Monday, 10 August 2015

ANT3 - A Snooker Playing God and Gametes


I’ll respond in blog format again and, again, here is the article you were responding to as context for other readers.

ANT's response:


With very minimal qualification, I agree with your assessment of deism and theism. (BTW I really enjoyed the software glitch objection to miracles).

You said, “The question I would really ask is not ‘why do you credit the theory of Theistic Evolution?’ but ‘how do you rule out the Theory of (natural) Evolution?’”

This depends on how compatible the Theory of Evolution is with theism. An important question is, what features of evolution would be incompatible with theism? If any, it would be indeterminism. The opposite, determinism, would allow a deity to set the universe in motion with the intention to produce humans. It is not easy to prove that evolution is indeterministic. Some features of earth-like life are highly conserved which argues against indeterminism, and there’s also the phenomenon of convergent evolution which does the same. However, other features of earth-like life push the other way. In my last blog post, I showcased research which argues the complexity of human genome (and other multicellular animals) was predominantly generated by chance which favors indeterminism.

A fair assessment recognizes that chance mutations are constrained by varying degrees of natural selection, sometimes very highly, other times less so. Applying this to the question of theism, whether or not the Theory of Evolution is compatible with (Christian) theism depends on whether the conditions which produced humans were highly constrained (i.e., by predetermined environmental conditions) or left up to chance. Honestly, we cannot say either way without importing generalizations that, funny enough, both sides can supply.

You asked, “Is this pretty much what you mean by ‘self’ or do you have another idea of it?”
Like you, I would want to steer clear of mind-body dualism as proposed by Descartes that leads one to talk of an immaterial soul. Honestly, I’m not sure what can be said about the self beyond its existence. And now I can see we basically agree on this when you said “Clearly we exist, in at least some sense.” However, there still seems to be a problem for naturalism regarding the self.

Let me attempt to elaborate on this. Naturalism supposes the universe is composed of matter with well-defined properties moving around in space and generating fields and so on. Considering the sorts of structures that could arise, the self is strange. Counterfactuals can be used to highlight naturalism’s difficulty with the self. Why am I in this body rather than, say, Brad Pitt’s body? Or, why does this particular neural pattern correspond to me and not someone else? That is a question that emergentism is not equipped to address. Emergentism might explain how natural processes produce a novel complex structure, probably even whatever is “self”, but not these counterfactuals. Naturalism is great at handling counterfactuals such as why do dogs have lungs instead of gills? Or, why is Europe not in the Southern hemisphere? But, it is inadequate for answering counterfactuals of self. At the very least, unanswerable counterfactuals are a weakness, and at the most a sign of incoherence.

I’ll cut myself off here.

My response:

I want to deal with “self” first because I think it can be put to bed reasonably quickly.  When you talk about “self” in terms of naturalism and “emergentism”, you still appear to be talking about it (“self”) as a thing, rather than an emergent feature.  Take the Brad Pitt example for example, your question resolves down to “why is the emergent feature that emerges from the body that is labelled as ‘me’ not emergent from the body that is labelled as ‘Brad Pitt’?”  Clearly it’s because the emergent feature that we are talking about is a feature that emerges from specific bodies (and the chemistry / neurology / genetics / circumstances associated with those specific bodies).  We would not expect you to emerge from a brain in another body, nor would we expect Brad Pitt to emerge from the brain yours.

To think “why am ‘I’ not resident in Brad Pitt’s body?” (at least for those of us who are not Brad Pitt) is to presume some sort of portable “self” that can be somehow plugged into different bodies, so I think you are still locked into a loose form of mind-body dualism.  The “problem” that you attribute to naturalism and “emergentism” disappears when you unlock yourself from mind-body dualism.  The complaint is akin to claiming that naturalism is false because it cannot determine the weight of a rainbow, although the contributing error is somewhat less obvious.

