Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Natural Theology, Theodicy, and The Name of the Rose

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

SOURCE: Original essay

COMMENTARY: That's up to you...
"Before, we used to look to heaven, deigning only a frowning glance at the mire of matter; now we look at the earth, and we believe in the heavens because of earthly testimony."
- Jorgé of Burgos, The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (William Weaver, translator)

It's a new year and a new administration (in more ways than one), and over at Uncommon Descent (the former weblog of mathematician and theologian William Dembski), social epistemologist and "intelligent design" apologist Steve Fuller has begun a series of posts on the subject of theodicy.

I read his first post on the subject with some interest, as I have just finished re-reading (for the fifth time) Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose. When I was a kid, it was inconceivable to me that a person could re-read a book. That was like seeing a movie over again; it just never happened. But now I often re-read books, and any movie or television show can be viewed as many times as one can possibly stand it.

One of the reasons I re-read books is that I've found that I often discover new things in the book on re-reading. What I had never noticed before about The Name of the Rose is that one of its main themes is the relationship between empirical evidence (that is, evidence that we can observe, either directly or indirectly) and faith, as exemplified by the epigram for this blogpost.

What Jorgé of Burgos (a thinly veiled portrait of Jorgé Luis Borges) is speaking about is the relationship between empirical evidence and faith. He laments that in past times one's belief was entirely justified by faith, but now (in the 14th century) one's belief was grounded in empirical observation; that is, evidence derived from the observation of "base matter". Jorgé's theology, which could be called revealed theology, was based on scripture and religious experiences of various kinds (especially as portrayed in the Holy Bible and the biographies of the Christian saints).

The "new" way of thinking that Jorgé laments is natural theology, a branch of theology based on reason and ordinary experience, according to which the existence and intentions of God are investigated rationally, based on evidence from the observable physical world. Natural theology has a long history, reaching back to the Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum of Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC). However, for almost two millennia natural theology was a minority tradition in Christian theology.

The replacement of revelation theology by natural theology represents a fundamental shift in the the theological basis of belief in the existence of God, which began in the 1st century BCE, but which reached the tipping point in the early 19th century. In 1802 the Reverend William Paley published Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. Charles Darwin himself praised Paley's work, and it had a profound effect on the direction of Christian theology, especially in England and America.

Paley's argument in Natural Theology is that one can logically infer the existence and attributes of God by the empirical study of the natural world (hence the name "natural" theology). Paley's famous argument of the "watch on the heath" was based on the idea that complex entities (such as a pocketwatch) cannot come about by accident, the way simple "natural" objects such as boulders do. Rather, Paley observes that a pocketwatch clearly has a purpose (i.e. to indicate the time) and is composed of a set of designed, complex, interactive parts (the gears, springs, hands, face, case, and crystal of the watch) which we know for a fact are designed. He then argues by means of analogy that living organisms are even more clearly purposeful entities that must have a designer.

I have already pointed out the weaknesses of arguments of analogy. I have also criticized Steve Fuller's arguments vis-a-vis "intelligent design theory" (see here as well).

What I want to do in this blogpost is to analyze Fuller's first blogpost at Uncommon Descent on "ID and the Science of God". Fuller begins with a recapitulation of the definition of "intelligent design" contained in the mission statement of Uncommon Descent:
ID is the the science of design detection — how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose [emphasis added]

Fuller takes this definition quite seriously, arguing that the "intelligence" that does the designing in ID exists "outside of matter" (i.e. outside of the natural, physical universe). He then points out that this "intelligence" is "...a deity who exists in at least a semi-transcendent state. But then he poses the crucial question: "[H]ow can you get any scientific mileage from that?"

I would extend Fuller's question by turning it around: How can one get any theological mileage out of the idea that the existence and attributes of the deity can be inferred from observations of the natural, physical universe? This is precisely the program of natural theology, and it is the reason that I believe that natural theology is both intellectually bankrupt and ultimately destructive of belief in God. And, I am apparently not alone in this second belief; several of the comments on Fuller's post express essentially the same misgivings.

