Monday, January 23, 2023

The Incoherence of Deborah Haarsma's Christian Astrophysics in the Reason/Revelation Debate

 





What do you see in these pictures?  

The first picture is from the Hubble Space Telescope.  It's a tiny area of the sky (about one thirty-two millionth of the sky) visible only in the Earth's Southern Hemisphere.  It's centered on SMAC 0723, a galaxy cluster in the constellation of Volans.  As many as 10,000 galaxies are visible in this picture, and each of those galaxies probably have an average of 100 million stars.  The picture includes light from galaxies as they existed about 13 billion years ago, only about 400 to 800 million years after the Big Bang.

The second picture of this same area of the sky is from the James Webb Space Telescope.  A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the James Webb Telescope.  This picture was first revealed to the public at an event at the White House with President Joe Biden on July 11, 2022.  The picture from the Webb Telescope is clearer and more detailed than the Hubble picture.

Christian astrophysicist Deborah Haarsma sees in these pictures confirmation of what the Bible says in Psalms 19:1 (King James Version)--"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork."  

Is she right?  You might agree with her if you take the side of Revelation in the Reason/Revelation debate.  But you will probably disagree with her if you take the side of Reason.  Is there any way to decide which side is right?  Or can the two sides be reconciled?  Would most human beings be inclined to agree with her religious interpretation of these pictures?  If so, does this express a natural propensity of our evolved human mind?

Some Christians have reported that looking at these pictures from the Webb Telescope made them "feel very small."  One Christian journalist observed: "It's hard and uncomfortable to comprehend being a tiny speck on a tiny speck in a universe full of tiny, beautiful specks," which sent her into "a sort of existential crisis."  But when she asked Haarsma about this, Haarsma told her: "You don't have to look at the vastness of the universe and feel insignificant.  You can look at it and see how great God's power and love are."

Haarsma said that on the Sunday after the Webb Telescope images were released, she went to services at her church where the images were projected on a screen, and the congregation sang hymns about nature.  "They created an opportunity to thank God for the wonders of the natural world."


HAARSMA'S THEISTIC EVOLUTION

Haarsma received her Ph.D. in astrophysics from MIT.  She became a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College (now Calvin University).  She is now President of BioLogos, an organization founded by Francis Collins to promote the idea of theistic evolution among evangelical Christians who otherwise might reject evolutionary science as contrary to the Bible.  As suggested by name "BioLogos," the idea is that biology and natural science generally are "the language of God": "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God" (John 1:1).  Christians should see the modern scientific study of nature as the natural revelation of God's creative activity.

In a recent lecture, Haarsma explained "Why I Never Had a Faith Crisis Over Science." She noted that of the many young people today who are losing their religious beliefs, many say that "the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world."  She said that it doesn't have to be this way if Christians understand that faith and science are not in conflict, and then she explained how she had reached this conclusion in her own life.

She grew up in a Calvinist evangelical church that "grounded me in the faith."  "When it came to Genesis and the age of the Earth, my church knew of only two options.  One was godless evolution, with a godless Big Bang billions of years ago.  The other option was a Creator God who made the universe in 6 days following the text in Genesis.  Given those two choices, of course we picked the one with the Creator!"

At the same time, however, as a schoolgirl, Haarsma had a love of math and science.  As an undergraduate at Bethel University, a Christian school, she majored in physics and music.  Then, as a graduate student in physics at MIT, she developed an interest in astronomy and astrophysics.  At that point, she was forced to reconsider whether astronomy and the Genesis account of creation were compatible or contradictory.

She came across the book Portraits of Creation, with chapters by Christian geologists and Christian astronomers who explained how the scientific account of the evolution of the Earth could be reconciled with their faith.  There was also a chapter by Old Testament scholar John Stek, who explained the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian accounts of how many gods created the universe so that there was a flat Earth with a solid dome sky with water above it, called a "firmament."  She observes:

"I realized that in Genesis chapter 1, on the second day of creation, God takes credit for making this firmament.  That means God didn't try to correct their misconceptions about the natural world; it would have distracted them from the larger message.  God had other goals in mind.  I concluded that if God didn't put modern science into Genesis, I shouldn't be trying to get modern science out of Genesis.  Instead I should focus on God's primary message: that there is one sovereign Creator (not a pantheon of gods), that creation is good, and that humans are made in God's image."

In this way, she could accept the modern scientific account of the evolution of the universe while also accepting the revelation of God's "primary message" in the Bible.  Science and Christian faith are therefore compatible.  The mission of BioLogos is to convey that message to her fellow evangelical Christians.

The fundamental intellectual framework for this project is what is often called "theistic evolution" or what Haarsma calls "evolutionary creation."  God is the omnipotent Creator of everything, but God has chosen to exercise his creative activity by establishing the laws of nature that allow for the natural history of the universe to emerge through a natural evolutionary process that can be studied by natural science.


RECONCILING REASON AND REVELATION THROUGH THE TWO BOOKS OF ONE TRUTH?

I have written a series of posts on the reason/revelation debate, in which I have agreed with Leo Strauss that there is no way of reconciling reason and revelation by synthesizing them, and that a Socratic philosopher or a Darwinian scientist is justified in adopting a zetetic position:  The zetetics believe that while philosophy or science cannot refute revelation, it is rational for those with the natural desire and capacity for philosophy or science to choose the philosophic life, when this is rightly understood as a Socratic or Darwinian quest for knowledge that never attains the full knowledge of the whole that would refute revelation by denying the possibility of supernatural miracles.

Against this position, Haarsma assumes that the debate between reason and revelation can be resolved through a synthesis of the two in the idea that there is one truth revealed in "two books"--the Bible and nature.  As a student at Bethel College, Haarsma reports:  "I was excited to discover that a science career didn't mean pushing God out of the picture.  I was introduced to John Calvin's phrase 'All truth is God's truth'; even if some truth in nature is discovered by an atheist, it could still be from God.  By studying science, I would be investigating God's world as well as God's word, both nature and scripture.  Science could be a Christian vocation; I didn't have to be a missionary to serve God, but could serve God with my mind, as well as my heart and soul."

