Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stenger vs. Quantum Gods, Part Two

As I mentioned at the outset of the last post, Victor Stenger’s second goal in his book Quantum Gods is to critically examine “quantum theology”. This refers to attempts to rework traditional notions of God’s role as creator and/or intervening agent given modern physics. My review of this part of the book is below.

The Demise of Classical Deism

Trying to accommodate belief in God with a scientific worldview is not a new endeavor of course, and Stenger includes a discussion of “enlightenment deism” in the book. Newtonian physics provided a good foundation for the view that God created and planned the universe, but doesn’t further intervene (the clockwork universe). The theory of natural selection strengthened the case for deism vs. theism by weakening the perceived need for special divine action in the biological world. Quantum mechanics, however, made enlightenment deism untenable by introducing irreducible indeterminism; it appears God could not have ensured his planned outcomes in an essentially chancy world.

What About Emergence?

Stenger has a good discussion of the topics of complexity, chaos and emergent phenomena. Some have argued that emergence introduces “something more” into the makeup of the world beyond the basic physical entities. Some theologians think emergence may leave an opening for God to act in the world. Reviewing a few examples of emergent behavior (e.g. thermodynamics and fluid mechanics), Stenger argues all are cases of what he labels “material reductive” emergence. His main point is this: he says the fact that macro-principles cannot be deduced from microphysics is true and notable, but they nevertheless follow from, and thus are implicit in, the microphysics. The demonstration of this comes with the increasing power of computers to simulate emergent phenomena from the micro-facts: nothing “extra” is needed to do this. There is not a reasonable basis for “top-down” causality between levels of nature based on the phenomenon of emergence. Thus no opening is left here for theology to improvise a story about divine action.

I have found this topic to be difficult in the past, but I think Stenger’s position is well defended. My opinion is that the only really persuasive instance of ontological emergence is the crystallization of actual outcomes from the set of possibilities represented in a quantum state. (But while I don’t see a good case for further levels of ontological emergence or top-down causality once we’re dealing with larger (decohered) macroscopic systems, it is still highly suggestive that so many remarkable phenomena manage to be implicit in the micro-realm.)

Special Divine Action via QM?

In his Chapter 14 (“Where Can God Act”), Stenger reviews attempts to locate divine action in the world of modern physics. He briefly summarizes a number of articles from a Vatican/Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) multi-volume book series which address this and related issues.

Some authors think quantum indeterminism allows scope for subtle interventions, which, when combined with chaotic amplification, might lead to undetectable yet significant effects. Stenger first notes a common observation about such interventions: it seems that this kind of action is “God acting against God,” since the advocates of this idea also view God as the creator of the universe and its physical laws. Also, given the attribute of omnipotence, why should God restrict himself in this way? And it’s not clear this would work anyway. Stenger points out the time lag involved with chaotic amplification: given continued micro-chanciness, how can God be sure he’ll get the macroscopic effect he wants? If he acts to guarantee the outcome, then we’re back to wondering why he doesn’t just use his power to orchestrate all micro-processes to being with? Then, of course, we wouldn’t have indeterminism after all. (And this causes the additional problem of undermining the case for indeterminism-based free will, which is also advocated by some theologians).

I’m obviously oversimplifying the discussion in this summary, but I’ve read a number of these accounts over the years (many from my subscription to CTNS’ Theology and Science) and I agree with Stenger that attempts to implement special divine action with modern scientific tools seem fraught with difficulties.

Quantum Deism

In Chapter 15 (“The God Who Plays Dice”), Stenger notes that the problems with models of divine action do not rule out the possibility of a deist creator God. Perhaps God endowed the universe with indeterministic law as part of this creative plan. Of course, then, there was no guarantee humans would arise – so we couldn’t have been a part of a special plan, could we?

