Sunday, 7 October 2012

Why is science, and life, possible?

Firstly I just want to say thank you for being such an inspiration. Your effortless appreciation for both evolution and the creator has felt almost as a reinstatement of my faith as these are subject I have struggled with for a long time.

I have ordered a number of books to read further into your ideas, but at the moments I'm going on what I read on the Q&A page and your (John's) presentation at the Point Loma Nazarene University last year. I've forwarded the talk to an atheist friend and am currently awaiting his thoughts.
I know one point he'd want to discuss would be your thoughts on the anthropic principle and fine tuning. However I would like some further clarification on the two questions you suggested that religion can ask science, i.e. why is science possible, and why is life possible (to paraphrase) in relation to fine tuning.

The question of "why is science possible" is one that I'm wondering about. You explain that science is there to ask "how" and religion is there to ask "why", and it is not for religion to answer science's questions for it. However it appears to me from my very limited understanding that "why is science possible" could be argued as actually being a rephrasing of a "how" question i.e. "how did science become possible?". I appreciate your response to the initial retort of the question i.e. it being an outcome of the evolution of our powerful brains in that our powers of deduction are far beyond the realms required for everyday survival. However, if I'm right in saying that the question is a rephrasing of a how question, the question posted by religion to answer for science is actually a scientific question, and therefore still has a scientific answer.

You're much more an authority on this subject than I ever could be, so my thoughts that science may be able to answer our ability to deduce the existence of gravity and it's effect on a cosmic scale (the example discussed in your presentation) may just prove to be wrong, but I wonder if such deductive powers could still be explained as almost a side effect of the development of our creative minds which were so key in the invention of tools, which were our secret to success. I mean it takes a step to go from discovering iron to realising you can melt it and form your own weapons from it, which no animal in all likelihood has thought to do - and I wonder if the development of the theory of gravity is explainable in similar terms?

You went into discussion regarding the art of looking for beautiful equations which does indeed sound almost un-scientific in itself. Perhaps I could request assurance that this too could not in the end still turn out to be a "how" question - i.e. "how has it come about that looking for "beauty" in mathematics is key to positive results"?

I also appreciate the comments on fine tuning of the laws of physics and your arguments against resorting to multiverses, however it appears to me most arguments against this and the anthropic principle seem to revolve around dismissing the assertions as truisms. I don't really have many personal thoughts on this and am looking forward to reading more about it.

Response:Given that the universe appears to be (basically, to a significant extent) comprehensible and one where beauty is a guide to truth on a cosmic scale, we can indeed ask the question of how it becomes possible for us to do science. But the question that lies beyond and behind science is why the universe has these extraordinary properties. Theists have an answer, atheists do not.
Compare: how can Crusoe find a footprint in the sand and why can Crusoe find a footprint in the sand.

Follow-on Question: Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my questions. I have posted the response to my friend, and we have been able to discuss it. To clarify, I am a born again believer looking to form a solid basis to my beliefs and understanding (whilst being aware there are things in existence beyond our understanding), and my friend is an atheist, whoever we both share the motivation of searching for truth.

My friend's response to Polkinghorne's assertions regarding fine tuning were along the following lines:
  1. "With regards to the question 'why does the Universe have these extraordinary properties?'; although "we" don't have an answer (well, at least I don't think we do) it doesn't necessarily mean that the Theist's answer is therefore correct by default. Isn't that just god-of-the-gaps again?"  I know Polkinghorne is loath to the idea that religion is there to answer science's questions for it, which is why I feel this is a pertinent question, I would be grateful for perhaps some further input, or pointing me in the direction of appropriate reading material?
  2. (In relation to John's example of how versus why using the illustration of boiling a kettle): "I don't agree that science answers the 'how' questions and religion answers the 'why' questions. I don't think 'why' questions really exist; they're just a rephrasing of 'how' questions. 'Why' do I want a cup of tea? There is a scientific answer to 'how' it comes about that a mostly hairless biped could 'want' some heated water blended with plant leaves. The same goes for why we like listening to music."
I believe I appreciate the deeper level of question that is being posed by the 'why' assertions, however I do wonder if my friend has a point? I would be grateful for your comments.

How can Crusoe find a footprint in the sand - by looking for it. Why can Crusoe find a footprint in the sand - because someone left it there for him to find.

But isn't the 'why' another 'how' question - "how was the footprint left in the sand where Crusoe could find it"? And therefore "how did the laws of physics originate to have the properties that they do, in order that carbon became possible, and therefore carbon based life as we know it"? Is carbon based life the only life that is possible?

Furthermore, expanding on that, I wonder if it could be argued that beauty perceived in music could be explained in scientific terms ("how has something perceived as beauty in music come about") as our advanced neural networks appreciating the patterns of interacting sound waves, as a long reaching side effect of the evolutionary development of the human brain growing in its ability to understand and create order, which allowed us to create tools and manipulate our surroundings. Do you feel this to be a reasonable assertion? If beauty in music could be interpreted this way, could the beauty found in mathematics be described in these terms too? Indeed there is order in the cosmos which we can understand through mathematical means, but could the order have come about by some answer to a 'how' question, and also our ability to understand it by looking for what we perceive as beauty in mathematical equations?

Response: Certainly the Theists answers to the “why” questions could be wrong. But at least they are coherent responses. Theism makes sense of more of the world than Scientism. Indeed it is logically impossible for Science to answer all the questions that are meaningful and important (Gödel proved this even in the very restricted domain of mathematics). Science cannot by its very nature answer deep why questions – about deep meaning: science can only deal with superficial why questions about mechanisms. This is not “god of the gaps” it is a basic fact about philosophy and science.
The idea that deep “why” questions don’t really exist is a curious modern trope – part of the “war of the left brain against the right brain” that has characterised much of modern culture. The notion that “a question doesn’t really exist” when millions of intelligent people have asked this question is really bonkers. The question may not have a good answer, but the question certainly exists!

Explanations happen at many levels. John is fond of using the illustration: “why is the kettle boiling? Because electric energy is being converted into heat and the element is heating the water - why is the kettle boiling? Because I would like a cup of tea, and would you like one too?” Now anthropologists, botanists, economists, sociologists, chemists, neuroscientists and people from many other disciplines could say something about scientific aspects of why someone might like a cup of tea, or why (s)he might offer one to a guest- each using different language and referring to different aspects of the situation. But what is going on when a person offers another person a cup of tea exists at the personal level and cannot be reduced to a mere mechanism or set of mechanisms. Indeed it is worth reflecting that the only knowledge we have is personal knowledge – the scientific descriptions we use are abstractions inferred from our personal knowledge and ultimately dependent on it.

Certainly why and how questions relate to each other – and often a why question can suggest a whole series of different how questions. My point is that “how does X happen” and “why does X happen” are different questions.

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