This attempt to reconcile reason and revelation through the two books of one truth fails, however, because Haarsma fails to show how the clearly revealed truth of the Bible (particularly, in the first chapters of Genesis) concerning the divinely created origins of the universe and of human beings is consistent with the natural science of the evolutionary origins of everything.  I have already made this argument in some previous posts about how revelation fails to resolve the creation/evolution debate among evangelical Christians because the Holy Spirit has failed to guide them to agreement about the Biblically revealed teaching concerning origins.

Haarsma first confronted this problem while she was studying astrophysics in graduate school at MIT: "studying astronomy meant that all of my questions about Genesis were back on the table.  I believed, and still believe, that the entire Bible is God's authoritative word for our lives.  I didn't want to just pick and choose which verses to accept, or let science dictate that some verses weren't true."

But as we have already seen, Haarsma really does "let science dictate that some verses weren't true."  When she learned that the Bible's account of God's creating the "firmament" (the King James translation of the Hebrew word raqia) was using the language of ancient 
Egyptian and Babylonian creation myths that were contradicted by modern astronomy, she decided that this Biblical teaching about the "firmament" as a solid heavenly dome needed to be rejected as false.



In Egyptian iconography, the starry sky is represented by the goddess Nut, whose body arched over the land.  This was the boundary between heaven and earth, and it held back the water above.  The concept of heavenly waters was a natural deduction from the experience of precipitation from the sky.

The Bible echoes this image in the Genesis account of the "firmament" in the second day of creation.  "And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.  And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.  And God called the firmament Heaven.  And the evening and the morning were the second day" (Gen. 1:6-8).  This is the same Hebrew word for firmament that appears in Psalms 19:1--"and the firmament shewth his handywork."

But when we look at the Hubble and Webb pictures of deep space, we know that this is not a picture of a solid starry "firmament," because we know that astronomy shows the falsity of the Egyptian image of the sky.

As we have seen, according to Haarsma, in God's revelation in Genesis, "God didn't try to correct their misconceptions about the natural world; it would have distracted them from the larger message."  

But in response to Haarsma on this point, Ken Ham (a young Earth creationist) has complained that this "accuses God of using error to teach truth."   As far as I know, Haarsma has never replied to this criticism.

If God had corrected the errors of ancient Near Eastern cosmology, wouldn't this have confirmed God's revelation as truth that was beyond human understanding prior to modern science?  If there is no correction of ancient cosmology, does this imply that this is not really a revelation of a truth beyond the human beliefs of that time?

Haarsma might respond that we can see this was a true revelation because it corrects ancient theology in teaching a monotheistic religion of a creator God that was new.  But if we're going to read the Bible within its cultural setting, as she does, then we might notice that parts of the Bible seem to accept the polytheistic idea that different peoples have different gods (for example Judges 11:24).  We might then wonder whether Yahweh was originally one of many gods who at some point was elevated to be the one universal and transcendent god of Israel, which is the argument of Thomas Romer in The Invention of God (Harvard, 2015).  So why isn't God a cultural invention?  To deny this, it would help to have a revelation in the Bible of cosmological truths that correct traditional cosmologies in ways that people of the ancient Near East could not have understood, but which might be confirmed by modern science.

This illustrates the impossibility of rationally proving that a claim of supernatural revelation really is a miraculous revelation from God rather than the invention of human imagination.

This also illustrates how Haarsma's attempt to synthesize reason and revelation forces her into heresy in denying some of the fundamental theological tenets of the evangelical Christian Reformed Church (CRC) to which she belongs.  It is common for CRC schools like Bethel University and Calvin University to have a "Statement of Faith" that all the students and faculty must accept, and faculty members can be fired if they disagree with any article of that faith.  A fundamental tenet is that the Bible is "inerrant" or "without any error."  Haarsma denies that when she says that the Bible did not correct the "misconceptions about nature" in the Egyptian understanding of the sky as a "firmament" dividing the waters above from the waters below.

She also assumes that the Biblical account of all humanity originating in Adam and Eve is an error because the evolutionary science of human evolution from ancestral primate species does not recognize the origin of all humans in two individuals.  As I have written in some previous posts, this debate over the historical reality of Adam and Eve has led many evangelical Christians to identify theistic evolution as heresy, and some faculty members at Christian schools (including Calvin University and Bethel College) have been fired for denying the Bible's claim that human history began with Adam and Eve.  When Howard Van Till, a professor of physics at Calvin University, identified himself as a theistic evolutionist, he was charged with heresy; and eventually he was forced to retire from the University in 1999.  His position was filled by Loren Haarsma, Deborah's husband.

What we see here is that rather than achieving a reconciliation of reason and revelation, Haarsma has fallen into an incoherent position in which she vacillates between appealing to revelation to correct the claims of reason and appealing to reason to correct the claims of revelation.  So, for example, as we have seen, she will appeal to modern astronomy to correct what the Bible says about the heavenly "firmament."  But, then, when she writes about the "fine-tuning" of the universe, she will correct those scientists who deny that this is evidence for God by saying that "from the perspective of biblical faith, science merely investigates the physical world that God created and sustains."

This debate over how to understand the First Cause of everything, including the laws of nature, points to the deepest problem for human understanding--the problem of ultimate explanation. All explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained. To the question of why nature has the kind of order that it has, we might answer that we must just accept this as a brute fact of our experience. That's just the way it is!

The response of the biblical creationist is that it is very unlikely that the universe would exist uncaused, and it is more likely that God would exist as the uncaused cause of everything.

In our search for ultimate explanations, we must appeal either to nature or to God as the unexplained ground of all explanation. Thus does the natural desire to understand leads us to this most fundamental of choices--nature or God, reason or revelation. Philosophy cannot refute revelation, and theology cannot refute philosophy, because any attempted refutation would have to beg the question at issue. As Leo Strauss observed: "All alleged refutations of revelation presuppose unbelief in revelation, and all alleged refutations of philosophy presuppose already faith in revelation. There seems to be no ground common to both, and therefore superior to both."

