Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Science as Disdain for the Material (With Criticism of ID and the New Atheists)

Steve Talbott wrote a very fine essay underscoring the irony of a trend of thinking which finds expression even in the pages of Nature in an article influenced by Daniel Dennett which emphasized evolutionary algorithmic computer "simulations" in such a way as to forcefully downplay the importance of attention to the actual, to the material, to presence. Talbott writes beautifully and insightfully and I find the thoughts in the essay cogent, instructive, and timely. Here is a sample, a section which touches on Intelligent Design and its materialist counterparts:

From: “Ghosts in the Evolutionary Machinery”
By Steve Talbott

"Machines, Design, and the World
There is one distinction I have thus far glossed over. While the mathematically rigorous laws of physics can contribute in a real and profound way to our understanding of the physical world, the logical syntax of a computer does not in the same way contribute to our understanding of the physical machine. The law of gravity is a native law of copper, glass, and silicon in a way that the computer’s program logic is not. Rather, the program logic relates primarily to the way we have articulated the physical parts one with another so as to create a humanly useful mechanism. The computer’s logic is a function of design activity external to the materials themselves—an activity imposed from without—whereas the law of gravity arises from what matter and space are. Remove the program from the computer, or disassemble the physical machine, and there is no loss to the nature of copper, glass, and silicon; but you cannot remove gravitation without losing the materials themselves—their very substance is in part a “gravitational way of being.”
In other words, we cannot think of the logic or mathematics of gravity in relation to the physical world the way we think of program syntax in relation to a computer. The importance of this can hardly be overestimated at a time when the lawfulness of the universe is increasingly conceived as a kind of software governing a world-machine.

Here, incidentally, we can recognize the common ground shared by the advocates of Intelligent Design and their conventional opponents: both view the universe as a grand machine. This groundless assumption is the explicit foundation equally of the case for intelligent design (“the machine requires a Designer”) and the case for a materialistic, mindless universe (“a machine is merely a machine—and we learned long ago simply to ignore the question of a Designer or First Cause, or to conceal it behind the obscurity of the Big Bang”). The theists correctly understand that a machine requires an intelligent designer, whether we acknowledge this fact as such or attempt to smuggle the designer into our thinking by obscure bits and pieces. The materialists, in turn, see well enough that a machine-world is no suitable habitation for a human soul and spirit.

One way out of the ill-tempered and lightless debate between the two sides is to recognize that the intelligence we see in the world is not imposed from the outside upon pre-existing material, in the way we impose our design upon a machine. The intelligence in nature works always from within. In the world’s phenomena we see intelligence embodying itself in that visible, significant, aesthetically compelling speech we can’t help recognizing everywhere around us. The one thing we can be certain of is that whatever—or whoever—speaks through these phenomena is not doing so in the way we speak through the design of our machines. It is the height of hubris to think that we have become creators in that fundamental sense. Our design of machines does not bring material reality itself into existence as the embodiment of our own expressive powers. It is not both the lawfulness and the substance of things.” From The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, Fall 2007. ( http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/18/talbott.htm)

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