18 July 2011

Something Good at Huffpo

Order, Chaos, Common Sense, and the Failure of Materialistic Naturalism
by Phil Johnson



o rarely do I find anything worth recommending at The Huffington Post that when something good does show up over there, it's almost a disorienting experience for me.

This article is one of those rare gems. It is a fine application of the teleological argument, mathematically debunking the materialistic assumption that the order and intricacy we see in the universe arose by sheer chance out of chaos.

The article quotes Stephen Barr ("Modern Physics and Ancient Faith," Notre Dame, IN: University Press, 2003) to demonstrate why trying to account for an orderly universe by "proposing an infinity of unobservable entities is no more scientifically defensible than proposing a single unobservable one (God).

"Indeed, sustaining a purely materialistic view of the universe, Barr asserts, requires repeatedly pleading for a multiplicity of envisioned infinities—of universes, planets, durations, realities, observers, etc.—a habit that severely undercuts the materialist position."

Exactly.

Here. Read the whole thing; then come back:




This is not complicated truth: Nature is governed by laws. These imply the existence of a lawgiver. Earth's seasons follow a complex rhythm established by the rising and setting of the sun, the tilt of the planet's axis, the speed with which we circumnavigate the sun, the temperature of the sun, and the distance between earth and sun—plus a host of other considerations. It is an extremely precise timetable. Change any of those factors by a few percentage points and the earth would eventually become as uninhabitable as Mars or Saturn. That kind of orderliness implies to reasonable minds that our world was made by intelligent Master Designer.

Such a common-sense observation, however, is rejected out of hand by virtually all modern rationalists, materialists, atheists, and philosophical naturalists. They insist it is more reasonable to assume that nobody made the universe; it just happened. All that order arose spontaneously out of chaos. In short, everything originally came automatically, by accident—out of nothing.

On the face of it, that's a totally absurd idea. Order implies thought, purpose, design. Only intelligence can devise and design order into a system. And (whether you observe particles with a microscope or planets with a telescope) the vast layers of intricate complexity and painstaking order we observe in the known universe argues powerfully for an intelligence more boundless than even the most sophisticated human mind could ever begin to comprehend.

(Incidentally: anyone who truly sees that point should not be awed or intimidated by mere academic or scientific credentials—especially when we realize that philosophers and scientists are forced to revise their theories all the time. And that has been the case since the beginning of creation.)

Even on a relatively small scale of complexity, simple common sense grasps the incontrovertible truth of this argument. You could take a bag of watch parts and shake it for all eternity, and a working watch would never emerge from the bag. The only way to get a watch is to have a watchmaker design and build it. The same thing is true with the universe. It could not have happened by accident.

Ronald Nash, in his book Faith and Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, p. 135.), writes this:
Suppose the first American astronauts to walk on the moon had brought back, along with moon rocks, an oblong black box that appeared from the outside to have been crafted by machines. Suppose further that, when opened, the box contained the workings of a camera: it had parts that functioned like the lens, shutter, and other components of a camera. Obviously, such an object would excite enormous and justifiable curiosity about how it came to be. It is hard to imagine any skeptic's gaining respect by maintaining that the principle of sufficient reason did not apply to such an object. Equally absurd would be efforts to explain the box in terms of chance, natural forces. The very nature of the object pointed to its having been made by an intelligent being. The human mind properly balks at the suggestion that a cameralike object was produced by chance, natural forces. But then how much more should we reject claims that something far more intricate, such as the human eye, resulted from anything less than an intelligent being.


It's nice, for once, to see an article in The Huffington Post saying essentially the same thing.

But it's doubly ironic when you realize that there's a droning nest of nattering voices over at Biologos relentlessly insisting that teleological arguments are "unscientific" and therefore invalid, And most of the contributors there claim to be Christians.

Just as the material universe reflects the order and arrangement of a far Greater Intelligence, the intellectual climate of the world today (including the religious world) reflects the chaos that is the inevitable fruit of sin. Romans 1:19-32.

Phil's signature

21 comments:

Paul said...

Order arising from chaos, and everything originally coming from nothing ... sounds familiar!

I'm a Christian, and there very clearly is a difference; to put it roughly, we know how to scientifically study planets etc., and have done so, even though there may be infinitely many of them, but we don't know how to scientifically study God, an infinite spiritual being (whose existence is brute fact, surely).

In any case, even granting for the sake of argument that it is no more scientifically defensible, why would the infinities undercut the materialist position?

