly as you do to what you have said. That is part of the reason I left the church in the first place.

Figaro: Stop. It is precisely because I know you find tyranny abhorrent that I present my arguments like this. What I am saying is that your materialist philosophy leads to conclusions that you do not hold. This means that your premise must be wrong or you are being inconsistent. If you have truly gained your human decency by a random mutation then it seems to me that you must at least believe that the human species would be more successful without some elements of it. Liberal ethics looks a bit like Christianity morality with some free love thrown in.

You are a contradiction because at an intellectual level, you think one thing but your humanity rejects the conclusions. I want to give one final example to reinforce my point.

The Second World War pitted two monstrous systems of government against each other. Had the USSR not been a police state of the most awful kind it would never have been able to withstand the initial onslaught of the German army. But because it was, both sides could fight until one was bleed to exhaustion. But in the case of France there was almost immediate capitulation. France was a reasonably free and liberal country and could not stand up to the Nazi machine. The rational country easily overwhelmed the emotional one. I do not doubt for a second that had the UK actually been successfully invaded we too would not have lasted long. From a purely mechanistic view point our respect for life is a weakness not a strength. But we are not purely mechanical creatures and our humanity depends on our remembering that fact.

Othello: I accept that I feel that I have free will and that there are aspects of human behaviour that cannot be adequately explained. That doesnít mean that the explanation will never be forthcoming. In the mean time, it might be dangerous to push the scientific paradigm too far because presently it doesnít seem to provide us with the Ďrightí answer.

An expert speaks

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Columbus: Itís always nice to get an email from one of my old students especially if it is suggesting a pint or two. How can I help?

Othello: Well, youíre the closest I had to a science tutor and I was hoping you could clear some things up. I keep coming across references in the papers to weird and wonderful theories that are being dreamed up to answer the ultimate questions. I was hoping that you could give me a quick run through of the current state of play. Really, Iíd like to be able to distinguish between what is scientific fact Ė orthodoxy if you like Ė and what is still just an idea being developed.

Iíve been involved in an ongoing discussion about what used to be called natural theology. The guy I'm talking to is a Catholic, while I'm an atheist.  I am hoping that physics might be used as a tool in that argument although I am not altogether sure which side it might be most useful to.

Columbus: Iím an historian of science rather more than a theoretical physicist but and I suppose I am also called upon to look into the philosophy of science from time to time. I certainly find it pays to know what is happening at the cutting edge of cosmology because that is where a lot of the philosophically interesting science is going on.

I am also of a rather conservative bent. I tend to see science as a process of discovery that is moving forward at an uneven pace. I donít have much time for some modern structuralist theories that talk in terms of paradigms14. I also tend to avoid questions of metaphysics that take us beyond the physical world.

Othello: What is your opinion on whether or not physics helps us understand or believe in a God?

Columbus: Iím glad you didnít ask for my opinion on whether there is a God because I wouldnít tell you. The short answer to your question is physics can be and is used by both sides. However, it is the study of nature and not supernature. So, by definition it will not concern itself with any questions outside of the natural world. That is not to say that physicists donít themselves consider these questions but when they do, they are wearing their philosophical hats. Scientific fact tells us almost nothing about God or ultimate questions.

The argument is fuelled by mistakes made by both sides. The anti theistic camp has dug its own grave to a certain extent by resisting the idea of the big bang for what can only be described as theological reasons. Sir Fred Hoyle, one of our greatest astronomers, foolishly pushed his now defunct steady state theory of the universe precisely because he didnít want the universe to have a beginning. He felt that handed ammunition to creationists15. Scientists tend to frown on ulterior motives for presenting theories.

Othello: Surely scientists are entitled to let their world-view be reflected in their work.

Columbus: Most scientists would disagree and claim they should be entirely objective. The honest ones would then admit that being human; this ideal is never quite reached. Certainly, to reject a theory on philosophical grounds is foolish, but not nearly so foolish as hanging onto a theory disproved by experiment.

Othello: So is the Big Bang a fact? And does that mean that we really do have a beginning of time? I have heard about the idea that the Bang might be followed by a Big Crunch in a few billion years that would lead to another Big Bang. So, we have an infinite cycle.

Columbus: That is how easy it is to move from fact to speculation. The fact is that the present universe grew out of a tremendous fireball and has been expanding at the speed of light ever since. As it has expanded it has cooled down and formed into clumps that became galaxies and stars. The furthest back we can look is to about 300,000 years after what we might call the very beginning. The fireball gave off radiation that is today called the cosmic microwave background radiation. It has been studied very closely and we can already make out some of the lumpiness that will eventually turn into galaxies.

Now, we have some theories about how this fireball we can observe directly came about. But we canít test those theories or even look back any further. The only laboratory we have is the universe today. Does the theory explain what we see around us? If it does then it is a good theory although it may not be the only one. But weíll never be able to feel as sure about it as we do about Newtonís Laws or Quantum Mechanics.

There are two very real restrictions on how far back we can look called the particle and visual horizons16. There is an ultimate limit called the particle horizon beyond which we can observe nothing. It is further away from us than light could have travelled in the lifetime of the universe. More practically, the early universe was opaque so we canít see it directly. This limits our observation to the Hubble size. We can only detect neutrinos and a few other things from beyond that distance.

