Today and next month we focus on knowledge. Nearly all our knowledge makes two presuppositions: that the world is ordered, and that the human mind can understand its order. If we didn’t take these two for granted there is hardly anything we could know. We think we know that the roof of this church will keep the rain off, because rain always comes downwards; but if the world isn’t ordered, maybe it’ll come upwards through the carpet five minutes from now. I shall focus on order today, understanding next month.
First, though, a few points about what they have in common. Science cannot prove either of them, because it has to take them for granted before it can do anything at all. They have a similar history. For thousands of years they were contested. It was In the high Middle Ages that European intellectuals broadly accepted them. The main reason was the convergence of thought between Jews, Christians and Moslems who all believed the world had been created by a single powerful and good God, who deliberately created an ordered world, and gave us minds capable of understanding it. There were some heretics who didn’t agree, and the Pope declared war on them.
Once these presuppositions got established, they made modern science possible. So historically, it looks as if belief in a particular kind of God helped people to understand the world in the kind of way we do now..
By the end of the seventeenth century, most educated Europeans accepted the existence of God and argued that human reason must be reliable because a good God would not deceive us. A century later they were presupposing the reliability of reason and arguing about whether reason could prove the existence of God.
So was belief in a God of order just a contingent step on the way to establishing modern science, or is it essential? Today science normally proceeds without referring to God, but the question is whether those two presuppositions, order and understanding, can be justified in any other way. When scientists keep God out of the picture, are they sawing off the branch they are sitting on?
If they are sawing it off, then we would expect the prestige of science to decline in places like Britain where God is not treated as essential to understanding reality. Well, is it declining? Many scientists believe it is. Writers like Ben Goldacre repeatedly complain that the mass media distort serious scientific research in the interests of popular sensationalism, because that’s what most readers of newspapers want. Every time the Government changes funding to universities it’s always in the direction of taking money away from pure research and replacing it with projects funded by particular vested interests. Since the 1960s there has been a rapid increase in witchcraft and associated magical practices. These may all be disconnected temporary fashions, but there are also intellectuals arguing that the world isn’t ordered and that the human mind can’t understand it. I shall return to them later.
Does the world function according to ordered regularities? It is not self-evident. We observe some regularities, like the alternation between day and night, but also some irregularities, like the weather. It is possible to believe that the world is basically ordered and seek explanations for the irregularities, but it is also possible to believe that the world is basically chaotic and seek explanations for the regularities.
Today we are so used to taking for granted that the world is ordered, and that this order will carry on, that it’s difficult to imagine what life would feel like if we didn’t. So here are some examples from the past when they didn’t. Here’s a story from Homer’s Iliad. During the Trojan war, the hero Achilles kills a lot of Trojans in the River Scamander. The river speaks:
If the Son of Cronos [the god Zeus] really means you to kill all the Trojans, I implore you at least to drive them away from me and do your foul work on the plain. My lovely channels are full of dead men’s bodies…
The great spearman Achilles leapt from the bank and plunged into the middle of the stream. Scamander rushed on him in spate. He filled all his channels with foaming cataracts, and roaring like a bull he flung up on dry land the innumerable bodies of Achilles’ victims that had choked him, protecting the survivors by hiding them in the deep and ample pools that beautified his course. The angry waters rose and seethed around Achilles; they beat down on his shield and overwhelmed him.
This is an epic about the age of heroes in the distant past, but it echoes an ancient belief that natural phenomena like rivers had minds of their own, spirits. Suppose we really believed that every time a river floods or dries up, it’s because the river itself has decided to do it, for its own reasons. If you start thinking about the practical implications, they are massive. How would they decide where to put the reservoirs?
It’s a bit like computers. If you have a computer, does it have a mind of its own? If it really did, it would be no use at all.
Here is a an ancient Mesopotamian prophecy. The god Adad is speaking through a prophet, warning the king to do his duty and make due provision of burnt sacrifices:
In oracles has Adad, lord of Kallasu, spoken thus: ‘Am I not Adad, lord of Kallassu, who have brought him upon my knee and set him upon the throne of his father’s line? After I set him upon his father’s throne, I have also given him a dwelling. Now, as I have set him upon the throne, so I can take Nihlatu out of his hand. If he does not fulfil the provision I am lord over the throne, the district and the city, and I can take from him what I have given him. But if he fulfils my desire, I shall give him thrones upon thrones, houses upon houses, districts upon districts, cities upon cities, and I shall give him the land from the west to the east.