Frank Turk said...

I hate it when a trend is over and there are still Christians on the old trend.

But I do love the irony that HuffPo is ahead of BioLogos on the question of teleology. One is setting trends and the other is following.

Steve Drake said...

@Paul:
In any case, even granting for the sake of argument that it is no more scientifically defensible, why would the infinities undercut the materialist position?

Could it be that infinities undercut the materialist position in that you then have an infinite regression where nothing is really ever answered? The materialist can posit an answer to an answer, and an answer to that answer, and then another answer to that answer...you get the idea.

The materialistic worldview can never account, or give justified warrant, for such things as uniformity of nature, the laws of logic, true right and true wrong, and what Van Til calls the preconditions of intelligibility.

Paul said...

Hi Steve,

As I understand it -- though the article is pretty vague -- there is no infinite regress, only a single postulated infinity of entities. I take it that they are "brute", just as God is. The buck has to stop somewhere. But that doesn't undermine materialism any more than it undermines theism. No?

Mr. Fosi said...

Assuming certain questions are not forbidden, in a worldview concerned with with "how", "where" and "when", an infinity of entities leads inexorably to an infinite regress of explanation for those entities.

That's not the main point though, as I read it. On materialism, only material exits and there is no "real" transcendence (of anything). An appeal to an infinity of any sort, however, violates that central principle since the person postulating it isn't postulating the illusion of transcendence, but of an actual one.

Perhaps there's an even better way to put that, or a more central point that I missed.

Mr. Fosi said...

That is "exists" not "exits". :D

Word verification: condm. (<_<)Fitting given the discussion about contraception taking place over at Triablogue.

Phil Johnson said...

Paul: "we know how to scientifically study planets etc., and have done so, even though there may be infinitely many of them, but we don't know how to scientifically study God"

You can scientifically study a planet, or a solar system of planets. But you cannot begin to comprehend—you cannot even imagine—an infinitude of planets, much less study an infinite variety of infinite variables "scientifically."

The difficulties with pure materialism are legion (including, of course, the problem of entropy; the fact that genes contain complex information in DNA code; and the big one: the origin of life). When these are ALL dealt with by a fideistic punt to infinite time, infinite space, infinite possibilities, and infinite, impersonal(!) chance—it sounds very much like the argument is simply "Turtles all the way down" couched in geological and biological terminology, so as to give it a facade of scientific respectability.

The point being made by that article, I believe, is that when you continually retreat to the realm of hypothetical infinitude in order to explain what cannot be observed or tested in the laboratory, you eventually need to acknowledge that you have left the realm of "science" rightly so-called.

stratagem said...

There is a huge flip side to the infinities argument that undercuts itself: Carl Sagan said that there must be billions of civilizations out there... but if that were true, it stands to reason that at least one of those billions of civilizations would have been heard by SETI or other radio astronomy listening projects. Right?

Paul said...

Hi Mr. Fosi,

I am not sure if I have understood you, however:

It is not that the question is not allowed, it is that it cannot be answered. The materialist need not explain the infinity of entities, and the theist need not explain God. I fail to see the need for any infinite regress of explanations.

If you are telling me that materialism cannot account for the existence of actual infinities of entities then (i) the problem is not restricted to the origin of the cosmos, and (ii) it is not to be confused with postulating the existence of an abstract actual infinity in a platonic-type mathematical realm (is this what you mean by transcendent?), a problem which is also not restricted to infinity, but applies to the existence of all mathematical entities, universals, etc.

I'm struggling to see what the argument is, regarding origins specifically.

Paul said...

Thanks, Phil.

The materialist need not postulate such an infinity. Even so, and even if we grant that the inference is not scientific as such, I surely have a better scientific grasp of what such an infinity could be. It's not true, in my experience, that I cannot begin to comprehend an infinity of varied planets, but it is true that I cannot begin to comprehend God scientifically.

Maybe we'll have to agree to disagree on that.

Mr. Fosi said...

Hi Paul,

The materialist need not explain the infinity of entities, and the theist need not explain God. I fail to see the need for any infinite regress of explanations.

