“Oh, Wow! Oh, Wow! Oh, Wow!”: When Singularities Come Nigh

At Evolution News and Views, IDer William Dembski reflects on the problem of explanatory continuity:

Science is not merely about discovering continuities in nature that can be described by a seamless naturalistic story. Sure, areas of science are like that. But science also presents us with discontinuities that resist naturalistic just-so stories. The most widely cited of these is the singularity of the Big Bang. A singularity is a discontinuity for which explanations in terms of ordinary physical processes break down.

It’s not that scientific investigation stops at a singularity. It’s just that the usual way of doing science, looking to ordinary processes that we’ve seen active in other contexts, no longer works. Granted, it is no explanation of a singularity merely to say “God did it.” But a singularity can be studied on its own terms, and the natural forces that may have played a role on either side of it may be studied and their inability to bridge the gap may also be assessed. Such singularities, proponents of intelligent design argue, have happened throughout the history of life. Life presents us with numerous singularities, everything from the Cambrian explosion to the emergence of some (but not all) novel proteins.

I think that William Dembski’s observations here are fair ones. There are moments in history where jaw-dropping disjunctures occur (the Big Bang itself, life, and consciousness are three obvious ones). They arrive unexpected and seem to be products of unique, even otherworldly (transcendent) processes.

In fact, there’s something downright messianic about some past events. Were there John the Baptists preceding these, we would not have believed any of them:

  • “Prepare ye the way, for a big bang cometh nigh!”
  • “Behold, as water to wine or lead to gold, humdrum chemistry shall turn to biochemistry!”
  • “Look, the kingdom of self awareness, reason, imagination, and language is at hand! The planet of apes you now see shall birth on this round globe—Shakespeare!

These are such things as DMT-induced psychedelic trips are made on, but they all came to pass; they really, really happened. For Dembski, these historical disjunctures make the resurrection of Jesus seem downright plausible.

It’s nice to think the universe might not be done delivering flabbergasting surprises. Those who have dialed into DMT report that their consciousness appears to be taken out of their bodies to exotic cosmic realms. And I can’t help but think of Steve Jobs’s dying words:

Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!

What makes you so sure there’s only one world?

_____

Maybe hope—even hope that death is not the last word—should “spring eternal” because the cosmos itself springs.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to “Oh, Wow! Oh, Wow! Oh, Wow!”: When Singularities Come Nigh

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Santi. The problem with Dembski’s argument is that he doesn’t give any criteria for deciding when you should abandon the scientific method because it “no longer works”. One suspects he does so when it is rhetorically convenient.
    I would argue that this is merely a dressed-up version of a “God of the Gaps” argument.
    Just because something is currently unexplained by our current knowledge, it doesn’t mean it will always be unexplainable. It certainly doesn’t mean we should abandon rationality and start substituting other (possibly arbitrary) “methods” of investigation.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Matt,

      Your points are well taken. But don’t you think there’s also a “multiverse of the gaps” argument at work in a great deal of straight science as well?

      In other words, whenever something seems highly implausible, the gap is filled by the law of large numbers—if the number is large enough, the vastly implausible becomes inevitable.

      Likewise with consciousness and intentionality in general. If you’re a strict materialist, even when minds are quite obviously present and acting in the world, they are, a priori, dismissed as causal agents: free will is an illusion and IT MUST BE that only physics and chemistry really cause things to happen.

      For example, I’m typing these words right now because it is my purpose to do so; they’re appearing because I intend them to.

      This is an explanation of what’s happening, but is it a scientific explanation?

      I would say that my conscious intention on the scene is both necessary and sufficient to explain what’s going on. Of course, there are material properties at work, but a causal explanation that eliminates my mind and choice in the matter is missing something.

      And yet a strict materialist would say that I’m not necessary at all, let alone sufficient, to an explanation of what’s happening right now. What’s happening, however implausible, is a product of impersonal determinate forces playing themselves out from the big bang 13.7 billion years ago. My writing this was an inevitable outcome of how the bang happened to bang at that particular moment with those particular properties. I’m a phase state the universe just happens to be passing through right now.

      If I say—“Well, that’s quite lucky, don’t you think, that life and consciousness are part of the impersonal physics and chemistry of this dicing universe?”—the strict materialist says, “No, it was inevitable because we are embedded in a multiverse. Life and consciousness beings under the illusion of intentionality were bound to happen sooner or later.”

      But let’s say this is my reply: “I think I should take mental states more seriously than this. Quantum physics, after all, seems to find paradoxes when it comes to issues of observation (think Schrodinger’s Cat here), and so maybe mind is not merely an epiphenomenon of nature, but really, really has causal effects on matter. And maybe these causal effects extend to the universe as a whole. Perhaps the universe is the way it is, not because of the law of large numbers but because a mind made the universe go the way it is.”

      The strict materialist then says, “That’s not science—not a scientific explanation.”

      But, quite obviously, neither the mentalist or strict materialist explanations are, strictly speaking, scientific. They’re philosophical. They’re both hunches trying to give a full explanatory account of what’s actually being observed (without an ability to actually test whether it’s true). Taking minds seriously can generate logically possible accounts for what’s seen and not taking minds can seriously can generate logically possible accounts for what’s seen.

      Given our limitations (and empiricism has limitations), how do we ever reach a high level of confidence concerning what is, in fact, true? An early error—large or small—in our reasoning can lead us very, very far from reality.

      But how would we know?

      —Santi

  2. Prometheus says:

    Great stuff. I really think you’d enjoy reading my blog. I talk about the coming technological singularity, what it means for all of us, and how psychedelics have affected my thinking on the matter.

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