Friday, January 13, 2023

Michael Millerman's Mistaken Promotion of Right-Wing Anti-Liberalism: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Strauss, Dugin, and Putin



                                                                       Michael Millerman


The latest issue (February 2023) of First Things has an article by Michael Millerman--"Alexander Dugin Explained."  I have written previously about Dugin as the right-wing anti-liberal who has been called "Putin's philosopher," because Dugin has developed the philosophic defense of Putin's anti-liberal Eurasian imperialism.  As the English translator of Dugin who has also written two books on Dugin and Dugin's Heideggerian philosophic tradition, Millerman has established himself as Dugin's primary interpreter for the English-speaking world, and thus as the leading conduit for passing Dugin's ideas to far-right neo-fascist thinkers in Western Europe and North America.  The publication of Millerman's article in First Things is significant because First Things is the leading journal of political theology for right-wing illiberal Christians and Jews, which now includes illiberal Russian Orthodox believers like Dugin and Putin.

As you can see if you go to Millerman's website, he presents himself as a passionate philosophic thinker with a fundamental intellectual commitment to the thought of Leo Strauss and Martin Heidegger understood as part of a Counter-Enlightenment tradition of right-wing illiberalism going back to Friedrich Nietzsche.  Millerman wrote about this in his doctoral thesis for his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Toronto.  This got him into trouble.  As noted in an article in Canada's National Post, two of his doctoral advisers (Clifford Orwin and Ronald Beiner) resigned from his dissertation committee because they didn't want to be associated with someone who apparently embraced right-wing extremist ideas.  Since then, he has failed to find an academic teaching position.  Now, he makes his living by selling his online courses on philosophy, which he advertises as "Premium Political Philosophy"!  A revised version of his doctoral thesis has been published as a book--Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political (London: Arktos, 2020).

To illustrate what people find troublesome about Millerman's writing, consider the last paragraph of his First Things article:

"Dugin has said of Putin, 'I believe both he and I are reading the same writings, written in golden letters on the skies of Russian history.'  Words such as these remind us of other philosophers who wedded themselves to tyrants.  Heidegger's support for Hitler offers an unsettling example.  As was the case with Heidegger, Dugin's ill-starred political alliance causes many to dismiss him, writing him off as the source of intellectual legitimation for a fascist, keptocratic thug who wishes to recreate the Russian empire.  Duginism is indeed compatible with Putinism, but we need to see that it is not reducible to it.  It is more accurate to say that Dugin is the chief philosophical mastermind of an ideologically coherent alternative to Western political modernity.  And like it or not, that is a remarkable accomplishment, from which even those who wish to defend political modernity in the West can learn a great deal."

The problem here is that any philosophical position that is "compatible" with evil must be morally and intellectually mistaken.  As I have said in some previous posts, the Nietzschean and Straussian philosophizing in favor of right-wing illiberalism suffers from at least three mistakes in the reading of some political philosophers:  a mistaken reading of John Locke, a mistaken reading of Adam Smith, and a mistaken reading of Friedrich Nietzsche.  I have also written about this in my chapters on Locke, Smith, Nietzsche, and Strauss in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker (4th edition, 2016).

It is a mistake to assume (as many Straussians have) that Locke promotes a hedonistic relativism that denies the moral and intellectual virtues.  In fact, Locke's liberalism secures the conditions for social virtue and the intellectual excellence of the philosophic life.

It is also a mistake to assume (as Joseph Cropsey and other Straussians have) that in Smith's commercial society, commerce takes the place of virtue.  In fact, Smith's commercial society promotes both the bourgeois virtues and the intellectual virtues of the philosophic life.

And, finally, it is also a mistake to assume (as most Straussians do) that Nietzsche's best philosophic work is in his early and late writings.  In fact, Nietzsche's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism in his middle writings (particularly, Human, All Too Human) is superior to his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism in his early and late writings.

Millerman has written: "we have to face the abyss Strauss warned us about:  there just is no sure philosophical foundation for liberal-democracy these days."  

Notice that Millerman simply assumes that Strauss and the Straussians must be right about this.  As far as I can see, Millerman never proves that this is true.  He never considers the possibility that a secure philosophical foundation for liberal democracy can be found in the texts of Locke, Smith, and Nietzsche.

Moreover, like other recent advocates of right-wing anti-liberalism (like Patrick Deneen), Millerman does not consider the empirical evidence that modern liberalism really does promote human flourishing.  Nor does Millerman present any empirical evidence that people who live under illiberal tyrants like Putin live lives with more liberty and virtue than those who live in liberal regimes.

By refusing to examine and assess the theoretical reasoning and empirical evidence supporting liberalism, Millerman shows that he is not an inquisitive philosopher but a committed ideologist of illiberalism. 

If I am wrong about this, Millerman can correct me.

By the way, if I had been a professor at Toronto while Millerman was writing his dissertation, I would have happily served on his committee (unlike Orwin and Beiner).  But I would have insisted that he answer my criticisms with some rigorous arguments showing how there can be no theoretical or empirical defense of liberalism, and showing how right-wing illiberalism is clearly superior theoretically and empirically.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Astrobiology of Lockean Liberty on Mars

                               
                             
                               Elon Musk, "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species," 2016




                                            Elon Musk, "Starship Update," February 10, 2022


December 14th was the 50th anniversary of the last time that NASA astronauts walked on the Moon in 1972.  This is surprising--that over the past 50 years, there has been no manned exploration of the Moon.  Equally surprising is that no human being has ever walked on Mars or any other planet beyond the Earth.  And yet both NASA and the European Space Agency say that their ultimate goal is to land humans on Mars and then establish human settlements.  But for now, there is no well-funded program to do that.  So far, only robotic landers and rovers have been on Mars.  

Elon Musk has predicted that his SpaceX program will fly human beings to Mars within ten years.  Ultimately, Musk wants to have a colony on Mars with a population of one million people.