The people that I know personally who ascribe to a greater or lesser amount of materialism do so because of their desire for explanations of observable things or processes. To stop at a certain level of how/when/were either by fiat or because further questions are "unanswerable" shows up a limitation not just of empiricism (since we likely didn't use pure empiricism to get there), but a limit of the materialistic presupposition. The way around this limitation seems to be an appeal to an infinity of some sort, which itself must transcendent (crossing space and time, immutable and non-material) and it must actually actually exist in reality. This be heresy when materialism rules, since all constructs of reason, logic or perception are simply illusory emergent properties of self-assembling complex systems in a purposeless universe.

If you are telling me that materialism cannot account for the existence of actual infinities of entities then... it is not to be confused with postulating the existence of an abstract actual infinity in a platonic-type mathematical realm (is this what you mean by transcendent?), a problem which is also not restricted to infinity, but applies to the existence of all mathematical entities, universals, etc.

On materialism, there is only the material world. There can therefore be no actual dualism of material and non-material. One can postulate some transcendent, non-material property or "law" such as the infinite, so long as one realizes that there can not actually be such a non-material property... That such a thing is only illusory.

However, as I noted above, in order for the materialist to bridge the gap, he/she must appeal to a real non-material entity. This appeal to a real and not merely "posited for the sake of discussion" non-material and transcendent property undercuts the internal consistency of the materialistic presupposition.

This is making sense in my head, but I'm not sure if I am communicating it clearly. O_o

Phil Johnson said...

Paul: "It's not true, in my experience, that I cannot begin to comprehend an infinity of varied planets . . . Maybe we'll have to agree to disagree on that."

Well, yes. That IS the whole point, and the whole problem: People enthralled with scientism have far too high an estimate of human wisdom, personal experience, and their own intellectual powers. Look up the definition of "infinity," and it may help you sort the issue out a little better.

Or watch this video (ht: Fred Butler)--and realize that if you take what you see and multiply it as large as your own imagination will allow. Now multiply that times ten to the hundredth power. If you can conceive of something as vast as all that, you still will not have begun to comprehend infinitude.

But I think you have nailed the real issue for us: modern science simply won't acknowledge its own limitations.

Paul said...

Thanks for the reply, Mr. Fosi. I'm not sure I follow, but I agree that materialism has problems; I'm probably more in line with Dooyeweerd than with Van Til regarding such matters.

All the best with your PhD! I'm interested to know what you are researching, feel free to get in touch. I think I've said enough in this thread! :-)

Paul said...

I think hearing and meeting Paul Cohen and Hugh Woodin has disabused me of any notion that I comprehend infinity!

My point was not about comprehending the vastness of infinity.

But thanks for the reply in any case, brother Phil.

Steve Gentry said...

BioLogos published this article some time ago. Old news. Judging from this post by Stephen Barr you haven't found a friend and ally in support of the Intelligent Design movement. Stephen Barr and BioLogos are more allies than enemies.

Eric said...

I could be off here, but I doubt that Phil (or the other Pyros) is really looking for a "friend and ally in support of the Intelligent Design movement". I suspect Phil is more interested in straightforward Biblical fidelity, and sees that an article has used some good logic to damage the portrayed invicible veneer a sworn enemy of Biblical fidelity.

Frank Turk said...

Um, the author of the HuffPo article is Dr. Matt J. Rossano.

John said...

It is interesting that so many scientists that are determined (one is tempted to say "hell-bent") on proving everything from a materialistic point of view often drift into mysticism. Perhaps it is a way for them to close that gap to God. Sad, when God offers a clearly defined path.

The one scientist who comes to mind in this is Sir Isaac Newton. Writings from the latter part of his life are filled with mysticism and alchemy. John Maynard Keynes, the economist, said that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians."

A good friend, Martin Erdmann, has recently lectured and written on this phenone(http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/forcing-change/11/spiritualization.htm).

trogdor said...

So if I'm following, scienticians scoff at the notion of the supernatural, claim rationalism as the standard, demand that anything true must be observable, measurable, and repeatable...

and then constantly appeal to things which are unobservable, cannot be tested/disproven, and are frequently literally inconceivable.

Seems a little self-defeating when you stop to think about it.

Meghan Smith said...

This is wonderful. Thank you!

amj said...

Maybe I'm a bit late on the "infinity" discussion, but heres a few definitions that may shed some light on why us being finite things can't grasp the infinite....

endless time, space, or quantity

a distant ideal point at which two parallel lines are assumed to meet

a dimension or quantity of sufficient size to be unaffected by finite variations

Also, thanks for posting this Phil. I'm working towards a physics degree right now and its nice to read things like this. Gives me good ideas for discussions with other students :]