Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Scott Adams on God

Scott Adams, creator of the popular Dilbert comic strip, has been thinking aloud about God - with very interesting results, not the kind of stuff you might stereotypically associate with an Engineer. I have to applaud Adam's ability to resist needlessly anthropomorphizing God in all of the ways that the typical atheist / agnostic does. Hey, I was one, so I know, OK? Andrew can consider this post my response to his e-mailing me this article from NPR if he wants to. Welcome back to blogging, btw! Adams writes:
What about consciousness? You'd expect God to be conscious as we understand it, right? But that wouldn't make sense for an omnipotent being. Our own consciousness is mostly about imagining what can happen next and comparing it to what does so we can adjust accordingly. That's useful for survival, but only for slow procreating creatures that are made of meat and surrounded by carnivores. God wouldn't need that sort of imagination because omnipotence means your preferences are the same as reality. There's no point in being almighty if you have to sit around imagining what you want and then waiting for it. So God would have no use for consciousness. All that's left of intelligence that is consistent with an omnipotent God is the ability to do complex things. That might not be part of the definition of intelligence in your dictionary, but it should be. Allow me to explain by analogy. A baby is not the same as the adult it later grows into. Yet we consider them to be the same person. Where do you draw the line between the early form of something and what it later becomes? It's mostly a point of view. There's no objective way to decide. I choose to define any process that can create intelligence as the initial phase of that intelligence. That seems perfectly fair to me. [there's no positive evidence for it, but throughout history it has appealed to great numbers of people. There is also the small problem of a lack of positive proof for positivism. - ed.] And here's where it gets interesting, in case you wondered when. Atheists believe that our existence is the result of matter and energy bumping around according to the laws of physics. In other words, the universe has the ability to do complex things. The universe is intelligent in precisely and exclusively the way an omnipotent God would be, according to me, your source of all useful knowledge. But what about design? Atheists say the universe was built without the need for design. I think it's worth noting that if humans could build great things without the need for user specifications and written plans, we'd do it that way too. So when we impose the need for human-like design processes on an omnipotent being, we're selling God short. He'd do it his own way. And that might involve a relatively short list of physical laws, a bunch of matter, and a lot of space-time. If you accept that God's design process wouldn't mean the same as human design processes, and intelligence for God doesn't mean the same as intelligence for humans, then it's hard to argue against Intelligent Design. Rationally defined, both intelligence and design - when applied to an omnipotent being - look exactly like the laws of nature, and no one doubts that those exist. All that's left then is the question of God's existence. Yes, I will be answering that question here. That's why you came to the Dilbert Blog, isn't it? God, by any definition, is not part of our natural world. He's above it, whatever that means. And yet he exerts an all-powerful force upon it. What do we all know from our common experience that meets that test? Concepts. Allow me to explain again by analogy. We believe that love exists, yet it is little more than the sum of the biology and situation that evoke it. Love itself is simply an umbrella concept that contains all of those chemical reactions and environmental happenings. Love is supernatural in that sense, as all concepts are. Even the biggest atheist would agree that God exists as a concept. And that concept is undeniably the most powerful one in existence. It influences virtually every human activity from procreation to war.
As I was saying, Adams gets a lot right, but from my perspective he does not - yet - have all of the pieces. He's using a fine mind to get to this point and if he continues to dwell on the relationship between evolution and intelligence he may get there yet. I don't think there is a clear cut relationship between intelligence and enhanced survival. Ants are dumb but long lived by virtue of niche adaptability and a very high reproductive rate. They have taken a different route on the evolutionary tree and I don't see that their survival rate is any less for that. Then there is the question of how an evolved mind relates to the question of big T truth. There is simply no clear relationship. The evolved mind is a chance creation, selected for by it's adaptability. If mere coherentism is evolutionary cheaper, that's the route it'll take. Consider the following argument:
  1. Our limited minds can discover eternal truths about being.
  2. Truth properly resides in a mind.
  3. The human mind is not eternal.
  4. Therefore, there must exist an eternal mind in which these truths reside.
I don't think anyone would question points two and three very much, so I'll leave them aside. Point one is the most likely bone of contention since it makes a positive statement and we lack the ability to verify it in a positive way. Proofs for point one are of necessity going to be of a logical, metaphysical nature. I accept this argument. Adams' post today comes close to saying the same, but in the end stops short of considering the universe as the product of a divine mind. The resulting ideas are tantalizing but remain flies stuck in amber, unable to explain 1) freedom in a world of material, mechanical necessity, and 2) unable to justify trust in the ability to think real truths. The solution is not that God is a human concept, it is that we are God's concepts. That is where freedom and intelligence comes from, that is why we say 'man is made in the image of God.'

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