This time the emphasis is on the king’s success in government and war. Suppose we were all to believe that the future of British society depended on whether David Cameron was good at appeasing the gods? The difference would be immense.
Ancient myths about gods were not just stories. They served a real practical purpose. They usually began from issues of security. Today, when disaster threatens, we try to work out what is causing it so as to prevent it. Just as today anxiety about global warming motivates governments to use their science and technology to work out how to respond, so also the ancients responded to floods, plagues and military defeat by asking what caused them and what to do about them. The main difference is that because they believed major disasters were caused by gods, their solutions usually meant burning sacrifices; but they were basically doing the kind of thing we do: trying to explain why disaster happened in order to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Out of all those ancient religions, the one practised by the tiny state of Judea became the basis for three of the world’s major religions today while all the rest have died out. Why?
Normally, history is written by the winners. It is the winners who impose their values and their theories of reality on their society. Just occasionally, it doesn’t happen. When Judaea was defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile, usual practice would have been to abandon worship of their god – who had failed to protect them – and transfer allegiance to Marduk, the god of the Babylonians. But about fifty years later Cyrus the Persian attacked Babylon. Cyrus had a policy of allowing exiles to return home. An anonymous poet, usually called Second Isaiah, interpreted his victory as part of an international plan by Israel’s god. Normally gods of small nations did not have international plans, but the poet identified Israel’s god with the supreme God of the whole world, and rammed the point home by mocking Babylon’s gods as mere pieces of wood. For once, the values and theories of the losers were vindicated.
The losers and the powerless usually have different moral values and theories of reality from the ruling classes. I’ll leave the moral questions to another day, and focus now on the nature of reality. When George Osborne tells us the cuts are necessary because of the economic situation, and public service workers have to pay for bankers’ mistakes while bankers still get massive bonuses, we know his views are the views of the powerful classes. They want to retain the discrepancies between rich and poor, and they use their superior access to information to warn us that their policies are saving us from chaos.
The losers, the poor and the powerless, often accept those dominant values. If they reject them, what alternative can they offer? They will need to show that there is a better way of describing reality, which transcends the theories of the ruling classes. This is what Karl Marx saw himself doing, and I wonder whether he could have if it had not been for his Jewish background.
Most ancient near eastern creation stories explained how the gods related to each other, and why they created the world. Typically the world was made by a young god who was stronger than the older gods, and gave the ruling classes authority to govern. This meant the world was ordered, but contingently. It might change if the supreme god changed his mind, or was overthrown by other gods. Each time one empire overthrew another, this is how they would describe it: as they saw it, the god of the winner has become more powerful than the god of the loser, so there is going to be not just a new ruling class but also a new world order based on what the new god wants. How the crops grow, how the sun rises and sets, how babies are born, are all in principle up for grabs when a new god takes over. In other words, the order of nature is relative, and often threatened, and to keep it going we depend on the expertise of the ruling classes with their knowledge of how to please the gods. When our politicians argue about how to save Britain from economic disaster, their theories are different but fundamentally they are doing the same kind of thing.
The Judeans had a loser’s perspective. They refused to accept that the world order depended on the ruling classes with their expertise. When they edited their scriptures, they prefaced them with a statement of the order they did believe in.
I’m afraid the first chapter of Genesis needs decontaminating. It does say the world was made in six days complete with every species of living being, but those statements are much the same as we find in all the ancient near eastern creation stories. The authors of Genesis took for granted that something like that must have happened. What they argued for, what makes their text different from all the others, is their different view of God, leading to an account of reality which transcends the ruling classes and is truly universal.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1-2).
In Genesis there is no threat from an alternative: the world order has been intentionally designed to depend on the one God, without any link to the ruling classes.
In the six days God performs eight acts of creation. I am concerned now with the first three, acts of separation which establish physical order.
Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day (Genesis 1:3-5)
Commentators see this alternation of day and night as a way of saying God created time. There is an inconsistency: later on, the text describes God creating the sun and the moon. Of course they knew that light comes from the sun: why does the text say light came before the sun? We know the reason. One thing we owe to the ancient Babylonians is astrology. They believed that the heavenly bodies were gods who could see and influence events on earth. Genesis suppresses the idea. The creation of time comes first, expressed through the alternation of day and night, but the sun and moon are emphatically relegated to a late stage.