If we assume that human colonies on the Moon and Mars and perhaps even other moons and planets are inevitable, then we have to wonder what kind of social and political orders are likely to arise in those extraterrestrial human communities.  Will they incline towards tyranny or liberty?  Could they secure the sort of liberty promoted by classical liberals like John Locke?  Or is Lockean liberty an evolutionary adaptation to the Earth's biosphere, and thus so bound to the Earth that it cannot be achieved beyond the Earth?  Is liberty found on the Earth but nowhere else in the universe?  Or does our technology of artificial life support allow human beings to travel beyond the Earth and establish permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars where they can live in free societies?  Or does our technology of bioengineering and artificial intelligence allow us to engineer new forms of intelligent beings who are adapted for living in free societies beyond the Earth?  Is it possible that of the billions of planets beyond the Solar System, there are some with biospheres similar to the Earth's where intelligent life has evolved to live in free societies?  Or if the Earth really is unique in the universe as the only place where intelligent life and liberty have arisen, is that the miraculous product of God's creation that can be known to us only by divine revelation?  Or can we explain this as the natural product of evolutionary causes that can be known to us by natural reason?

To help us think about these questions, we can turn to astrobiology--the multidisciplinary science that studies the origins, development, distribution, and future of life in the cosmos.  As the word itself suggests, astrobiology combines astronomy and biology.  But it is actually broader than that because to understand the place of life in the cosmos, astrobiology must combine astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, the humanities, planetary sciences, philosophy, physics, and the social sciences.  Although astrobiology is commonly identified as the search for life beyond Earth, astrobiology in its wide sense is the study of life in its cosmic context in general, including the history of life on Earth.

One of the most helpful astrobiologists for pondering the questions I have raised is Charles Cockell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who is the author or editor of a series of books on astrobiology and on the possibility of "extraterrestrial liberty."

Cockell identifies himself as a classical liberal in the tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Hayek.  He worries that the extreme conditions in the universe beyond the Earth's biosphere--especially, the lack of oxygen in a breathable atmosphere--will tend to promote tyranny, because those who control the technology for supplying oxygen and the other basic commodities necessary for life (such as water and food) will have tyrannical power over those dependent on this technology of life support.  To counter this tendency to extraterrestrial tyranny, he lays out proposals for how the liberal institutions for promoting liberty on Earth could be applied to the design of human settlements in space, particularly on Mars, the one planet most like the Earth.  As is characteristic of classical liberalism, he looks for ways to limit, divide, and decentralize power to protect liberty and avoid tyranny.

I find most of his reasoning persuasive, but I do see at least six problems.  

The first problem is that Cockell assumes the truth of classical liberalism without justifying this moral commitment.  He does not consider the possibility that a Darwinian evolutionary psychology could support Lockean liberalism by identifying Locke's state of nature as corresponding to the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) in which human nature was shaped on Earth during the Pleistocene Epoch, and in which human beings enforced a law of nature that secured their natural rights.  Cockell does not see how all of his reasoning assumes a universal human nature as originally shaped in the state of nature or EEA of Earth.  If liberal institutions developed on Earth can succeed on Mars, it's only because the human settlers on Mars have the same evolved human nature as human beings on Earth.

The second problem is that Cockell mistakenly assumes that Locke's state of nature was a purely imaginary condition in which human beings live as utterly solitary individuals, and so he does not see how Locke could see his social state of nature empirically confirmed by the life of hunter-gatherer bands in America.

The third problem is that while Cockell often seems to share Musk's enthusiasm for people travelling to Mars as tourists and then establishing permanent settlements there, Cockell also suggests that Mars would be such awful place to live that most human beings would not want to live there, and that the Earth will seem like a paradise compared with Mars or other locations in space.  Does this indicate that human beings are so bound to the Earth by being naturally evolved for the Earth's biosphere that they will never be happy to live beyond the Earth?  Cockell does indicate, however, that Mars would be a wonderful place for scientists to study the early history of the planets, although even scientists would probably only want to stay there for short periods.  Does this mean that human travel through space is likely to be restricted mostly to scientific explorers?  And if so, will these scientific communities of space explorers be free and open societies that avoid tyranny?

The fourth problem is that it's not clear whether human beings can travel in extraterrestrial space for prolonged periods without suffering disabling and deadly damage to their bodies and brains.  Scott and Mark Kelly are retired astronauts, and they are also identical twins.  Mark Kelly is now the junior Senator from Arizona.  Scott was selected for a year-long mission to the International Space Station, which lasted for a full year (from March of 2015 to March of 2016), which set the record for length of time in space for any human being.  Since Scott and Mark are identical twins, this was a good experiment in which NASA scientists could study the physiological effects of Scott's year in space as compared with Mark's year on Earth.  The effects on Scott were disturbing.  He lost bone mass, his muscles atrophied, his blood circulation was disrupted in ways that shrank the walls of his heart, he suffered problems with his vision, and he was exposed to more than thirty times the radiation of a person on Earth, which caused genetic mutations.

Cockell indicates that there are at least three ways to solve this problem.  We could bioengineer human beings to be better adapted for living in space.  Or we could overcome the physiological limitations of the human body by replacing some biological organs and limbs with mechanical or electronic parts to create cyborgs that could live well in space.  Or we could create superhuman entities with artificial intelligence designed for life in space.  But then we might wonder whether this is possible.  And if it is possible, could this engineering include engineering these beings for liberty?  Or would these bioengineered, cybernetic, or transhuman entities be inclined to tyranny?

The fifth problem is that in considering how the education of citizens could promote extraterrestrial liberty, Cockell casually dismisses religious education as unimportant, because he assumes that scientific reasoning easily proves that gods do not exist.  In doing this, he passes over the mystery of First Cause and the mystery of how the cosmic laws of nature seem fine-tuned for the emergence of intelligent life.  He thus takes the side of natural reason against supernatural revelation without considering the possibility that in the reason/revelation debate, neither side can demonstrably refute the other.