I also think that we have to be very careful with respect to “why” questions because while we often mean “by what mechanism” we sometimes mean “for what intent” or “for what reason”.  In other words, some “why” questions are actually “how” questions and science (which is what you seem to mean when you say “naturalism”) is the right tool for addressing these sorts of questions only.  Other “why” questions are, unfortunately, little more than examples of inadvertent question begging.  (I’m not suggesting that the question begging is always inadvertent, there’s an example of what appears to be intentional question begging in a series of “who” questions that rarely fails to irritate me – in the children’s hymn Who put the colours in the rainbow? I can at least console myself with the thought of an atheist, science-minded objector responding doggedly to each line with “Well, actually …”)

I’d suggest rethinking your questions and trying to formulate them without a “why” to determine whether you mean “by what mechanism” or “for what intent/reason”.  Do you mean:

·      By what mechanism am I in this body rather than, say, Brad Pitt’s body?  Or,
·      For what intent am I in this body rather than, say, Brad Pitt’s body?

I also want to make it perfectly clear that I am not conceding that the “self” actually exists, as indicated by my qualification when I wrote “(c)learly we exist, in at least some sense”.

Now to evolution and theism.

A metaphorical snooker playing designer god that just lined all the metaphorical balls up and played a perfect metaphorical shot which resulted in humanity emerging is not, I think, a theistic god.  This would be a deist god (one that apparently had to first make the metaphorical balls and the metaphorical table on which the balls rest and the metaphorical cue used to take the shot).  A theist god intervenes.

Think of the table above as the starting conditions arranged by a snooker playing god.  If it’s a deist god with long term design intentions, it takes one strike at the white ball, then walks away from the table while, amazingly, all the balls all go in the pockets in a sequence according to the rules (as determined by the god, using physics principles which are also presumably determined by that god).  If it’s a theist god, it might get a few balls in with a single strike, but it retains the right to set itself up for multiple strikes and it might knock a few balls in by hand.  Such a god might even change its mind midgame as to the order in which balls are to be pocketed.  It could also add balls when it felt like it (WCBWJB) and remove balls from the table if they proved inconvenient.

So, is the Theory of Evolution consistent with a theist god?  It really doesn’t seem to be so.  I do think that it’s consistent with a deist god, in part because we have the hubris to think that we are the metaphorical pocketing of the black ball, the main event rather the cannoning of two balls midgame on the way to some unknown finale, and we can look back and see what must have happened for us to have come about.  We can (metaphorically and with a certain level of uncertainty) trace the path of the white ball all the way to the Big Bang and we can see that this or that must have happened – or we would not be here*.  We can even marvel that if the path of the white ball were even slightly different at the beginning, or the balls were aligned differently on the table, then we would never have been (this is analogous to “fine tuning”).

However, if it were a theist god, with the habit of committing regular, intent laden interventions, we should be able to see hints of those interventions – and we don’t.  It simply gets worse if we presume that such interventions would be aimed at either making things better or preventing unintentional evils (and that the god would never intentionally create evils).  There are plenty of opportunities for meaningful intervention in history that simply did not occur – as simple and innocuous as letting the young Adolf Hitler scrape a pass on his art exam so he could have spent his life as yet another two-bit painter.  You could argue that the death of millions in the Second World War might be a necessary element in some grander plan, but that leads to two uncomfortable conclusions: either you are one of the beneficiaries of that plan (in which case all that blood is on your hands whether you wanted it or not), or you are just more filler whose inevitable death is just one more means by which your god is callously achieving its ends.  Perhaps there is an evil-god (as suggested by Stephen Law) that is doing its level best to maximise suffering, but such a god isn’t one cherished by the average theist.

So no, I don’t see evolution being consistent with a theist god.

(I do see evolution being consistent with theism, by which I mean belief in a theist god.  However, in this sense evolution is also consistent with atheism, polytheism, pantheism and any sort of ism that any human out there has ever clung to. That is to say, the existence of theism – and other isms – is consistent with reality, even if the content of the associated beliefs might not be.)

