Saturday, May 31, 2014

Genetic Determinism, Materialism, Freedom, with a Coda by C. S. Lewis

Excerpted from this book
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Put simply, Christians believe God created us and our world. We can remain open as to how God accomplished it. I find no scientific argument that disproves God’s creation. With that assertion in mind, I now turn to one such counter-arguments: that genetic determinism proves neither we nor Adam have the ability to make free choices. To that argument I now turn. 

God is free. We, as bearers of God’s image, possess freedom. We as creatures are called to respond to God, to choose right over wrong. For that, we need freedom. At least that is our tradition…. But are we really free? Determinism—the philosophy that everything we do has been programmed by forces beyond anyone’s control—has supplied a recurring motif in the history of ideas. In the early nineteenth century, Pierre-Simon de Laplace stated baldly:

An intelligence knowing, at a given instance of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary position of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motions of the largest bodies of the world and those of the lightest atoms in one single formula, provided his intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to him nothing would be uncertain, both past and future would be present in his eyes?

This suggests that everything, from a decision to marry to the outcome of the battle of Waterloo, has been fated.
Today determinism is back in a new form and tied with the revolutionary discoveries in genetics. The world-famous scientist, Francis Crick, who co-discovered DNA, has laid down the gauntlet for those who defend the existence of human freedom. He comments on the title of his well-known book:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “you,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carrolls’s Alice might have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”
If Crick is right, then we have some problems with our sense of freedom. In fact, it does not exist. And without freedom, we also have problems establishing ethics. The Christian tradition has located the ability to transcend our human, bodily limitations through the notion of the soul. Unsurprisingly, Crick subtitled the book, “The Scientific Search for the Soul.” Theologians have used “soul” and “spirit” for this component of the human being. For simplicity’s sake, I will stick with “soul.” The soul offers us freedom and the ability not just to be determined by our body. How then can we respond to Crick?
Of the many ways to refute his position—or most forms of determinism—the easiest is this: it is self-defeating. In a playful phrase, the biologist and theologian, Arthur Peacocke has labeled the position “nothing buttery.” (Remember Crick’s rephrasing of Alice: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”) Take Crick’s argument to its conclusion. If our thinking processes are “nothing but” the interaction of bio-chemicals in the brain, then we have no way if what we know is true. It just is. We might as well call the size of our feet or the color of our hair “true.” They are simply facts, neither right nor wrong. This makes Crick’s wonderful discoveries “nothing but” the movement of electrical charges in his predetermined brain. But in fact, we know that some genetically-influenced behavior patterns—a tendency toward violence or alcoholism—are not beneficial. Crick does not offer any means for assessing or responding to them.
Thankfully, we are not stuck with genetic determinism—or any determinism for that matter. Our faith has long taught that we are not just our bodies, but that our soul offers us transcendence from bodily processes, giving us freedom. Scientifically-minded theologians talk about the soul as a capacity for transcendence and freedom rather than a “thing” that can be located through scientific experiments. In addition, Crick’s arguments rest on reductionism, the notion that the workings of any system can be reduced to its smallest parts. But reductionism misses the point. Ted Peters, a theologian constantly exploring the effects of science on belief, has summarized it this way: “Determinism at the genetic level does not obviate free will at the person level. Genetic determinism just like all conditions of finitude place each person in his or her particular situation, readying the person to exercise freedom.” Our genetic makeup set the boundaries for our choices—not choices to “do anything” (as we often want freedom to mean). Our genetic structure is the chord structure over which we improvise our lives.

Coda excerpted from this book
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A coda: I think this is what C. S. Lewis was getting at when he criticized the scientific atheism of the 1940s. The specific reason Lewis rejected the “Scientific Outlook” lies in the self-defeating nature of the two claims “we can think” and “nature is all there is.” Here we come to a key theme: the Scientific Outlook asserts the truth and reasonableness of its claims without thereby providing a place for reason. Or as he phrased it:
If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.