The sixth problem suggested by Cockell is whether an astrobiological understanding of human life in the cosmos can give meaning to that life.  If human life is not the fulfillment of a cosmic purpose set by some divine or transcendent cause of the cosmos, does human life therefore have no meaning, and would that lack of meaning create a nihilistic despair that would prevent human beings from living a free and fulfilling life in the cosmos?  Or can human beings find their purpose inherent in human life itself--in pursuing their natural human desires--even though human life is only a momentary emergence in the history of a cosmos that has no eternal purpose?

I will be writing a series of posts on these questions about the possibility of extraterrestrial liberty.


REFERENCES

Cockell, Charles S.  2013.  Extraterrestrial Liberty: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Tyrannical Government beyond the Earth. Edinburg, UK: Shoving Leopard.

_______, ed.  2015.  The Meaning of Liberty Beyond Earth. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

_______.  2020.  Astrobiology: Understanding Life in the Universe. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

_______.  2022a.  Taxi From Another Planet: Conversations with Drivers about Life in the Universe.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

_______.  2022b.  Interplanetary Liberty: Building Free Societies in the Cosmos.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

_______, ed.  2023.  The Institutions of Extraterrestrial Liberty.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Justin Amash for Speaker of the House, To Make Congress a Deliberative Body

 

                                            Justin Amash on What Is Wrong with Congress



Now that the U.S. House of Representatives is in its second day of endless votes that fail to elect a Speaker, it is time to think about an alternative candidate for Speaker.  Yesterday, Justin Amash wrote a long Twitter thread laying out his reasoning for why he would be a good choice for Speaker.  The video above is a good discussion with Amash about why he thinks Congress has become an oligarchic institution rather than a body for democratic representation and deliberation.

Amash was the Representative for Michigan's Third Congressional District for ten years (2011-2021).  During the last five years of that time, I was one of his constituents in that district.  Through most of that time, he was a member of the Republican Party.  But in 2019, he left the Republican Party, declared his independence from the two-party system, and identified himself as a member of the Libertarian Party.

Since Amash is no longer a member of Congress, it might seem strange that he could be considered as a possible Speaker of the House.  But the Constitution does not specify that the Speaker must be a sitting member of the House.  So although it has never been done, the House could select someone from outside the elected body of the House to be Speaker.

Amash offers two good reasons for why he would be the best choice for Speaker.  The first is that because he is no longer a member of one of the two major parties, he could transcend the unreasonable partisan polarization that afflicts the Congress today.  He could be elected Speaker with votes from both Republicans and Democrats.

The second good reason why he would be a good Speaker is that he would institute the reforms in the congressional process necessary for restoring the House of Representatives as a truly deliberative body.  Amash was one of the co-founders of the Freedom Caucus, which is the group leading the challenge to Kevin McCarthy.  One of the primary goals of the Freedom Caucus was to allow the House to become a deliberative body in which every member would contribute to the debate over lawmaking.  In recent years, this has not happened because the House has been controlled by the Speaker and a few others in the House Leadership, who control the writing of legislation, and who prohibit the other members of the House from participating.

Amash has a number of proposals.  Members should be able to propose amendments to proposed legislation on the floor of the House.  Members should be free to work in their committees to deliberate about proposed legislation. Proposed legislation should be presented as single-issue bills rather than as complex bills that range over diverse subjects unrelated to one another.  All bills should be available to all members to read at least 72 hours before the scheduled floor vote.  Amazingly, members have often been forced to vote on bills that are thousands of pages long without enough time to read them.  So that members are literally voting on legislation that they have not even read.

Most of these proposals for making the congressional process more deliberative have in fact been set forth by the Freedom Caucus as part of the negotiations over the selection of the Speaker.  McCarthy has agreed to some of these proposals in his effort to round up enough votes to be elected Speaker.  But as Amash indicates, McCarthy has a history of lying and not keeping his promises.  That explains why 20 or more Republicans have refused to vote for him, because they do not trust him to do what he has promised to do.

Amash has a reputation for being trustworthy.  And since he has pushed for these reforms for years, he can certainly be trusted to put them into practice.

There is, however, one fatal mistake in Amash's scenario for becoming Speaker of the House.  He is good friends with Andy Biggs of Arizona, one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus.  Amash intimates that Biggs might be his big supporter.  But Biggs is a 2020 election denier, who claims that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election by a landslide.  Amash is a severe critic of Trump and Trump's lies.  That is probably enough to rule out Amash as a candidate for Speaker of the House.

I have written previously about Amash and his dedication to restoring the House as a deliberative body here and here.

Sunday, January 01, 2023

On the Question of Religion and Ethics, Adam Smith Was the Last Esoteric Writer

Daniel Klein has written an essay on "Adam and God" published at the website for the American Institute for Economic Research.  He notes that the scholarly interpreters of Adam Smith have disagreed about whether God, or a being like God, is crucial for Smith's ethics.  He argues that "yes, a God-like being plays a central role in Smith's ethics."  In making that argument, he believes that he is in agreement with a long list of Smith scholars, and I am on that list.

Whether I agree with Klein depends on resolving the ambiguity in his claim that "a God-like being plays a central role in Smith's ethics."  This is ambiguous in two ways.  First, does the "God-like being" exist independently of the human mind, or does it exist only as an anthropomorphic projection of the human mind?  Second, must this religious belief "play a central role" in the ethics of all human beings, or is this religious belief necessary for the ethics of some human beings, but not all?

If Klein means to say that God as an anthropomorphic projection of the human mind plays a central role for some but not all human beings in Smith's ethics, then I agree.  If some Smith scholars do not see this as Smith's teaching, it's because they fail to recognize that Smith was the last esoteric writer, and so they fail to distinguish Smith's surface teaching from his secret teaching.

Like David Hume in his Natural History of Religion, Smith explains religious belief as a natural psychological propensity for anthropomorphic projection of human mental experience onto the universe, so that human beings imagine that there are invisible spirits with minds like their own (see, for example, TMS, 163-64).  And since human beings have moral sentiments and passions, they imagine that these divine beings have the same moral sentiments and passions.  In this way, religion sanctions morality as divine law, and thus provides supernatural support for a natural sense of moral duty.  A philosopher like Smith might then conclude that moral rules are "justly regarded" as divine laws.  Even if he thinks this is only a noble lie, he thinks that it is good for us if most of us believe it to be true.