I’m not quite sure what you are getting at with your discussion of indeterminism, nor why you think indeterminism is inconsistent with theism while determinism is consistent with it.  I can think that perhaps you are considering determinism to mean that every effect has a unique set of constituent causal conditions which are collectively referred to as the cause and that you can think of your god (or the will of your god) as being a possible causal condition in each possible effect.  However, because your god (or the will thereof) is not detectable, the consequence of that god intervening would be that, as far as humans are concerned, determinism will (at least sometimes) be false.  We’d have to rewrite the laws to say something along the lines of “any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, unless a god intervenes, in which case we simply don’t know what will happen”.  Such a universe would not, strictly speaking, be deterministic – at best it would be “mostly deterministic”.

As for indeterminism (by which I mean the physics related concept), I would have thought that this is more consistent with theism.  If indeterminate interpretations of quantum mechanics are correct (yes, there are deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics and there is even evidence for one variant), then there will be a palate of possible options for a god to choose from if it wished to intervene, at least until an observation is made.  This would, I would have thought, provided a lot of potential wriggle room in which a theist god could operate.  (Of course I lean towards a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics.)

Then you suggest that evolution itself might be indeterministic.  Evolution (at least biological evolution) doesn’t work at the level at which physical indeterminism holds sway, which leads me to think you might be talking about a lack of predestination.  If so, then I would agree that we don’t have any evidence that proves conclusively that evolution is not predestined – and we could even be sceptical of that evidence even if we had it (because, due to some ineffable plan on the part of the evolutionary predestinator, it could have been predestined that we would eventually find evidence that evolution is not predestined even if it is – it would be like programming an artificial intelligence to “know” that it is not an artificial intelligence).

My argument with respect to this is that if we have been placed in a universe which, on careful inspection, appears to be completely natural in origin with no inherent purpose and no creator, then it makes sense to treat it as completely natural in origin with no inherent purpose and no creator – even if it does happen to be a simulation or a plaything created by some sort of god.  If there’s an upgrade which imparts knowledge that we are simulations or the owner starts giving better, more convincing clues as to its existence, then I think I would be justified in reconsidering my position based on the new evidence.  At the moment the only “evidence” available seems to be testing us for gullibility, such as very sketchy reports of a resurrection by people with a vested interest in such reports being believed.  If gullibility truly were the feature most favoured by the owner-operator of the universe, then I guess I would have to accept the fact that I am a substandard product of its creation.

You appear to be overly impressed by considerations of chance, which is a common feature of the more active theists, especially apologetic theists.  If your parents had to put one egg and one sperm together, both being selected at random with the express intent of creating you then, yes for sure, the chances of them being successful would be near enough infinitesimal.  Your mother had between one and two million immature eggs at birth while your father, if within the normal human range, likely produced about a billion sperm a month, maybe more during his heyday – with average human sperm production being a little over half a trillion over a lifetime.  That means the likelihood of you being produced – given the existence of your parents, their desire to create you and the assumption that all they needed to do that was connect the right sperm to the right ovum and that they had their lifetime supply of gametes to choose from – is in the order of 1 in half a quintillion (0.5x1018) which is pretty the age of the universe when expressed in seconds**.  If your parents could tell immediately that the right combination of egg and sperm had been found just before fusing them, and could make their random selections and check each combination in one second and they were somehow prevented from retrying unsuccessful combinations, and they started just after the big bang that would mean that they would have been able to recreate you by now.  (Of course we are ignoring issues of age and fertility cycles.)

The thing is though that this scenario is rather unrealistic.  Your parents didn’t just select an egg and a sperm at random.  And they weren’t specifically aiming for you.  If any two fertile humans throw gametes at each other regularly enough without taking precautions (please don’t visualise that), then inevitably some sort of child will eventuate and no matter who that child turns out to be, it will be only one out of a truly staggeringly huge number of potential outcomes.  In other words, you need to focus more on the likelihood of a child resulting from sexual congress, which is substantially higher than on in a sextillion, and just be happy that one of those children ended up being you.

Finally, you talk about “the question of theism, whether or not the Theory of Evolution is compatible with (Christian) theism depends on whether the conditions which produced humans were highly constrained (i.e., by predetermined environmental conditions) or left up to chance”.  I guess you meant to presuppose the veridicality of theism here?  Otherwise you would be guilty of question begging to the same extent as in that execrable hymn.