The second separation is the vertical one.
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day (Genesis 1:6-8).
Wrong again. Throughout the ancient near east it was taken for granted that the earth is flat and the sky above it is a solid inverted bowl. English translations of the Bible sometimes translate it as ‘firmament’, sometimes as ‘bowl’. It’s the blue thing you see when you look up at the sky on a sunny day. The Hebrew word literally means something that has been hammered out; Homer described it as made of iron. Genesis tells us that it separated the waters above it from the waters below it.
The ancient Hebrew universe, as depicted by http://ncse.com/creationism/general/creationevolution-continuum
The third separation is the horizontal one:
And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:9-10).
In these three acts of separation God establishes time, and the vertical and horizontal dimensions of space, as permanent features of reality at the very beginning. Unlike other ancient near eastern accounts, these things have been fixed permanently. Time and space are permanent and ordered.
So the Jews, deprived of their own king and empire, came to believe in a God-given order which remains the same independently of the ups and downs of military power. They therefore saw themselves as a race chosen by God for purposes which were nothing to do with conquering empires.
Medieval disorder before modern science
Demon in Melbourn Church, Derbyshire. http://www.paintedchurch.org/melbourn.htm
I shall now apply this to the rise of modern science in western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For most of that time most people did not believe the world was ordered. They believed the world around them was full of angels and demons. Demons could harm people in many different ways. Because they believed these demons were self-willed and unpredictable, they also believed the world around them was not ordered and the future was completely unpredictable.
Joan Baptista van Helmont, 1579-1644, a Flemish Paracelsian, postulated that when a chemical is burned, it gives off a ‘spirit’ or ‘gas’. He wasn’t sure which. If it’s a spirit, that means it may be self-motivated and therefore we can’t be sure what it will do next. This is how we got the term ‘spirits’ for strong alcoholic drinks; the idea is that there’s a kind of demon in there deliberately affecting the way we behave.
The historian Keith Thomas describes the role of magic at the time of the witch hunts. He explores what people believed, why they believed it, and why they stopped believing it towards the end of the seventeenth century. He writes:
Apart from the influence of individual miscarriages of justice, it is possible to discern the growth of two essentially novel attitudes. The first is the assumption of an orderly, regular universe, unlikely to be upset by the capricious intervention of God or Devil. This view of the world was consolidated by the new mechanical philosophy, but the way to its acceptance had long been prepared by the emphasis of theologians upon the orderly way in which God conducted his affairs, working through natural causes accessible to human investigation.
Bases of modern science
The growing confidence in order had a number of sources. There was a major debate about how free God is in running the world. At one extreme Neoplatonists believed the world has emanated from God through a determined process of the lesser emanating from the greater. From this perspective, everything that happens is determined; it could not have been otherwise. This made the world very ordered, which is helpful for science, but on the other hand it seems to imply that humans have no free will. On this account the world’s order is unintended and unlimited: unintended because God had no choice, and unlimited because nothing lies outside the determined sequence of cause and effect. Many modern determinists agree.
At the other extreme some Christian theologians argued that God is completely free, not bound by any rules, and under no obligations. We cannot know what God will do tomorrow, so science cannot work.
The order expressed in Genesis is between the two. Order implies regularity, but regularity is intended and limited. Because it is intended, by a god with a mind, we can ask why the laws of nature are the way they are, and expect the answers to lie in God’s intentions. Because regularity is limited, it is possible to believe that some things, most importantly the human mind, lie outside the sequence of determined cause and effect, so we are free to think our own thoughts.
The way the medievals expressed this view was to distinguish between God’s absolute power and God’s regular power. In principle God can do anything possible, but in practice God does what is good for creation, and that means maintaining order.
Gradually God’s regular power, the things God does in an ordered way, came to be known as the laws of nature.
According to Helmont, God determined the properties of things at their creation; what we call ‘nature’ is just the effect of that decree:
I believe that Nature is the command of God, whereby a thing is that which it is, and doth that which it is commanded to do or act… For that most glorious Mover hath given powers to things, whereby they of themselves and by an absolute force may move themselves or other things.
