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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Murphy vs. Long

In his unblog, Roderick Long recently made an unpost in which he critiqued my LRC article on miracles and physical law. Because my answers to his challenges are fairly brief, I’ll post them here:

I see three problems with Bob’s solution. First, as Bob acknowledges, it’s much harder to see how the really fancy miracles, like walking on water or ascending into heaven, could be accounted for in purely naturalistic terms – yet Bob is committed to accepting those stories too. (And things really get tricky if we try to handle the Old Testament miracles too, like Eve arising from Adam’s rib or Joshua stopping the sun.)

Now here, I think Long is missing one of my basic points: No matter what happens, it must have been possible, and hence could have been explained “in purely naturalistic terms.” I think what Long really means to say is, that it would be really tricky to explain walking on water etc. using only a very few simple laws of nature. To this objection, all I can say is that God is pretty clever.

Second, since on present scientific understanding the most basic laws of physics are probabilistic, simply setting the laws and initial conditions is insufficient to determine what happens down the line. (Of course Bob thinks that God sustains the whole process rather than merely kicking it off. But since on Bob’s view God sustains it in such a way that it’s just as if he had merely kicked it off, it’s not clear that this will solve the problem.)

The quick answer to this is that I don’t think probability concepts really make sense when we’re talking about one timeline, each moment of which the Creator creates in one fell swoop. God can certainly (and apparently has) cause the material universe to behave as if it’s governed by the rules of quantum mechanics, but ultimately the probabilistic interpretation of QED is just due to the fact that that model gives the best predictions of experimental results. There is even in principle no experiment that could ever prove whether the underlying laws were “really” indeterminate or just appeared that way. Thus I agree with Einstein that God doesn’t play dice.

(And please, believe me that I have read fairly extensively about quantum mechanics. I am familiar with the Copenhagen interpretation etc. I’m not naively suggesting, e.g., that maybe we could go faster than light if we really really tried. But what I am saying is that, ultimately, there’s no way to test a probabilistic rule. Whatever happens, happens. We can say that there is a 1/2 chance that a coin will come up tails, but this is consistent with two million consecutive heads.)

Third, it seems at least awkward that on Bob’s view, the fact that God exists makes no difference to what happens; everything proceeds just as it would have if the atheist were right. Not only does this seem to downgrade God’s status in a way that most theists would find unacceptable, it also makes religious belief much harder to defend, since any evidence one might offer for God’s existence would still exist even if God did not exist.

I think I understand what Long’s point is, but it strikes me as surprisingly silly; he again seems not to really take the time to consider my stance. On my view, God has designed the laws of the material universe such that, e.g., all of the prophesies in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah were fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This person walked on water, healed the sick, and rose from the dead.

Now Long’s point is that (according to my view) an atheist could explain this all as being no violation of the laws of physics, but no matter WHAT happens, the atheist can say this by definition. And surely the atheist would not concede that all of these things happened, and were just a coincidence; rather he would DENY that Jesus rose from the dead, walked on water, etc.

So the component of my worldview that carries the theological punch is my belief in the “miracles” of the Bible, and in fulfilled prophecies. I don’t see why I should feel awkward about this. If there were no God, then I see no reason that a Jewish carpenter could have done all of the things I believe he did.

1 comment:

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