And you raised this in a paragraph which was notionally addressing the question “how do you rule out the Theory of (natural) Evolution?”  I don’t think you actually answered the question, unless your answer is “theism comes first, anything I consider incompatible with theism is thus untrue”.  I don’t think you mean that though … um, do you?


* This looking back to see what must have happened for us to be here is, perhaps, the most valid use of the anthropic principle.  We can’t justify presenting a scientific hypothesis if an inevitable consequence of that hypothesis being true is that it would be impossible for life to exist in this universe.  Similarly, we can factor in our existence when trying to work out what happened in the history of the universe – for example, we know that there is a lot of carbon on our planet (which is essential for our type of life) and therefore something must have produced that carbon.  Therefore, our star must be a second generation star that formed from the debris of first generation star that was responsible for all our carbon (inter alia).  We’d know that even if we hadn’t looked at the spectral lines of the sun and noticed that it contains heavier elements that a main sequence star cannot have generated.


** This is not a coincidence.  I looked for a figure that was in the order of a quintillion.  I was looking at grains of sand on the planet (estimated as 7x1018), stars in the universe, the volume of the Earth and the mass of the Earth before selecting the age of the universe in seconds figure.  I could have used the volume of the Earth’s oceans in cubic metres (about 1.3x1018), or the number of insects currently alive on the planet (about 10x1018), or the number of cells in the bodies of a crowd at Centre Court Wimbledon on slow day (one third capacity at 5,000 times 100 trillion = 0.5x1018).  Time is good for this purpose though because a length of time can be divided in a multitude of ways, allowing multiple shots at an order of magnitude that fits (seconds, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on), and if the age of the universe hadn’t fit, I could have used the age of the earth, how long ago the dinosaurs were around or any one of a number of eras selected to suit my purpose.  If the number were larger, I’d have simply talked about number of lifetimes of the universe, or used stars as my example.


  1. Neopolitan,
    I think your suggestions for reformulating the ‘self’ question are good. For the record, I am on board with the ‘self’ as an emergent feature, and I do not think it is a variable which should affect the outcome of this exploration. This being said, we can extract the underlying concept from the Brad Pitt counterfactual and come up with the question, by what principal/mechanism/law do specific ‘selves’ correspond to specific causative factors?

    As for evolution and theism. . . reading over your response a few times I think we are in agreement as strange as that may sound. At least our differences are not really significant. Many thinkers consider evolution to be indeterministic perhaps because the force of random mutation may operate on the quantum scale. If I recall correctly Stephen J Gould argued if we rewound the evolutionary clock and let it run, we would have different results every time (i.e. indeterminism). True, theists have argued quantum mechanics allows for “wiggle room” for a deity to operate, but this wiggle room is unnecessary for a wise planning deity and even more so for one with the power to intervene. Which brings us to either deistic god or a theistic god with the problem of evil (or Stephen Law’s malevolent god). I fully acknowledge the problem of evil is serious and is a good reason to doubt.

    As you have expressed, belief in a deistic god may be as good as disbelief, and there is no evidence for a highly active theistic god. So, if there is any type of deity left that is meaningful to pursue knowledge of its existence, it would have to be something in between – a rarely-intervening deity – such as the one portrayed in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. I am interested in your statement that this deity would be “testing us for gullibility” and you “would have to accept the fact that [you] are a substandard product of its creation.” Let me propose an alternative. Life is indeed a test, but not in doctrinal belief. The test is, how will you use the gifts you have been granted? We are all equal since we all have individual gifts and can be judged relative to how we use these. Applying this to belief, finding a 'truer' worldview would merely be a gift rather than something accessible by intellectual ability or effort. This may not mean much to you, but at least it raises the possibility that such a deity treats you fairly despite your religious beliefs.

    I'm running short on time, so I'll drop out here.

    1. Hi ANT,

      Sorry about the delay. I am working on some new articles (four of them!) so I have to ration my time somewhat. The first of these has just recently been posted.