There was intense debate about how God did it. Has God made it intrinsic to each thing to do what it is supposed to do, or are inanimate things passive, so that God is continually forcing them to do what they do? The two leading scientists of the later seventeenth century, Leibniz and Newton, debated this at length.
Leibniz argued that when God created the universe he invested matter with an energy which would continue indefinitely:
the same force and vigour remains always in the world, and only passes from one part of matter to another, agreeably to the laws of nature, and the beautiful pre-established order… Whoever thinks otherwise, must needs have a very mean notion of the wisdom and power of God.
Leibniz’s point was that when God created the world he got it right; any subsequent need to tinker with it would show that it was badly made.
Newton argued that this would make God completely irrelevant, except as the original creator. According to Newton, God was needed not only as the original creator, but also to push the planets back into their correct orbit from time to time. Each of them accused the other of not giving enough credit to God.
That commitment to making God central gradually declined. 50 years later, David Hume was as usual the first to spot the significance. In analysing causation, he asked how we can be justified in inferring facts which we have not observed. This is now known as the Problem of Induction. According to Hume induction
would proceed upon that principle, that instances of which we have had no experience, must resemble those, of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always uniformly the same.’
He then argues that this principle can neither be demonstrated nor even claim any probability.
I have mentioned this problem before. We often think of the laws of nature as forces causing things to happen, but this goes back to the idea that God makes them happen. Without God, all we can really say about the laws of nature is that they are observed regularities. Order and predictability still seem to work, and nearly all our knowledge still depends on them, but if there is no God nobody knows why.
Inevitably, if we can’t explain why, somebody is going to ask whether it’s true at all. Perhaps the order and regularity of the world is all just a figment of our imagination.
This is what non-realists often argue. 200 years ago Immanuel Kant made a distinction between things as they are in themselves and things as they appear to us. Realists believe that outside our minds there is a big wide world, and it would still be there if we didn’t exist. Non-realists point out that we can never know whether our ideas of reality represent reality itself. We have no way of independently getting outside our minds to check whether we are getting it right. Reality-for-us is the only reality we shall ever know.
The most extreme versions of non-realism argue that our minds create the physical world. This is rare. A more moderate version is ‘conceptual idealism’, according to which reality is there, even when nobody is looking at it, but it is an unstructured chaos, a ‘cosmic porridge’. It is our minds which provide the distinction between one thing and another, and we do it according to the concepts available to us.
Where does this leave science? Are scientists discovering anything, or just creating ideas?
The most influential critique of realist science has been Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. According to Kuhn, most scientific research works within the dominant theoretical framework and accepts its methods. From time to time the framework gets stuck with insoluble problems, a revolution takes place and a new framework takes over. Kuhn argues that because method depends on theory, the new paradigm has different methods, and if the difference is is big enough, it becomes impossible to agree how to describe the results of experiments or how to agree on a rational method to resolve disagreement. The two traditions are therefore incommensurable. Over the long term, there is no gradual progress from inferior theories to superior ones: rather, there are jumps between incommensurable theories and there is no objective basis from which to consider which is the better.
Feyerabend goes further:
Knowledge… is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible (and perhaps even incommensurable) alternatives, each single story, each fairy tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation.
To summarise. Most of our knowledge, including all science, depends on presupposing that the world is ordered. In the past many societies have believed that there is a bit of order carved out of a fundamental chaos, so we have a bit of knowledge but it could all blow away with the wind at any time. Our modern commitment to knowledge and science could never have developed as long as people thought like that.
What enabled modern knowledge and science to develop was a stronger conviction about order, that order is permanently built into the way things are by a god who has deliberately fixed it like that.
Since then, science has dropped its commitment to God as the cause of order. Without God, we can no longer claim that the universe has been put into order. The most we can say is that it happens to be regular, for reasons we cannot fathom. But that would be an exaggeration. It would be more accurate to say that the small fraction that we can observe happens to be regular, or better still, that that small fraction seems to us to be regular.
If all scientists were to accept that that is the most we can say, most of them would probably give up. Nearly all scientists believe there really is a real world outside their minds, that it is ordered, and that scientists are working out how it is ordered. If they have no way of justifying those beliefs, which seems to be the present situation, then they are making an act of trust. They are deciding to presuppose things they cannot prove. What belief in God offers is a credible version of that act of trust, a reason for believing our limited perceptions of order are by and large true, and that there is more order out there still to be discovered.