Klein rightly points to a passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (p. 215) where Smith speaks of the "man within the breast" as the "representative of the impartial spectator," and the impartial spectator is understood to be a single universal being, which, according to Klein but be a superhuman or God-like being.

But the thought in this passage is elaborated in another passage, where Smith says that human beings must consult "this inmate of the breast, this abstract man, the representative of mankind, and substitute of the Deity, whom nature has constituted the supreme judge of all their actions" (130).  Notice here the equivalence between "the representative of mankind" and the "substitute of the Deity," and the suggestion that it is natural for human beings to imagine the Deity as the anthropomorphic projection of mankind.

In some previous posts, I have shown how Darwin and modern evolutionary psychologists have confirmed this insight of Smith and Hume that believing in God is a natural, almost inevitable, consequence of the innate propensities of the human mind as shaped by natural selection in evolutionary history. 

Smith is also like his friend Hume in thinking that some human beings can be good without God--they can recognize moral law as enforced by natural human sanctions without having to believe this is a divine law enforced by supernatural divine sanctions.  This supports Smith's liberal moral anthropology that does not depend on a transcendent moral theology.

The best evidence for this is in Smith's letter on the life and death of Hume--the Letter to William Strahan of November 9, 1776--in which he publicly and explicitly endorsed Hume's skepticism by praising him as a wise and virtuous man, indicating that religious belief was not indispensable for morality, and suggesting that he no longer saw the necessity for esoteric writing, because he lived in a society that was liberal enough to tolerate freedom of thought and speech for philosophers like Hume and himself.  He thus became the last esoteric writer and signaled the success of the liberal Enlightenment in making esoteric writing unnecessary and undesirable. 

Prior to this letter in 1776, Smith was an esoteric writer.  But after this letter, he became more open in his writings, saying things publicly that shocked religious believers, but without suffering violent persecution.

All of these points have been elaborated in previous posts.

Looking at the Evolutionary History of the Cosmos Through the James Webb Space Telescope: What Will This Tell Us About the Meaning of Our History in the Cosmos?

The Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope into Space

First Images from the James Webb Space Telescope 

 
         At the Center of this Hourglass Structure, A Star Is Being Born in Nebula L1527

                                  A Three Quarter View of the James Webb Space Telescope


                           The Bottom of the Telescope, the Side Facing the Sun and the Earth



Ever since the emergence of human self-conscious awareness, human beings have wondered about how the world came to be, how humans came to be, and how the human place in the world illuminates the meaning of human life.  To answer their questions, human beings have told themselves myths about cosmic history, and generally these myths have appealed to religious beliefs about the powers of supernatural beings. 

Now, modern natural science is attempting to explain the evolutionary history of the cosmos from the Big Bang (about 13.8 billion years ago) to the present and into the future through natural laws that do not depend on supernatural beings.  We must wonder whether that can be done--whether this modern scientific story can fully explain cosmic history, and whether that story can replace those religious myths in a way that explains the meaning of human life.  Or must that scientific story always be limited by the unknown and unknowable depths of the cosmos?  And if so, will those limits to scientific knowledge show the need for religious myths (true myths?) to fully explain the cosmos and the meaning of human life within the cosmos?  Or is it reasonable to choose scientific reason over religious revelation even as we recognize the inevitable limits of natural reason in explaining everything?

The James Webb Space Telescope will help us to think about those questions. 


LOOKING THROUGH A TELESCOPE TO SEE THE HISTORY AND MEANING OF THE COSMOS

For thousands of years, in the Western World, astronomy was understood through a religious conception of the universe as a divinely created order that constituted a moral cosmology supporting a divine law to guide human life.  It was a geocentric cosmos.  The Earth was at the center.   Circling around the Earth were the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Beyond that were the fixed stars, and then finally the crystalline sphere of the Primum Mobile and the Paradise of Heaven.  Beneath the Earth were Purgatory and Hell.  

Even Plato and Aristotle endorsed pagan versions of this religious astronomy.  But Aristotle noted that this cosmic model was based mostly on traditional myths that could be known by faith or trust (pistis) but not by scientific study, because the planets and stars were so far away from the Earth that they could not be known very well by sense experience.  Aristotle thought that biology was a more empirically grounded science than astronomy because plants and animals could be directly observed by human beings.

This changed with the invention of the telescope in 1608.  The word telescope was coined from two Greek words for "far-seeing."  In 1609, Galileo built his own telescope and turned it toward the night sky.  He could see the mountains and craters of the Moon, the planets, and a ribbon of light stretched across the sky that would later be identified as the Milky Way galaxy.  He could also see that Copernicus was right about the heliocentric Solar system, with the Earth revolving around the Sun.  The telescope had extended the range and clarity of the human visual system deep into the night sky.

In 1633, the Catholic Inquisition condemned Galileo as a heretic for endorsing the Copernican heliocentric theory of the Earth as moving around the Sun, because this seemed to deny those Biblical passages that spoke of the fixity of the Earth. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest, and his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was put on the Church's Index of Prohibited Books.

By the middle of the twentieth century, Pope Pius XII praised Galileo as an intellectual hero and declared in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis that there was no necessary conflict between Biblical faith and the theory of evolution. Pope John Paul II apologized for the condemnation of Galileo, and in 1996 he declared that the Church did not oppose Darwin's theory. A few years ago, I wrote a short essay on John Paul's statement.

After Galileo first turned his telescope to the sky, for the next three and a half centuries, telescopes became larger and more complex in ways that improved the depth and accuracy of astronomical observations.  But all of these telescopes were limited by their location on the Earth because of the distorting effects of the Earth's atmosphere.  By the middle of the 20th century, astronomers began to think about the possibility of sending telescopes into space beyond the atmosphere of the Earth.  This dream was fulfilled in 1990 when five astronauts onboard the space shuttle Discovery released the Hubble Space Telescope into an orbit around the Earth about 340 miles above the surface.  