      I agree that we are largely in agreement. That said, I cannot meet you on the notion of gifts. In part this is because such a notion is so distant from my world view that I can’t be certain that I know what you mean by it and in part because so many assumptions, assumptions that I do no grant, have to be made before we start discussing “gifts” and the idea that we might be judged on our use of them (I guess that “the ability skilfully use gifts granted” isn’t a gift on offer?) I can’t really understand why the imposition of a belief that cannot be backed up by evidence would be considered a “gift”.

      Think about it for a moment. If the content of this belief were different, would you still consider it a “gift”? You might, perhaps, if it were something as innocuous as believing that your nation is the best one in the world – which doesn’t harm anyone as long as it doesn’t become the justification for taking over neighbouring nations. But is such a belief imposed on a Russian peasant a “gift”? Especially if that “gift” stops them from picking up their belongings and trying to emigrate to Sweden? (Swedes with an anti-immigration agenda would certainly consider it a gift to Sweden.) What if your imposed belief were to be that Islam is the one true religion and that the Qur’an is infallible (as written)? Would you now, in anticipation of such a belief being imposed, consider the imposition to be a “gift”? How about if you had your atheism re-established (assuming no evidence was involved in your deconversion)?

      In my view, a true gift would be the provision of evidence that would support a belief, rather than the mere imposition of that belief.

    2. Neopolitan,

      True, the idea of gifts from a deity deserves more specification because it is distant from naturalism. Seeing your thoughts on the connection between gift and evidence, I think we might ultimately agree on this part. This is conditioned on whether we agree on what counts as evidence. If evidence is restricted to what can be published in modern science journals or what is permissible in law courts, then we have none. If evidence includes what is internal to the person, then some people might have evidence. For example, after I “reconverted” I analyzed the situation to the nth degree and found what really drove my belief was something internal and compelling. I cannot say what the force is or from where it originates. This is not what I wanted to happen! I wanted my worldview to be discovered by sheer power of intellect or an accomplishment worthy of respect, but what ended up happening was humbling.

      Your point about the content of the belief is well taken. There are beliefs that are bad for the world, and we don’t have to search long to find examples. So a gift from a good deity would have to be a good gift, and if this were a belief, a good belief rather than one that leads to harm. Also, yes, it’s conceivable from my worldview that the light could go out so-to-speak and I could become an atheist. Job said it best, “The Lord gives and he takes away”. The point of this reality is not to homogenize human belief across the earth and not to create a futuristic superhuman or super-society. The point is to let people live and freely, both good and evil, and judge them, so that when evil and suffering are removed from the structure of reality at the apocalypse, only those who earnestly and humbly sought the good will be brought back.

      There are two hypothetical deities we have compared here. The first rewards gullibility which makes the deity not good. The second rewards those who put their gifts to good use and demonstrate their faith in some way (not necessarily religious conviction). Though it does not nullify the problem of evil, this shows that we can be treated fairly with respect to the great cultural diversity on earth.

      Does this go off track somewhere? I'll be interested to here from you.


  2. Neopolitan,
    I have some time this morning, so I thought I would add a quick thought. I am aware there could be question begging or circularity in the ‘self’ inquiry, and this has occupied my thoughts recently. This kind of inquiry does relate to the debate between dualism and physicalism, but it deviates at significant points. Most importantly, it does not require one to accept a Platonic realm (unless it begs the question). The bare minimum required is acceptance that one exists in some sense as you put it.

    Suppose we accept our existence in some general sense. This deserves a tiny bit more specification. We can easily imagine being in someone else’s body with their sensations, emotions, memories, etc. Imaging this does not mean a transfer or uploading is possible, rather it highlights the difference between ‘self’ and mental states. The ‘self’ could be stripped bare of mental states or have radically different ones, and indeed it does over a lifetime starting at conception (j/k) and ending, hopefully, at a ripe old age. The relationship between the ‘self’ and consciousness is more debatable than other mental states. I can understand why you would argue that ‘self’ cannot be extricated from experience in your previous response. It may be that the ‘self’ is best viewed as a unit of consciousness which may be overlaid by a variety of mental states depending on circumstances.