The problem here is the problem of theodicy. Fuller asserts that theodicy was originally a much broader topic than it is today. According to him,
Theodicy exists today as a boutique topic in philosophy and theology, where it’s limited to asking how God could allow so much evil and suffering in the world.

However, according to Fuller, theodicy once encompassed
"...issues that are nowadays more naturally taken up by economics, engineering and systems science – and the areas of biology influenced by them: How does the deity optimise, given what it’s trying to achieve (i.e. ideas) and what it’s got to work with (i.e. matter)? This broader version moves into ID territory, a point that has not escaped the notice of theologians who nowadays talk about theodicy. [emphasis in original]

Setting aside Fuller's historical analysis of the meaning(s) of theodicy (which I believe is both incorrect and the reverse of the actual historical evolution of the idea), I believe that Fuller gives Christians who still believe in the primacy of revelation over reason good reason to be concerned about the theological implications of ID:
"[Some theists are] uneasy about concepts like ‘irreducible complexity’ for being a little too clear about how God operates in nature. The problem with such clarity, of course, is that the more we think we know the divine modus operandi, the more God’s allowance of suffering and evil looks deliberate, which seems to put divine action at odds with our moral scruples. One way out – which was the way taken by the original theodicists – is to say that to think like God is to see evil and suffering as serving a higher good, as the deity’s primary concern is with the large scale and the long term.

I have pointed out in an earlier blogpost that this line of reasoning necessarily leads to the conclusion that God (i.e. the "intelligent designer" of ID theory) is a utilitarian Whose means are justified by His ends. As I have pointed out, this conclusion is both morally abhorrent and contrary to Christian doctrine. Fuller agrees, pointing out that "...religious thinkers complained about theodicy from day one":
"...a devout person might complain that this whole way of thinking about God is blasphemous, since it presumes that we can get into the mind of God – and once we do, we find a deity who is not especially loveable, since God seems quite willing to sacrifice His creatures for some higher design principle."

This was precisely my point in my earlier post, and it parallels Darwin's feeling about the more negative attributes of the deity.

However, Fuller takes a different tack in his analysis of theodicy:
"’s blasphemous to suppose that God operates in what humans recognise as a ‘rational’ fashion. So how, then, could theodicy have acquired such significance among self-avowed Christians in the first could its mode of argumentation have such long-lasting secular any field [such as evolutionary theory] concerned with optimisation?

He then goes on to make essentially the same argument as that put forth by almost all ID supporters, an argument by analogy:
We tend to presume that any evidence of design is, at best, indirect evidence for a designer. But this is not how the original theodicists thought about the matter. They thought we could have direct (albeit perhaps inconclusive) evidence of the designer, too. Why? Well, because the Bible says so. In particular, it says that we humans are created in the image and likeness of God. At the very least, this means that our own and God’s beings overlap in some sense. (For Christians, this is most vividly illustrated in the person of Jesus.)

And how, precisely, is this an argument by analogy? Here it is:
The interesting question, then, is to figure out how much of our own being is divine overlap and how much is simply the regrettable consequence of God’s having to work through material reality to embody the divine ideas ‘in’ – or, put more controversially, ‘as’ — us. Theodicy in its original full-blooded sense took this question as its starting point. [emphasis added]

By "overlap" Fuller clearly means "analogy"; that is, how analogous is the "design" of nature (presumably brought about by the "intelligent designer", i.e. God) to human (and therefore divine) "design"? This inquiry, therefore, is based on the assumption that finding such analogies is prima facie proof that "design" in nature is the result of "intelligence" (and therefore, by extension, "divine intelligence").

But, as any undergraduate in elementary logic has learned, arguments by analogy alone are not valid evidence for anything. This is because there is nothing intrinsic to analogies that can allow us to determine their validity. As I have pointed out in an earlier blogpost, all analogies are false to some degree: the only "true" analogy to a thing is the thing itself.

Fuller lists four reasons why theodicy became important at about the same time as natural theology. These are:
• that the widespread publication of the Holy Bible not only facilitated the rise of Protestantism, it also made possible "individual confirmation" of one's "overlap" (i.e. analogy) with the deity;

• that " the Bible as the literal yet fallible word of God. There is scope within Christianity for this middle position because of known problems in crafting the Bible, whose human authorship is never denied...."