Hubble did indeed produce stunning images of the cosmos that allowed for the study of cosmic history over billions of years.  But in the 1990s scientists began to think about new space telescopes that could detect objects up to 100 times fainter than Hubble can, and objects much earlier in the history of the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope was designed to employ infrared astronomy to detect high-redshift objects that are very early in the history of the universe and very distant.  Infrared light also passes more easily through dust clouds than visible light.  As light travels through space, it is stretched by the expansion of the universe.  Consequently, many of the most distant objects shine in infrared light, which is longer in wavelength than visible light.  Unaided by optical instruments, the human visual system can see only a narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  The Hubble telescope captures a slightly broader portion of the spectrum, including the near ultraviolet and the near infrared.  The James Webb telescope captures a much broader spectrum, including the near and midinfrared spectrum.

The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day one year ago.  It was placed in a halo orbit, circling around a point in space known as the Sun-Earth Lagrange point, approximately 930,000 miles beyond the Earth's orbit around the Sun.  The combined gravitational pull of the Earth and the Sun allow the James Webb spacecraft to orbit the Sun in the same time that it takes the Earth.

James Webb has four key goals: to search for light from the first stars and galaxies that formed in the universe after the Big Bang, to study galaxy formation and evolution, to study star formation and planet formation, and to study planetary systems and the origins of life.

One example of the stunning images produced by James Webb is the image of the star Earendel.


                                                           James Webb Views Earendel

Earendel is the most distant individual star ever seen.  It was first detected by the Hubble Telescope early in 2022, but then a better image of it was captured by the James Webb Telescope.  Its light took 12.9 billion years to reach the Earth.  This means that this is what this star looked like shortly after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, only 900 million years from the Big Bang.

The many ways in which the James Webb Telescope might contribute to our understanding of the cosmos is surveyed in a recent article in the New York Times and in a series of articles in the latest issue of Scientific American (December, 2022). The broadest coverage of the work with James Webb can be found at the NASA website.

This coverage of the James Webb research fails, however, to probe the deep philosophic and theological questions that should arise from this research--questions about the limits of natural scientific knowledge, the mystery of First Cause, the mystery of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, and the cosmic teleology of human purposefulness.


THE LIMITS OF NATURAL SCIENCE

The fundamental assumption of modern natural science is that to understand nature we must engage in both thinking and looking.  In thinking about nature, we speculate about what nature might be like, and we formulate theories or hypotheses about the order of nature.  But thinking is not enough.  We must also look at nature:  we must engage in observations or experiments that will test our theories or hypotheses and either verify or falsify them.  Many scientists agree with Karl Popper that conjectures about nature that cannot be falsified by empirical observations or experiments do not count as scientific knowledge.

But as I have noted previously, some critics of this Popperian philosophy of science have argued that it ignores the fact that the human experience of the world cannot extend into the fundamental depths of nature, and therefore we can only speculate about that deepest reality of nature, without being able to empirically test our speculations.  The fundamental constituents of nature are either too small, too far away, or too far in the past to be observed directly by us or indirectly through our instruments, and thus nature's secrets are buried so deep or so far away that we have no way to test our theoretical speculations about them.

So, for example, while the James Webb Telescope can expand our vision ever deeper into the cosmos, there will always be a cosmic horizon beyond which we cannot look.  And although we might push that cosmic horizon ever closer to the Big Bang, we will never be able to look beyond the Big Bang to see what there was before the beginning of time.  Consequently, we might speculate that we are living in only one of many (infinite?) possible universes, but we can never test that multiverse speculation because we cannot in principle ever look beyond our universe.


THE MYSTERY OF FIRST CAUSE

The limits of natural science are manifested in those fundamental mysteries of nature that might never be resolved--such as the mystery of First Cause as conveyed by the question, Why is there something rather than nothing?  I have written about this previously.

I have written about the debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll over this question.  Craig presents a syllogism for the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God as supported by modern natural science.

1. If the universe began to exist, then there is a transcendent cause which brought the universe into existence.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, there is a transcendent cause which brought the universe into existence.

Craig claims that (1) is "obviously true," because no one believes that things just "pop into existence" without a cause, and if the whole universe came into existence at some point in time, the cause must have been transcendent--namely, a divine First Cause.

The controversial premise, he says, is (2).  Previously, traditional proponents of the Cosmological Argument have made logical arguments for why the universe could not be eternal and so must have an absolute beginning in time.  But now, beginning in the 20th century, we have scientific empirical evidence from astrophysical cosmology supporting the theory of the Big Bang--most importantly, evidence for the expansion of the universe and evidence from the second law of thermodynamics that the universe has moved from an original state of low entropy to high entropy.

Craig says that the scientific support for premise (2) coming from Big Bang cosmology is "religiously neutral," but when the empirical truth of premise (2) is combined with the metaphysical truth of premise (1), the logical conclusion supports the existence of a transcendent cause of the universe that must be God.

There are, however, good reasons to doubt those two premises as scientific statements rather than affirmations of religious faith.

Premise (1) is not "obviously true," because while we all have experience of how natural causes work within the universe to bring things into existence, we do not have experience with how transcendent causes work outside the universe to bring the universe itself into existence. 

Carroll makes this argument, and Craig refuses to answer it.  Craig just repeats how silly it sounds to say that things "just pop into existence" without a cause.  But as Carroll observes, the language of "popping" implies a context within which cause and effect relationships make sense.  So we can sensibly ask why the chicken crossed the road, because we have a contextual understanding of what roads are, what might be on the other side of a road, what might motivate chickens to cross a road, etc.  We have a context here of things interacting within a universe governed by natural laws.

But if we try to ask why the universe exists, we have no context outside the universe that would make it possible for us to seek a causal explanation.  Indeed, to even talk about transcendent causes implies that our natural experience of causality inside the universe has no application here.  Thus, Craig is employing the sophistical technique of equivocation: if it's silly within our natural experience of the universe to say that things can just "pop into existence," then it is also silly standing outside our natural universe to say that our universe could have come into existence without a cause.  This is a fallacious inference, because our ordinary experience of causality within the context of the universe does not necessarily apply outside that context.