Stephen Jay Gould used to argue that evolution lacks any necessary directedness toward complexity or sophistication: if we “replayed the tape”, we might get a completely different outcome with no guarantees of intelligent life. Stenger notes that Simon Conway Morris is a recent advocate of a contrary view, however. Conway Morris argues, based on observed cases of convergent evolution, that humankind (or something very close) was inevitable. Is he right?

Stenger quotes Elliott Sober’s critique of Conway Morris, which centers on the fact that one can’t show the probability of evolutionary events: we only know the numerator, not the denominator (we unfortunately cannot run additional trials). Stenger adds that since out of the millions of species on earth, most are microbial, “intelligence would not seem to be very high at all on the universe’s agenda.”

Still, we could have a deist God if we accept that God created a cosmos with lots of chancy potential, and was willing to let the chips fall where they may. Such a God, of course, isn’t very attractive to those who yearn for a more traditional deity.

Is there an adequate basis for believing in the existence of (at least) this new kind of deistic God? Stenger doesn’t think so. He spends his last chapter (“Nothingism”) exploring his favorite ideas for a naturalistic account of the universe’s origin. I’m going to skip over these speculative ideas in this review. I think in the coming years work in cosmology and quantum gravity research will be offering new scenarios for how the observable universe arose from a pre-existing context (see for instance here). The point for Stenger is that if a naturalistic account of the universe’s origin is available, then we don’t need a deist God either. And he would answer the question: “who created the laws” by responding that laws are human inventions to describe regularities we observe. This is also a very defensible position.

What about the Multiverse?

Stenger doesn’t devote significant space to the idea of the multiverse apart from his brief section on the Many-Worlds Interpretation. But in addition to interpretations of QM, an increasing number of physical and cosmological theories motivate the possibility of a multiverse. There are also independent philosophical reasons for postulating that our universe is a subset of a larger reality.

I agree with most of Stenger’s criticisms of the various conceptions of God. However, the multiverse is the one conceptual place where I see the potential for a naturalistic worldview to make contact with a notion of God (albeit one which is non-traditional and impersonal): a transcendent and creative entity of which we are but a small part.


Doru said...

Hi Steve,
Somebody versus God has become a pretty common philosophical subject in the blogospehere, but somebody going versus the “Quantum Gods”???, has definitely captured my attention and imagination. Turning to the “dark side” recently from a very strong Christian/religious background, made me realize that all this ontological views on existence are correct and recently there is a new view emerging that puts them all together. However, I believe they cannot be all true from the same perspective in the same time, the meaning of each view is determined by the choice of the mind making that meaning.
Deep stuff, I’ll get the book on order today

Anonymous said...

A lot of what Stenger is apparently saying here comes across to me as spin. He's apparently making much about the demise of "classical deism", meaning a Laplacian God who set the world in motion and then retired. But that was also the materialist view of the world that was being advanced in the service of atheism. Suddenly the absolutely determined, closed world that God could never interact in didn't look so closed anymore. So what happens when the old materialist claim is undermined? Well, along comes a new claim! Now the world is undetermined, so no God could possibly be making plans based on it!

It's like the old cosmology schtick. When the universe seemed small, what God would make such a puny universe? When the universe was discovered to be much larger, well... what God would be so wasteful?

The "God acting against God" criticism doesn't get off the ground either. If God is capable of determining the chances of these apparently indeterminist systems, then yes - what is indeterminism to us is in reality determined by God, either in part or in whole. Not every theologian requires contra-causal free will (Calvinists come to mind as an example), just like not every theologian requires omnipotence or omniscience (open theism).

The key issue is that apparent indeterminism is apparent because nothing within the physical universe seems to determine outcomes. But the outcomes can still be determined definitively by something outside the system.

What's more, the choice isn't necessarily between pure determinism and pure indeterminism. It's entirely possible that God does leave quite a lot to 'chance' in an open-theist sense, while at the same time determining some of the facts about the world. The quip about 'well, bacteria outnumber humans, therefore humans could not be the point' is hardly persuasive. Clearly grocers care more about their produce than their children - any given grocer is likely to have vastly more tomatoes than children, after all.

