Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Counterintuive Universe

Paul Bloom suggests we are "wired for creationism:"

[T]he real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.
I think this correctly captures the enduring resistence to evolutionary science. Those of us who already embrace the scientific/skeptical outlook have already reconciled ourselves, one way or another, to the fact that the understanding of the world isn't easy, that not every question comes with an appealing, brief, quickly-jot-downable answer. There are some consequential truths that will never make sense to children -- or even non-specialist adults. And in some areas, even the specialists have girded themselves for endless bafflement.

This is the humanistic form of humility: the universe does not owe us a full explanation of its exotic quirks in their finest details. The universe doesn't give explanations or take on obligations; the universe is a massive it composed of countless sub-its.

I take this humility to be genuine in a way I find its religious counterparts to be counterfeit: underneath their versions lies an assumption, often an overt assertion, that there is a goodness, benevolence, and intuitiveness lurking just beyond the gates of mortality and the limits of human intelligence. As Alexander Pope famously put it:
All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;
All chance direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
We must refrain from insisting to know god's ways, they say, but this restraint is urged in exchange for one of two promises: either there is a human-like intelligence that does have it all in hand; or -- often combined with the first promise -- that the answers will come hereafter, so that humility is a temporary exercise in disciplined god-pleasing that proves one's worthiness for the answers later on -- God as a teacher dispensing advanced material to his pet students. In much the same way, sexual restraint in this life will be rewarded with sexual license in the next, as in celibate suicide bombers promised 72 virgins in heaven -- God as Hugh Hefner. Religious humility resolves to deferred pride.

Whereas humanistic humility does not depart from the idea that the universe owes us nothing. It allows that the answers that elude our grasp and the ones that chafe against our intuitions today may yet do so tomorrow, next year, next century, and onward without end.

We go through our lives with the universe we have, not with the universe we wish we had. Whatever is, isn't necessarily right at all. Those of us attempting, one way or another, to promote the skeptical outlook have to reckon with how difficult this is to swallow.



mikesdak said...

It isn't that people are wired for creationism itself, just for simplicity. People like easy answers to everything. It explains the banality of most aspects of popular culture.

It should be noted that creationism and natural selection don't really cover the same ground. Natural selection doesn't say how things started, just how they've developed since.

As for quantum physics, a lot of physicists aren't entirely comfortable with it either, and are still working on alternatives.

Dale said...

Mike, you're right. There are many origins myths, and the "creationism" label doesn't fit them all. But they're all simple, general, graspable -- in this they're very different from scientific hypotheses about abiogenesis (which inevitably get into the arcana of chemistry) or about cosmology (which tend to get into mind-bending levels of math and physics).

The science-based accounts lose a great deal in the translation to the pre-school level; whereas competing origins myths often lack an adult/advanced version altogether. Or if there is an adult version at all, it's either a lot of theological double-talk (on which no three theologians can seem to agree) or a lot of embarrassing distortions of natural evidence (e.g., the painful contortions by which Christians try to "prove" Noah's ark).