Thursday, 2 September 2010

Questions of Purpose, questions of science

I'll get back to DH'ing soon hopefully, (even though the stats seem to show that people got pretty bored of it)

Well the religious world has it's knickers in a bit of a knot (including Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) because of Stephen Hawking's new book where he apparently says that there is no logical or scientific NEED for a God to explain the complexity or origin of the universe. This is a rather irksome development for the believers of the world as religious people have been throwing around Hawking's "know the mind of God" quote around for years in order to make an appeal to scientific authority.

The idea being thrown around now is the old slogan "Science tells us the Hows and Whats religion tells us the whys". This statement presupposes two things A. That why is a legitimate question to ask. and B. That positing the existence of God answers that question - as far as I can tell the religious answer to the "Why" is "Beats me but I think God has it sort of worked out"

Basically the answer which religion provides to the "Why" questions is to create someone else to know the answer.

Richard Dawkins recently engaged in an online chat debate with Ruth Gledhill, The Times religion correspondent. (Transcript here) Gledhill started up with the Hows and Whats vs. the Whys "One would be the the purpose of the universe. Although science might discover the mechanism, we are still left with the question of what is the purpose" Dawkins responded that there is no reason to assume that there is a purpose. There is no reason to assume on SCIENTIFIC or even LOGICAL grounds that there is any sort of teleology in the universe. (Emotionally speaking it's probably a good idea to wishfully think that there is some sort of purpose but THAT is not science or even a field of inquiry)

Dawkins makes another excellent point: The "God answers the Why questions" way of thinking is a bit of a cart before the horse. The question which we desperately need religion to answer is apparently "why is there a universe and more importantly why are there hairless quadrapeds with overactive imaginations" the believers are saying that the only answer to this question is "'cuz of God and his plans"

But wait a second! Purpose is something we generally ascribe to intelligence and intention. If someone has involuntary spasm we don't ask him/her "Why did you do that" because the action in question was not intentional. When there is no intentional agent behind an action we do not ascribe to it a purpose.

Similarly to ask "why is there a universe" is essentially to ask "Why did God make the universe". The question presupposes an intentional designer. But the question never starts if God is not in the picture! SOoooo basically to sum things up: according to the above line of reasoning religion is around to explain a problem it itself engenders.

"[Q]uestions that begin 'What is the purpose of . . .' require the existence of a purposeful agent."


Philo said...

Sacks completely missed the boat, and it is a shame with someone of his intellect. While I have respect for the NOMA position, which let's face it, is all the moderate religious folks have left in the ammunition cartridge. And Stephen Jay Gould would be turning in his grave if he knew people were taking NOMA to a fundamentalist state of mind!

Leave science to the scientists Rabbi Sacks. I don't see Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris doing a coup-de-tat in the local shul and giving shiur. Hawking said there is no need for a God, and he believes there is none. He didn't say science DISPROVES God. It disproves the need for God.

Gamzoo said...

>However I do believe that this so called proponent of NOMA believes in the 13 ikkarim many of which, make statements about EMPIRICAL REALITY - clearly a domain of science/history.

The only historical ikkar is number 8 ("I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be upon him.") The rest is all faith based or values. They have nothing to do with scientific facts

Gamzoo said...

In my opinion, God is an abstraction, and it is not true or false to say it exists. It's like asking if the number 1 exists

MKR said...

The error, if it is one, is committed not just by Rabbi Sacks but by the writer of that article, Riazat Butt. He says, "In his new book, The Grand Design, published next week, Hawking concludes that science excludes the possibility of a deity." But according to <a href="'>the <i>Guardian</i> article on the book</a>, what Hawking says is "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." There is no indication in the latter article that the book argues that "science excludes the possibility of a deity," except in the sense that it has no use for any such hypothesis—which is hardly news.

Jmgkf said...

The question "why" can be asked in two ways:

1. "Why" to mean what was the purpose of a certain action. "Why did you jerk your arm?"

2. "WHy" to mean how did a certain action come to be. "Why did you jerk your arm?"

The answer to #2 would be something like " I had an involuntary reflex". The answer to #1 would be "I don't know".

Shilton HaSechel said...

True. But that's the one that Rabbi Sacks is very vehement about. HE did not take very kindly to Rabbi Louis Jacobs' approach which tried to take history and literary analysis seriously.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Yes but Orthodox Jews don't think that - they think that he is an intelligent agent "who creates and leads all created things"

Shilton HaSechel said...

Basically from what few quotes we have Hawking is merely excluding a God of the Gaps. The only reason anybody thought that he subscribed to the God of the Gaps is because of a misinterpretation of his allegorical statement "know the mind of God" in a science book.

G*3 said...

That depends on the definition of "God," something which is usually very unclear. The traditional God of Jduaism is not at all abstract.

Shilton HaSechel said...

I was referring to the #1

In Hebrew the distinction is between למה - for what purpose and מדוע - what caused it.

AW said...

Deists, it seems to me, are the ones whose position is most directly undermined by Hawking's purported latest comments. It is they who don't believe in much more than a God of creation...and they believe in such a God presumably because the universe seems to have required a creator.

By contrast, anyone believing in a specific traditional religion has long had a very wide gap between the "question" of origins, and the "answers" offered by their creed. Because even if science were still completely baffled as to how it "all" got started, there would be precious little evidence for the divine origin of such notions as Tefillin and shaatnez, Ramadan and Mecca, or Jesus' immaculate conception and saving blood. Religious leaders who attack Hawking as though he's undermining their creeds are giving themselves and their creeds far too much credit.

Still, the old question of "Why something instead of nothing?" (and, indeed, "Why something so complex instead of nothing?") remains, to my mind, a legitimate point for reverence...and honest not knowing.
As simplistic and silly as is what passes for religion, let us not allow ourselves to dismiss the mystery--for then we partake in the same sin of premature certainty that is religion's shame.

Zak said...

Exactly. OJ's who think that any perceived flaws in Hawkins' cosmology somehow redounds to their benifit only show that they misunderstand not only Hawkins, but also their own religion.

Puzzled said...

I've already started hearing the anti-Hawkings, what makes you think Hawkings is so smart, Hawkings can't compare to JB's intellect stuff. Give me a break.

Shilton HaSechel said...

a good ole JB the token MO smart guy. Whether or not he even deals with the relevant issues of today seems to be irrelevant to most people who utter his praises.

BaruchSpinoza said...

Hello Shilty,

One of my themes on my blog has been nihilism. The rejection of (objective) morals and purpose. A lot atheists after giving up religion still fall into the same fallacy of believing there is a purpose, they just say they can find their purpose without a God. The most liberating and correct view to take is that there is no purpose. And that is okay! It is also humble to say that.

Value and purpose is a human concept, only coming from our mind. There is no reason to assume what purpose there is outside the mind.

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