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January 23, 2006

An Indifferent Cosmos

More from Madeleine Bunting's assault on Richard Dawkins:

"Science has to concede that despite its huge advances it still cannot answer questions about the nature of the universe - such as whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos."

Is this really such a tough question?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 23, 2006 6:38 PM


No matter how sophisticated the analysis of our world by the methods of science becomes (what Ms Bunting calls, in her reductionist way, the "advances" of science), there will always be questions that haven't been answered with any reasonable degree of assurance. There will be even more questions - an infinite number of them, in fact - that no one has yet figured out how to phrase or even thought of asking. The fact that what we don't know dwarfs what we think we do know is not a reason to reject science as a methodology, and especially not a reason to demand any concession at all from the enterprise of science. The purpose of science is only incidentally to answer questions; more importantly, its purpose is to show us how to ask those questions in a way that permits whatever answers we find to claim some credibility.

The only purpose of theism, on the other hand, is to answer questions, and there are no questions that theism can't answer. The only problem is that theism gives the same answer to every question. That answer, "it's God's will", may be persuasive to those who are too lazy to think deeply or learn much, or comforting to those who are frightened by their own inevitable and profound ignorance. But it seems pretty lame next to the answers proposed by great scientists to difficult questions: the answers proposed by Einstein and Planck and Heisenberg to questions about the fundamental elements of our universe; the answers proposed by Darwin to questions about the origins of diverse life on our planet.

Bunting's polemical purpose is revealed by her choice of words - "freak chances", "an indifferent cosmos". She doesn't give a shit about understanding an irreducibly complex reality or getting a little closer to an always incomplete and necessarily uncertain truth. She only cares about winning one for the Gipper-God.

Posted by: Richard Blumberg at January 23, 2006 7:55 PM

Science has its place as long as it is understood that for science to produce knowledge, it must rely on a division between the observer and the observed. This division, of course, is illusory. But there is no problem as long as its illusory nature is acknowledged. If it is not acknowledged, then science becomes organized religion.

However, to cover up for science's shortcomings with "the designer out there" or "god out there" explanations is absurd. "God", "Intelligent Design", call it what you will - is not an explanation - it is an escape from the unknown - an escape from fear.

Is the designer the designed?

Posted by: Peter Rock at January 24, 2006 3:15 AM

Isn't the proper response to the question Bunting raises ("whether we are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos"): Yes, the overwhelming likelihood -- shocking as it may be, wonderful as it may be, humbling as it undoubtedly is -- is that this is, give or take a disparaging adjective, what we are.

Posted by: mitch at January 24, 2006 9:56 AM

mitch acknowledged: "this is, give or take a disparaging adjective, what we are"

But it's all about the adjectives, for Bunting. Or rather, the choice of words: "chance" and "cosmos" are also freighted with connotations that are probably, under the circumstances, intended to manipulate the feelings of Bunting's readers. Let's look just a little closer:

freak - maybe. Maybe not; maybe there is a principle at work here that we don't yet fully understand that makes it more or less probable that life (or even intelligence) develops under a particular range of conditions that occur more or less frequently.

chance - no. Chance is a component of the complex dynamic system that evolutionary theory proposes, as it is a component of every other system known to us. But the term "chances of evolution" as an apparent synonym for "the evolutionary process" is extremely and deliberately (or perhaps, to give Bunting credit for being honest at least, just stupidly) misleading.

indifferent - again, no. Indifference is a human quality, one that implies, in most circumstances, a moral choice. Men may be indifferent; God, made, as He is, in the image of Man, may be indifferent. But to call universal processes indifferent is just silly.

cosmos - well, maybe. The problem with cosmos is not that it is a deceitful word, but that it is a high-falutin' word; it tars those accused of using it (as Bunting, here, implicitly accuses scientists of using it) with pretension.

Now, consider what mitch assented to: "We are the result of random mutations, selected through a rigorous competition for resources, in a universe that cannot be explained teleologically." Right. "We are freak chances of evolution in an indifferent cosmos." Wrong. Nasty, deceitful, and wrong.

Posted by: Richard Blumberg at January 24, 2006 4:40 PM

Very interesting and wise, Richard.
However, there is something I actually prefer about the Bunting wording -- "freak...indifferent," etc. -- it brings out, to me, the wonder, the awe-full-ness, the humbling nature of our situation. Leaning too hard on science as an explanatory framework risks implying that it has answers to questions that I believe to be gloriously unanswerable, and it threatens a bit, as moral or teleological or anthropomorphic frameworks do a lot, to rob that situation of some of its vast, poetic, marvelous absurdity.

Posted by: mitch at January 25, 2006 12:04 PM

I've increasingly found this an interesting viewpoint more or less because of it's tribalistic nature so easily compared to organized religion in a social manner. To get it out of the way, I was raised Irish Catholic, but currently am agnostic. Reliance on dogma, of any kind, is as unfortunately difficult to get rid of as stereotypes in many, if not all, human socities. There are essential questions, whether you like them or not, that are unanswerable by science currently and hypotheses that, while say a physicist may balk at them, are irrefutable given the body of knowledge we currently have. An example of the first is essential nature of energy. We rely on the concept of energy in the laws of thermodynamics, but it is a conveniently circular conception. It's existence defines it. Yet that does not provide any real definition of what energy is, essentially. Where did it come from and why does it act the way it does. Scientific knowledge, in these matters, is largely descriptive and nothing else. This doesn't answer the question of why. An example of the second problem is any philosophical hypothesis that discusses the limitation of what we as rational/irrational human beings can know given our tools, mechanical and linguistic. If it took the majority of human existence to determine that the earth indeed revolves around the sun and is round, how many other Copernican revolutions exist to be discovered? You cannot reliably, with any sort of statistical proof, state this answer.

Therefore, without being able to reliably compare what we know vs what we do not know and no way to answer the question of why beyond simple cause an effect loops that at some point end with "I don't know," atheism is as faith-based an argument as absolute theism. What produces such asinine behavior such as to assert absolute certainty without the ability to account for all the facts is beyond me. Any scientist worth his/her salt would ultimately abdicate that they must be agnostic, or they are otherwise intellecutally lazy.

Posted by: sps at January 27, 2006 1:59 AM

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