THE MYSTERY OF FINE-TUNING FOR HUMAN LIFE

Part of the mission of the James Webb Space Telescope is to locate and study the exoplanets (the planets beyond the Solar System) that have the conditions favorable to life, or even to intelligent life.  Although intelligent life might be rare in the universe, and although it might even turn out to be uniquely found only on the Earth, it is remarkable that some of the physical and chemical constants of the universe appear to be finely tuned for the emergence of life and intelligent life.

Some astrophysicists, such as Owen Gingerich, believe that this evidence of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle becomes comprehensible only if one believes that this fine-tuning is the purposeful work of a Creator.  There are many parameters of physics and cosmology that are set at precise values, such that if there were even a slight deviation from these values, the universe would not be hospitable to any form of life or to intelligent life.  There can be as many as 34 of these finely tuned parameters.  For example, if the expansion rate of the universe had been slightly larger, no stars and planets could have formed; and if it had been slightly smaller, the universe would have collapsed before any stars and planets could have been formed.  The nuclear energy level ratio of carbon to oxygen is set precisely, so that if it had been larger, the universe would contain insufficient oxygen for life, and if it had been smaller, the universe would contain insufficient carbon for life.  If the earth were closer to the Sun, it would be too hot to sustain life.  If it were farther away from the Sun, it would be too cold to sustain life.  Just as Goldilocks found the bowl of porridge that was neither too hot or too cold but just right, it seems that the universe is just right for the emergence of intelligent life. 

Gingerich sees only two possible ways to explain why the universe is so precisely fine-tuned for the evolution of intelligent life on Earth.  We either say that this all happened through an astonishing sequence of accidents.  Or we say that it was intentionally planned by the Creator.  Gingerich thinks the latter is much more plausible, because it is easier to believe that the Creator intentionally set the finely-tuned parameters of the universe to make it inevitable that not just life, but intelligent human life would emerge on a planet just like the Earth.  He endorses the statement of Paul Davies "that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity, or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind.  To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way" (God's Universe, 38).  It's as though nature has been designed so as to be hospitable to minds that can contemplate nature.

It is easier to believe that the universe's being finely tuned for intelligent life is purely accidental if one believes in the multiverse theory accepted by some scientists today.  If our universe is only one of many universes, and if each of those universes has a different set of natural laws and natural physical and cosmological parameters, then we might imagine that through a random evolution of universes, at least one universe could have arisen like ours hospitable to intelligent life.  The problem with this, however, as Gingerich and other scientists have observed, is that this is a purely imaginary conception, for which we have no observational evidence, because we have no way of stepping outside our own universe.  For this reason, many scientists think the theory of multiverse is not a scientific theory at all, because it is not empirically testable.

Even if from the standpoint of the present moment, we as intelligent beings can look back on 13.8 billion years of cosmic history and see ourselves as the purposeful peak of that fine-tuned evolutionary history, which is what Gingerich does, we might wonder about the remote future of the cosmos.  Is the cosmos so fine-tuned for life and intelligent life that such life will continue forever?  Gingerich never asks that question or considers what scientific cosmology would suggest about the distant future of the cosmos.

Although Gingerich quotes from Paul Davies as saying that the universe seems rigged to favor the emergence of not just life but intelligent life, he does not quote Davies' remarks about what the universe will look like in the very remote future.  He imagines "an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart.  As far as we know, no further basic physical processes would ever happen.  No significant event would occur to interrupt the bleak sterility of a universe that has run its course yet still faces eternal life--perhaps eternal death would be a better description."

If we look at the entire history of the cosmos, we see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life; and then after a few billion years of life, the universe became eternally dead again.  So now life, including intelligent life, seems to be only a momentary event in cosmic history.  Now, it seems that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death.


A NATURAL TELEOLOGY OF HUMAN MEANING?

Gingerich looks to the fine-tuning of the universe as evidence for a cosmic teleology--for a cosmos that has been created purposefully to bring about the emergence of human beings, which thus gives cosmic meaning to the place of human beings in the universe.

But rather than looking for some cosmic teleology of the universe, we should be satisfied if we can see the immanent teleology of living species, including the human species.  Cosmic teleology is the conception of all of nature as a whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or creator.  By contrast, immanent teleology is manifest in the internal purposiveness of organisms in their generation, their structure, and their activities.  Darwinian biology rejects any cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole would be seen as ordered to some end or purpose.  Evolution by variation and natural selection explains the purposiveness of species without reference to any forces guiding nature to secure some cosmic scale of perfection.  And yet, although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care of the young--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such processes unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in each species. 

Human beings show such immanent teleology in that the evolved human nature of Homo sapiens includes natural desires and inclinations that are directed to goals or ends, and we can judge the happiness of a human life by how well those goals or ends are satisfied.  I have argued that there are at least 20 natural human desires, and that we judge societies as better or worse depending on how well or how poorly those societies provide the conditions for the harmonious satisfaction of those desires.  This is not a cosmic standard of the good, because this standard of the good is relative to the human species.  Nor is this an eternal standard of the good, because the human good exists only as long as the human species exists.  And modern scientific cosmology teaches us that human beings will exist for only a brief moment in cosmic history.  But for as long as that human species exists, even if it seems fleeting in the huge expanse of cosmic history, the human good is a natural reality.

The evidence of cosmological fine-tuning does not clearly show a fine-tuning for human life.  If we look at the entire history of the cosmos, we see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life, during the first 13 billion years, there was no human-like intelligent life, and in the remote future, as the Sun and the other stars burn out, the universe will become dark, cold, and dead.  We could conclude that the universe has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death, and so from the point of view of the universe, we are utterly insignificant.

But it does not follow from this, however, that if the universe does not care about or for us, our lives have no meaning.  Even if our lives have no cosmic meaning, they still have human meaning for us.  The universe doesn't care.  But we care about ourselves and others.

And even if the universe does not care about or for us, we still want to probe as far as we can into the awesome depths of that universe, and the James Webb Space Telescope will help us to do that.