Othello: How come cosmologists are always talking about the first nanosecond or whatever if they canít know what was happening then?

Columbus: What we have to do is extrapolate our theories back. There are two very good theories Ė quantum mechanics and general relativity - that have been proved beyond reasonable doubt. We plug in numbers for what the beginning of the universe was like and find out what the theories say.

Othello: Before you tell me that, I feel all at sea the moment anyone mentions relativity or quantum theory. Briefly, what do they actually say?

Columbus: A good question. Iíll see what I can do about answering it. First, general relativity says that a mass will distort space-time so that other things are attracted towards it. Imagine a rubber sheet. If you place a stone in the middle then it will depress the sheet so that any marbles you then put on it roll towards the stone. And because itís space-time itself that is distorted by mass, even light is attracted towards massive objects. The best experimental evidence that general relativity is true is that we can see that light is indeed bent around the sun and indeed around whole galaxies.

Now, experiments have verified general relativity to an infinitesimal level of accuracy. So, we can plug numbers into the equations to see what comes out. We find that the whole universe would have started at a point Ė a singularity in the technical jargon Ė and that it is Ďflatí. ĎFlatí means that the amount of mass in the universe is exactly the amount balanced between the universe expanding forever and collapsing in on itself again - that is, the Big Crunch you mentioned earlier.  In fact, recently an experiment was done to determine whether or not the universe really was flat and so will never fall back together.  The experiment determined that, as predicted, it is indeed flat and so the Big Crunch is now a redundant theory.  Some people found the infinite cycle idea comforting as it meant the universe was eternal whereas science seems to now be saying that it isn't.

The problem with the singularity is relativity might break down before we get there. The trouble with the flat universe, even though confirmed in other ways,  is we still canít find enough mass. Neither of these points invalidates relativity in normal circumstances but do mean the theory is probably incomplete.

If general relativity deals with very big things then quantum mechanics deals with very small ones. When you solve Newtonís equation of motion you can calculate exactly where the object in question is, was and will be. But solve a quantum mechanical equation of motion and the answer is not so simple. Instead, you get another equation telling you the probability of the object being in a given place. If you rearrange things so that you try to calculate the momentum of the object from its position you instead get an equation that describes the probabilities of different momenta. This means that you can never get an exact answer.

Very early in the life of the universe very massive objects would also have been very small. Gravity and the strong nuclear force would be about the same strength (currently the strong nuclear force is about 1039 times stronger than gravity). This means that general relativity and quantum mechanics would have been working together. This is a problem because they are not compatible theories! In short, we need a new Theory of Everything to describe events right at the start. At the moment, we donít have one.

Othello: But arenít there new theories that explain these things? What about inflation?

Columbus: Inflation is a very good theory developed by Alan Guth17 and it does explain rather a lot. We wanted to find out why the universe is so even in all directions. Inflation says that it expanded so fast that it had no time to get very lumpy. What little lumpiness there is, accounts for the galaxies. We have measured this lumpiness in the cosmic background radiation using the COBE satellite. The results are consistent with what inflation predicts. But because we can never see inflation happening it remains very much a theory. It also makes suggestions about multiple universes of which ours is only one. You may have seen them reported in the press. But these ideas are highly speculative and their discussion constitutes metaphysics rather than pure science. It is hard to see how inflation could be proven at all given the restrictions on observations I mentioned earlier. If it ever could be proven, then Guth would undoubtedly get a Nobel Prize.

Othello: And super strings18? Thatís the latest idea, isnít it?

Columbus: Yes. And it is another very good theory that is unproved. All super strings theory is now is a set of mathematical equations that no one can solve. The interesting thing about them is that the equations appear to be consistent with both general relativity and quantum mechanics. This is exciting but what we really want is some predictions we can test. We want the theory to say how something will happen. Then we can do an experiment and see if it really does happen. As yet, we are still waiting. Again, if it were proven more Nobel Prizes would be dished out.

Othello: The final point I have to ask is about evolution. No one really doubts that it is true but it still seems to cause tempers to fray. Could you reassure me that Richard Dawkins is right and that the challenges to evolution should be categorised with flat earthers?

Columbus: Iím a historian and not a biologist so I cannot claim much authority on evolution. I have a sneaking suspicion that parts of the theory are not as cut and dried as its proponents would have us believe. On the other hand, anyone who bases their ideas on the book of Genesis is no more a scientist than I am a fishmonger.

Evolution has not answered a number of questions and scientific challenges to it deserve to be taken seriously. After all, most great discoveries were made by an apostate from the conventional wisdom. On the other hand, Creationists have devalued the argument by dressing up daft ideas in scientific clothes. If they allow scientists to dismiss reasoned objections then they do no one any service at all.

Much of what Dawkins, Dennett and the rest have to say is metaphysics and not biology. The danger is they seem to be unaware of what the dividing line is. If you are really interested, I recommend you avoid the popular science shelves and instead try to look at textbooks. It is quite possible to understand a first year undergraduate book on Physics or Biology with maths O level and a pen and paper. Richard Feynmanís Lectures on Physics, Halliday and Reisnick's Fundamentals of Physics and The Theory of Evolution by John Maynard Smith are all very good value and will put you in the top 1% in understanding these subjects.

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© James Hannam 1999.
Last revised: 30 May 2013.