Re: Strange Bedfellows, Atheism and Naturaistic Theism

From: Don Winterstein (
Date: Sun Sep 14 2003 - 02:04:58 EDT

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    Steve Petermann wrote in part:

    "...This requirement also points to a view that the cosmos is
    mechanistic, controlled by the natural law. If the cosmos wasn't
    mechanistic science would not be able to make sense of what is sees. No
    repeatability, no science."

    Actually, science cannot justifiably assert that the cosmos is mechanistic. The success of the scientific method only shows that the behavior of the cosmos is sufficiently consistent with natural law so that scientists can do repeatable experiments. Real experiments exhibit various degrees of non-repeatability. If results are too many standard deviations from the mean, they're often simply rejected ipso facto as bad data. It's possible that some "bad data" represent instances when the world was not behaving according to natural law. Although unlikely, they could in fact represent miracles. Science does not--and cannot--rule out miracles.

    What we can correctly deduce about the nature of the cosmos from science is that _on average_, and _most of the time_, the cosmos obeys natural laws. No one can show that the world always obeys our natural laws.


      ----- Original Message -----
      From: Steve Petermann
      To: ASA
      Sent: Friday, September 12, 2003 6:56 AM
      Subject: Strange Bedfellows, Atheism and Naturaistic Theism

      The scientific method is a remarkable tool. It has enabled humans to
      understand the workings of the cosmos to a great degree. Among the bedrock
      requirements of the scientific method are repeatability and predictability.
      If it cannot be shown that a theory repeatedly predicts outcomes, it will
      not make it into the cannon of scientific knowledge.

      However, this requirement also points to a view that the cosmos is
      mechanistic, controlled by the natural law. If the cosmos wasn't
      mechanistic science would not be able to make sense of what is sees. No
      repeatability, no science. But this also says that the cosmos has no
      freedom. It does what it does and cannot do otherwise. Even if one
      considers the indeterminism at the quantum level those events are supposedly
      random, not affording any freedom either.

      All well and good so far for science. However, what happens when the
      spotlight of the scientific method shines its light on humans. Then it
      becomes a different story. That unfreeness of the cosmos that science
      relies on suddenly dissolves when the human mind is under the scrutiny of
      the method. It is an anathema to humans that *they* are unfree and

      Humans need a sense of meaning. Where do that get it? In large part from
      the idea of agency. Personal agency based on human freedom creates a sense
      of personal meaning. Divine agency based on divine action creates a sense
      of ultimate meaning.

      Enter the strange partnership of atheism and naturalistic theism.

      In my experience with atheists(many of whom are my friends) they base, to a
      large extent, their sense of meaning on the idea of human agency(human
      freedom). So do the theists and non-theists I know. Many of those theists
      also look to divine agency as a ground for ultimate meaning. But all the
      naturalists in this group(atheistic and theistic) have a problem with this
      mechanistic view of the cosmos. It doesn't seem to offer any real sense of
      freedom either personal or divine.

      For them there are only two strategies to overcome this problem, redefine
      the term freedom or look to the indeterminism of the quantum world. Turns
      out they may use both.

      As an example of the first strategy, it seems to me that Daniel Dennett in
      his recent book _Freedom Evolves_ opts for the first strategy by pushing a
      definition of freedom that doesn't, in my opinion, fit our common sense of
      the term. This might be considered a slight of hand move that seems to
      offer an answer to the anathema but it really doesn't.

      The other strategy is where atheists and naturalistic theists have formed an
      unconscious partnership. Both want quantum indeterminacies to be the source
      of freedom. Classic physics doesn't offer any hope, but perhaps this
      strange world of the quanta can save the day. But if atheists look to the
      openness of the cosmos as this source of personal agency why is it such a
      failing for religious folk to do the same? Interestingly enough research in
      this area may offer a reasonableness to both positions. Then in the final
      analysis it will all come down to a personal intuition about the cosmos
      followed by actions based on faith.

      Steve Petermann

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