    The inquiry could be rendered as a question beggar: who assigned me to this set of causal circumstances (genes, brain development)? This would assume intention like the children’s song you mentioned. If we remove this assumption, the question becomes: what assigned me to this set of causal circumstances? Or, by what principal was I assigned to this set of causal circumstances? Plugging in some generalities: by what principal are specific units of consciousness (or selves) assigned to specific causal circumstances?

    Theism, of course, has an easy solution, but that’s not the point of this inquiry. Theism has more working parts that naturalism, so it’s not surprising that it has greater explanatory capacity. The point of this inquiry is to show that naturalism does not even have hypothetical solutions which suggests it is an incomplete worldview.

    1. Hi ANT,

      I think there is still an element of question begging when we ask “by what principal are specific units of consciousness (or selves) assigned to specific causal circumstances?” I’ll put aside the idea of “units of consciousness”, and selves (which you appear to have reified again). The big question being begged here involves the assignment of whatever. Such assignments basically presume an overarching intentional structure to the universe which I simply don’t grant.

      While it is possible, as you suggest, to imagine being in another body, this tells us nothing about the reality (or otherwise) of selves. I can imagine reaching the end of a rainbow and finding a pot of gold guarded by a leprechaun. That doesn’t magically make a rainbow approachable (nor does it create pots of gold and leprechauns). Theism rests largely on the presumption of a soul - what’s the point of theism is there is no eternal soul, right? I can see why a theist would want to keep a self that is pretty much indistinguishable from a soul, because as soon as the self (and thus the soul) disappears the motivation for theism evaporates.

      The non-question begging question you are after is, perhaps, “what are the causal mechanisms that lead to the experience of selfhood?” We’re not assuming selfhood (because we can only truly talk about our experiences of selfhood, without assuming that our experiences are veridical) and we’re not assuming any assignment of anything (and thus not assuming any background intentional structure responsible for such assignments).

    2. Hi Neopolitan,

      You said: “We’re not assuming selfhood (because we can only truly talk about our experiences of selfhood, without assuming that our experiences are veridical). . .”
      You want to introduce epistemological uncertainty, but I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about experience of selfhood. As I stated before, I think experiencing anything at all justifies self-existence, but I cannot think of a specific “selfhood experience” that we could choose to accept or doubt. Acknowledging selfhood is a matter of rational argumentation, not phenomenological experience.

      You seem very troubled by the idea of self because it seems to relate to the soul even though it is material, emergent, and ceases to exist upon death (quite un-soul-like). The concept contained herein I feel is inescapable. Either you endorse eliminativism or the self must exist. But, I understand your concern here. Daniel Dennett and other naturalists have the same concern. He thinks self is an illusion whereas freewill exists as an emergent phenomenon (note: Sean Carroll also holds this view on freewill). What exactly is free to act though? We cannot both say that something has freedom and does not exist, this is a logical contradiction. That thing that performs the action, if we trace it backwards from the tip of the finger through nerve fibers to brain to electrical impulse to emergent thing to whatever, that thing we could label as self. Of course science doesn’t understand it, theists hijack it to argue for dualism, and it may be enormously complicated and dynamic. But, it seems to be a center of receiving input and giving output. Some naturalists have conceived of it as a processing system. I don’t think Dennett or Carroll would deny this kind of self. They are simply denying the kind that singularitarians are saying can be uploaded only a silicon chip or potentially transferred between human brains. BTW these guys are not theists either.

      It must be ironic for you to hear that your reformulation of the problem begs the question for naturalism since you ask “by what causal mechanism” as if we know for certain that a causal mechanism is responsible for partitioning selves to genetic and local conditions. This is what we are inquiring about. When causal mechanisms are nowhere to be found, we can employ an old atheist debate tactic – absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Therefore, if the self exists, and mental states, intentionality, experience, and so on really do exist in some sense, then naturalism is an incomplete worldview. Or otherwise, what explains the connection between specific selves and specific genetic and local conditions?

      Hope your writing is going well. Don’t ever feel pressured to respond soon, not that you would feel pressured. We can correspond over longer time intervals. Happy thinking



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