Sunday, September 26, 2004

Gingerich at EMU

On Friday I had the pleasure of listening to Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich speak about science and religion at Eastern Mennonite University, which happens to be just down the road from my own digs at JMU. Here are a few of my impressions of the talk:

Gingerich is himself a practicing Christian. I liked much of what he had to say. He made a useful distinction between Intelligent Design and intelligent design. He described the former as primarily a political movement having little to do with science, while the latter simply reflects his own belief that there is a supreme intelligence behind the orderliness of nature. He pointed out that as a practical matter science must be based on methodological naturalism (the idea that science should not invoke spuernatural entities in crafting its explanations). He also pointed out that evolution should be viewed as dealing with the problem of efficient causes in nature, as opposed to final causes. By this he meant that evolution can tell us how some particular adaptation came to be, but should not be viewed as addressing questions of the purpose behind some aspect of creation. By contrast, intelligent design as he sees it is about final causes, not efficient causes.

The main point of disagreement I had with his talk revolved around the anthropic principle; the idea that the “fine-tuning” of the universe for life is evidence of intelligent design. He thinks that's a pretty nifty little argument. I think its a lot of unsubstantiated and probably false assumptions meant to lead to a conclusion Gingerich already believes for other reasons.

In the Q&A after the talk I raised a few obvious objections to the anthropic principle. I pointed out that Gingerich was simply assuming that ours was the only universe there was (the idea being that if there are many universes and the constants are different in each one, then it is inevitable that some universe will have constans conducive to life), and he was also assuming that there isn't some natural law that explains why the constants have to be what they are. I don't think either of those assumptions are justified. I also pointed out that invoking an intelligent-designer does not really explain anything. It simply replaces one mystery with a far greater mystery, namely, where did the designer come from? If something as mundane as the ratio of the mass of a proton to the mass of an electron needs an explanation as extravagant as God, then how much greater an explanation does God Himself require? In fact, I think this leads to an infinite regress of designers.

He argued in reply that belief in multiple universes requires an extraordinary leap of faith, since those other universes are forever inaccessible to our senses. He then went on to make a few other points in reply to what I had said. I'm afraid I don't quite recall what those other points were. You see, it took me a few minutes to deal with the fact that someone suggesting the universe sprang into existence with one act of the will of an omnipotent intelligence had actually just criticized my suggestion for requiring a leap of faith.

Seriously, it seems to me that to believe in multiple universes you only have to accept the idea that whatever forces were responsible for bringing our universe into being also brought other universes into being. Seen that way, is there any particular reason to assume that ours is the only universe? Against this suggestion Gingerich offers the existence of an intelligent agent capable of feats that are utterly incomprehensible to us. Not all leaps of faith are created equal, my friend.

Some of the other questions were interesting as well. One questioner sniffed that the scientific establishment was so biased against design that it was impossible to get design-centered papers published. Gingerich politely laughed in his face. He pointed out that the paper whose ideas he had just presented had gotten published. He also pointed out that scientists expect publishable papers to have results in them, and that if the questioner had interesting results that depended on a design hypothesis he would have little difficulty getting them published. Another questioner asked about Behe's ideas about irreducible complexity, though his description of what that was suggested that he didn't really understand the subject. In reply Gingerich gave favorable mention to Ken Miller's refutation of Behe in Finding Darwin's God.

All in all, an enjoyable and thought-provoking afternoon.

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