• that "...theodicists...claimed legitimacy from Descartes, whose ‘cogito ergo sum’ proposed an example of human-divine overlap, namely, humanity’s repetition of how the deity establishes its own existence. After all, creation is necessary only because God originally exists apart from matter, and so needs to make its presence felt in the world through matter...."; and

• that the Scientific Revolution shifted the focus of theology from revelation to empirical investigation, grounding belief in God and His intentions in observable reality via arguments by analogy.

Let's summarize all of this before going on. According to Fuller, theodicy entails that:
1) the Holy Bible illustrates the analogies between humans and God;

2) the Holy Bible is an imperfect document, written by imperfect humans (and, by extension, should not necessarily be taken literally);

3) the Cartesian cogito ergo sum provides a paradigm of the analogy between human and divine "intelligence" by pointing to the connections between "supernatural" ideas and "natural" phenomena, and

4) the scientific method, fundamentally grounded in empirical verification, provides the most valid paradigm for understanding reality.

Here is where I find the connection to The Name of the Rose. Umberto Eco has pointed out that the title of his novel has several allusions, including Dante's mystic rose, "go lovely rose", the War of the Roses, "rose thou art sick", too many rings around Rosie, "a rose by any other name", "a rose is a rose is a rose", the Rosicrucians...there are probably as many meanings as there are readers, and more. Eco asserts that the concluding Latin hexameter,
stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus ("and what is left of the rose is only its name")

points to a nominalist interpretation of his novel (see "Accuracy, Precision, Nominalism, and Occam's Razor".

And I agree with his assessment; the name of the rose is not the rose. Or, as Korbzybski put it, the map is not the territory. However, this conclusion can be taken in one of two ways. According to the first (which is based on Platonic idealism), the idea of the rose is what "matters". That is, the idea of the rose pre-exists the rose, and therefore brings the rose into existence. The idea of the rose, therefore, is what is real (hence "Platonic realism"). This is the approach taken by revelation theologists, natural theologists, and ID supporters: that the "design" of the rose (i.e. the "idea" in the "mind" of the "intelligent designer") comes first, and is made manifest in the actual, physical rose.

However, an alternative interpretation is that the rose comes first; our name for the entities which exhibit "roseness" is based on our perception of the analogies between those observed entities we come to call "roses". This is the approach taken by virtually all natural scientists, especially evolutionary biologists. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the "designer" in this case is nature itself; the environment (both external and internal) of the phylogenetic lineage of the entities we call "roses". The "design" produced by this "designer" is encoded within the genome of the rose, and expressed within its phenotype, which is made manifest by an interaction between the rose's genome and its environment.

This view is perhaps most succinctly expressed by Darwin himself, in the concluding paragraph of the Origin of Species:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. [emphasis added]

Darwin saw the physical world as being entirely regulated by a set of natural laws, including laws which had the effect of producing the "origin of species" and evolutionary adaptations. In his published writings, he declined to attribute the authorship of such laws to a deity, and in his private correspondence he generally refused to speculate on it as well.

This is precisely the same position taken by almost all evolutionary biologists, and is echoed in the words of William of Baskerville, Umberto Eco's protagonist in The Name of the Rose, who at the conclusion of the book says:
"It's hard to accept the idea that there cannot be an order in the universe because it would offend the free will of God and His omnipotence."
- William of Baskerville, The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (William Weaver, translator)


Eco, U. (Weaver, W., translator) (1983) A Postscript to The Name of the Rose. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch Publishers, New York, NY, ISBN #015173156X, 84 pages.

For those who are interested, I will be keeping up with Steve Fuller's later posts on this subject at Uncommon Descent. For now, have a happy new year!

As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 1/12/2009 06:27:00 PM, Blogger Tom Rooney said...

Great post! I never thought of the forerunners of natural theology before (instead have been more interested in the essentialism-naturalism debates and ultimate demise of essentialism for its inability to lead to testable predictions), but now I am motivated to learn more about natural theology's beginnings. Natural theology represented a huge step forward.


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