The cosmological speculation is interesting, but also too early to tell - for all we know, we may be experiencing the actual limit of science there. A point where cosmology ends up being less about concrete predictions and testable claims, and more about metaphysics. Or future trends could bolster the current speculation, or something similar (If the Big Bang was from a Big Bounce, but the universe is not past-eternal - and that seems to be one possibility - then we're back where we started.)

Anyway, I don't say all this to pretend that theism is rationally unavoidable. Only that theism is rational, and that scientific trends if anything has undermined many once-popular arguments against God's existence and action (classic materialism) and made the scientific picture more friendly (Big Bang, indeterminacy, the persistence of the hard problem of consciousness, more esoteric issues like making information possibly fundamental to the universe and the general 'measurement problem', etc) to theism. Stenger's reply here, as in the past, seems to be "Not necessarily - I can still imagine God not existing in spite of these changes!" But the goal was never to provide an airtight argument that compels one to believe (If that's the standard, atheism is dead in the water, as are many other philosophical/theological positions). It was to speculate about how God would and could operate in the world based on what we know. Stenger may not like this, but at the end of the day he bites off vastly more than he can chew by trying to pretend science has disproven God's existence or action in the world.

Anonymous said...

PS: Don't take my somewhat cranky response to your review as a criticism of yourself. I think you have an interesting and refreshingly open-minded blog here, even if I disagree with you on some points. But I think it's clear that Stenger chews off way more than he can chew on this subject, and is chasing after a level of certainty that not is simply not in the cards, but that he wants to make his conclusions seem like scientific certainties rather than philosophical possibilities. When ID proponents do this, people are rightly upset. When Stenger does this, I think the reaction should be similar.

Steve said...

Thanks for these comments. You make good points, and it's nice to get another perspective.

It is worth pointing out that progress in science undermined some traditional materialist-atheist views as well as undermining some traditional theist views.

I agree with you that what looks like indeterminism doen't rule out the presence of free choices being made by agents (either within or outside the system).

Agree that Stenger is too certain of things. Maybe books by open-minded people wouldn't sell as well?

I do try to keep an open mind, although I confess I continue to find the case for special divine intervention in our world to be implausible. An ongoing teleological "pull" toward certain characteristics of a transcendent reality (but within the bounds of irreducible chanciness) would be more plausible to me.

Anonymous said...


And thanks for the courteous reply. I understand you find special divine intervention, and certainly the traditional western idea of God, implausible. I disagree, naturally, but I don't find that offensive in any way. Indeed, I think that the 'traditional' idea of God is more elastic than many realize. And I absolutely love to examine unorthodox ideas of God, science, and spirituality. (I found your blog while reading up on panpsychism and panentheism.)

I would submit this, though, in the case of Stenger. Your previous post (dealing more with a vaguer spirituality, etc) had you ask 'Why rule out possibilities?' I submit that ruling out possibilities may be the entire point of Stenger's project. He's not that interested in keeping the door open on possibilities, because those are precisely what he finds pretty threatening - even if they remain purely speculative, or outside the scope of science. I'm sure you've seen something analogous with regards to some materialist or physicalist responses to, say.. a neutral monist view, or panprotopsychism/panpsychism or such. Indeed, the reaction to Wright's idea of God - despite being tremendously speculative and relatively careful - is worth noting.

oerlemans said...

what do you think about the importance of evolution from a top down approach, starting from the point in the future when the world is at his end.
Within 200 million years there must be a exodus in the universe to survive. Are there already any signals to day or from the past in our bio- or cultural evolution that point out in this direction?
If that is so, there is no I.D. , but a design of development to prepare us for the future?
Much more interesting than all the discussions to day.

It will put the whole discussion between creationists and evolutionists up side down.

Steve said...

Hi oerlemans. That't interesting and I never thought of it. I tend to think of any possible telelogical "pull" on evolution as being more abstract (having to do with moral or intellectual development) than having to do with a specific future event like that.