Final answers aren’t

Over at EvolutionBlog and Why Evolution Is True, Drs. Rosenhouse and Coyne have taken down the same philosophical question posed by Dr. Elliot Sober, to wit: Can science establish that genetic mutations are not caused by god?

It is questions like this that have guided my abiding dislike of philosophy, since a tremendous amount of time has been spent on a question that is totally backward. Aside from the basic idiocy of attempting to prove a negative, something no PhD of anything should commit (much less base an entire lecture on,) there is also the issue that one can replace the word “god” with anything at all and not change the question in the slightest. The question doesn’t have any meaning unless we assume that ‘god’ has specific and defined traits, up to and including a particular intention in causing mutations, an explanation why it would choose such a feeble way of evoking change, and a reason why this has any bearing on knowledge whatsoever.

Let’s put it this way: If we asked whether atomic decay (‘nuclear radiation’) can be ruled out in causing mutations, we at least know decay exists and has certain properties, and answering this question might tell us not to worry about exposure in certain circumstances. But ‘god’ doesn’t even have a clear definition nor any evidence of existence – what the question implies is that there is a possibility of such existence in the very lack of absolute surety, an impossibly tenuous avenue towards belief. And so, the voluminous discussions about scientific knowledge are subverted because the entire question isn’t about knowledge, but emotional supplication. Any and all concepts of deities are cultural structures, in most cases claimed to be openly and distinctly outside of empirical demonstration (that’s what ‘supernatural’ means,) so science is not even supposed to have any input into the question in the first place. But even proposing, for the sake of argument, that there simply exists a being as yet beyond detection, what would make us insert such a concept into genetic behavior, or anything else for that matter? We could propose the same thing to explain dark energy, but what does that do for us?

Moreover, you would think that someone who actually makes their living with philosophy would tumble to the fact that ‘god’ is a catch-all term for a plethora of remarkably personal properties – does the question refer to the christian god, or that of the Kalahari Bushmen? It would be nice if the choice was only two, wouldn’t it? It might have demonstrated some real thought had already been applied, anyway. One might argue that only the christian god is intended, which raises the question of how several hundred others were ruled out (something that not one philosopher, theologian, or devotee that I have ever encountered has answered); alternately, one might say that the term “god” is applied generically to any and all theology, which in essence departs from the realm of science since it has changed the nature of the question into an abstract – one might as well ask if ‘happiness’ can be proven to have no effect on mutation.

I said that the question was backwards, and in the realm of science, it is; biologists routinely ask questions more along the lines of, “What causes genetic mutations?” – you’ll notice that there isn’t any bias towards a particular answer in there, but instead an honest inquiry to gain knowledge. Instead of assuming a cultural posit, science relies on what evidence we can find to suggest the existence of anything. True enough, sometimes a temporary speculation is entertained – “I wonder if it’s affected by endocrine levels?” – but such things serve to provide avenues of specific research guided by known properties, something that cannot possibly be applied with an abstract term such as ‘god.’ And therein lies the trap that Sober hoped to spring when he outright said that science operates to rule out god. Yet, god is ruled outside science in the first place, according to most definitions of such, but ignoring that, how do you rule out something so vague? Is it being ruled out when it does not have any measurable effect in the first place, or has it never been ruled in? Can I accuse science of ruling out Darkwing Duck as a possibility? I can, apparently, if I’d wasted my life thinking that philosophy gives value to every inane question anyone raises.

What Sober probably wanted to imply was that, without a specific answer, then “god” should have been inserted as a possibility, a default answer in the face of uncertainty. Yet, we have a long history of how little use that’s been, from disease to weather to geothermal activity, where ‘god’ not only turned out to be wrong as an answer, it provided nothing of any use anyway. This is already well recognized by a fallacy called god of the gaps, which basically continues to relegate a deity’s possible influence into the smaller and smaller areas of mystery within our knowledge base. But worse, it is a non-answer, a dead-end in inquiry. If we knew what a god actually was and how it operated, we might have some use to which this could be put – praying for specific mutations, for instance – but god is instead a mystery beyond our reach. I feel obligated to note that this very trait was provided by theologians as the reason why god has no evidence or dependable responses and is indistinguishable from random events that can be explained without the need of divine intervention. The nature of science, however, does not take “we don’t know” as an answer or a stopping point, but as a challenge instead, which is the most damning factor against the compatibility of science and religion.

Part of human nature is to seek answers, which has worked pretty well so far. Interestingly, every answer that honest inquiry provides, that science provides, leads to yet another question or three – while at the same time providing applicable traits that we can put to use. Religion is entirely different. While frequently credited with providing answers in and of itself, religion serves instead to halt inquiry and constantly hide behind a claim that we are not allowed to see beyond a certain point, and its answers explain nothing. Religion did not provide us with the idea of genetic mutation itself; science did, and it served to explain how natural selection could shape so many different species over long periods of time, fitting perfectly with both the similarity of genetic makeup of every species on earth, and the curious progression of traits among fossil species. It bears noting that most concepts of gods are provided by creation legends that science, including genetics, has already trashed resoundingly. Trying to save a tiny vestige of such legends by glomming it onto functional science like some kind of parasite is evidence only of pathetic desperation, not honest inquiry.

Even if we found some fantastic, deliberate force within those mysteries still open to us, this cannot change the fact that every creation legend from every culture on the planet has been shown to be bollocks. Should we choose to call this force “god,” it will never be the god that any individual has envisioned, and its properties will remain to be determined. The chances are very great, given the long and detailed history that we already have, that our human desires and emotions are not going to be a prime concern of such a force – in other words, cosmic daddy is way too farfetched for serious consideration. It’s about time we grew up, stopped trying to find ridiculous ways to maintain emotional crutches, and faced what we can learn with eagerness and pragmatism.

And when we ask questions, let’s first try to determine that they’re useful, and not just self-indulgent horseshit.