Lewis called this atheistic science, "the Scientific Outlook." He conclude that it tries to fit in reason in an irrational—or maybe arational—world. Lewis concludes that this move is self-defeating.
As an alternative, Lewis discovered in his own life (around his conversions in 1930 and 1931) something he argues here: Belief in a Creator God who endows humanity with reason makes entirely more sense. The divine Logos creates human reason. The primary Cause undergirds all secondary causes. Lewis says that is why he does not believe in the “Scientific Outlook,” but instead believes in Christianity, which includes reason and science. As he closes the lecture, he writes,

Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality.... The [atheistic] scientific view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Lewis believed that Christian theology gave grounds for reason and thus reasoning about what is true. It’s a vision of life that makes sense of all experience, and therefore it makes sense of science.

Monday, May 12, 2014

C. S. Lewis on Science and the Rise of the Machine

Why care what C. S. Lewis had to say about science, a topic that his filled the past few posts? In one sense, this theme could seem to border of the trivial. Lewis—though a renowned scholar in his field of Medieval and Renaissance literature—had no particular insight into scientific discoveries. His inability to grasp mathematics, which almost caused him not to be accepted at Oxford—is well-known. We might decide the subject has little to offer and move on.
But I demur. Why? Lewis, as an intellectual historian, engaged science because he knew its effect on, and contributions to, Western European culture. When Cambridge University asked him to deliver the inaugural address in 1954 for the newly-formed chair he was to occupy there, he spoke on the historical epochs in western thought. He noted that the greatest change occurred as Europe became “post-Christian” and particularly, not when science arose in the age of Copernicus and Galileo, but when western culture took on the metaphor of the birth of the machine. “Between Jane Austen [1775-1817] and us [1954],” Lewis comments, “but not between her and Shakespeare [d. 1616] … comes the birth of the machine.” The west had displaced a more organic or sacramental view of the world with that of clock, or more generally, a machine. And Lewis notes that with this concept emerging from scientific thought arose the notion that old is inferior to the new.

For today, I have only two notes: This demonstrates that it isn’t often science qua science that determines its effects on culture. It’s more often the worldview that emerges. It also tells us something about 2014. Does this “birth of the machine” lead us to Ray Kurzweil and transhumanism, particularly the idea that we will achieve a technological singularity in which artificial intelligence can upload an entire human brain/mind into an immensely powerful computer? I suppose I wouldn’t be the first to note that once we make human beings a machine, it’s not a far leap that they become infinitely improvable and therefore upload-able.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

C. S. Lewis, Jesus Christ, and Science (Some Notes)

I’ve been thinking about C. S. Lewis and science recently, and this week I’m teaching my Lewis class and exploring his famous September 1931 discussion with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson where he realized that Jesus is the “true myth.” This conversation moved Lewis from life as a broad theist to a confessional Christian. It also affected his writing and the way he presented a defense of specifically Christian faith—that is to say, the faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 
As I’ve written in other posts, there were three specific arguments that Lewis made against the dominant scientific thought of his day: the self-defeating character of materialism, the desire for something beyond this world as a pointer to God, and the law of right and wrong in human beings that indicates the existence of a moral God. These three led to his famous argument that appears in Mere Christianity: the “trilemma”—that Jesus is liar, lunatic, or Lord.
So now to Lewis and science: Can this be seen as a “scientific” argument? Or perhaps better, is this a dialogue with science? So far as I can discern, this latter question divides into two. Because Lewis is effectively asking us to make an historical judgment about the character of Jesus of Nazareth, it can be phrased this way: Can science comment on history? Secondly, is it scientific to think about such an ultimate category as God’s identity being determined by one event (albeit an event of thirty plus years of Jesus’s life)?
I’ll start with the second question. Generally, science deals with the general laws, and so to reason scientifically would be not to think that something as ultimate as God could be discerned through a particular historical event. And that word “historical” in my last sentence pretty much answers the first question: certainly there are forms of science, like archeology, that can make judgments on historical events, but at the end of the day, the “science” we usually mean—natural, and sometimes behavioral, sciences—are structurally different than the science of history. (And now I’m using “science” to mean mainly “academic discipline.”)
For that reason, I’d conclude (at least for the moment) that Lewis sought not to contradict good science with his trilemma, but he moves beyond the bounds of what we usually call scientific thought.

But then again, should science (at least, the natural sciences) be the arbiter of every truth? Lewis, we can be sure, would have responded with a quite confident No. And that thought might lead to another, later post…