Answering 5 Questions: the Relation Between Science and Religion

The work of another, even a work unread, can suggest new blog material. On Twitter, one philosopher I know called attention to another, Dr. Gregg Caruso, whose primary interest appears to be arguing against the reality of libertarian (or contra-causal) will.

I have not read Dr. Caruso’s books, but titles like: “Free Will and Consciousness: A Determinist Account of the Illusion of Free Will” (2012) or “Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility” (2015) imply a position contra-free will. I have written about what I take to be the self-defeating absurdity of the position in  essays on this blog and in my books (see “Arguing with Automatons” and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”).

Dr. Caruso has also written “Science & Religion: 5 Questions” (2014) in which he asks questions of some 50 scientists and religionists. I have not read this book either, but its description on Amazon does list what I take to be the thrust of the questions, providing me with an opportunity to explain my own views on this subject.

1. “Are Science and Religion compatible for understanding cosmology, biology (including the origin of life), ethics, and mind (brains, souls, and free will)?” And “do Science and religion occupy non overlapping magisteria?” I lump these two together as they appear to be different approaches to the same question.

2. Is Intelligent Design a scientific theory?

3. How do various faiths view the relation between science and religion?

4. What are the limits of scientific explanation?

5. What are the most important open questions, problems, challenges, confronting the relation between science and religion?

The questions as phrased are over-broad. Look at question #1 which includes everything from cosmology to mind-entangled disciplines like ethics and references to souls. Questions like this seem set up to make one side or the other look foolish. The literature is rife with confusion on this subject (see “What is ‘The Soul'”). Nor do any of the questions hint at any distinction between religion as it pertains to the individual and religious institutions. The dictionary is not helpful here. In modern terms, an individual’s religion is nothing more than an institution into which they are born or join later in life. The word ‘faiths’ in question #3 seems clearly to mean institutions, but questions #1 and #5 are ambiguous on this distinction.

There is definition of religion going back to the Greeks. Your religion is your relationship to God however you conceive it. This definition implies a distinction between “religion as such” and “religious institutions” (if any) to which you happen to belong. If there happens to be a personal (Abrahamic style) God, then we, being persons, each have some individual relationship to him whether we recognize it or not. This relationship is personal and except for ethics (via morality) has little direct connection to any of Dr. Caruso’s questions. Of course an individual’s intellectual interpretation of that relationship (even that it doesn’t exist) is another matter.

By contrast, religious institutions are social (interpersonal) and physical things like banks, schools, and offices. They have documents, buildings (see Searle below and Maurizio Ferraris), leaders, and members (customers). Religious institutions differ from the others only in that they purport to be about God. (there are exceptions. Buddhism in its original form denies the reality of anything like a God with whom one can have a relationship and yet remains a “religious institution”).

There is only an accidental relation between the teachings of the institution and the individual’s relationship to God. By-in-large, the individual accepts for her own belief system the teachings of the institution. Such intellectual acquiescence impacts the comprehension of the individual’s relationship to God, what they take to be their “personal religion”. But it does not actually alter the relationship as it is (or would be) from God’s viewpoint.

These two meanings (institution versus relationship) of ‘religion’ are literal. A further, metaphorical meaning, might or might not refer to God, but to whatever one takes to be a “founding world view”. This metaphor is captured in utterances like “science is my religion” meaning that science (what the individual takes it to be) is the foundation, the set of propositions on which every other belief (consistently or not) rests. There are many of these metaphorical religions. Almost anything over which human beings can obsess can become one. I will not be concerned with these metaphors here, but I note that if the individual’s intellectual foundation is a God-concept then the metaphor becomes a literal personal religion.

Besides being ambiguous about religion, question #1 is vague about science. Are we speaking of physics, chemistry, and biology, or psychology and “social science”? Are these all ‘sciences’ in the same sense of that term? I suspect not. In fact, what separates the hard from the soft sciences is the latter are in one manner or other entangled with the doings of minded beings while the former are not. The hard sciences are strictly about the material world and discoveries are (or would be) valid even should no minds exist in the universe. But if mind did not exist, there would be no psychology nor any other of the “social sciences”. It is this intrinsic mind-entanglement that makes them problematic, quasi-sciences.

If God is real, then the personal relationship is real even if one denies it. One can say “I have no father” suggesting various possible metaphorical meanings, but they remain only metaphors. If you are a living vertebrate, you must literally have a biological father. The failure to make this distinction between different meanings of ‘religion’ muddies questions 1 and 4 which are otherwise different ways of asking more or less the same question. I will keep this distinction in mind throughout the essay.

Question #1. To the first part, The short answer is NO, To the second, YES. Science (hard science) is about the material world. Religion is about the relation between human beings as subjective entities and God. Religion (personal or institutional) has no business saying anything about physical mechanisms other than that God is ultimately their source.

The greatest and most important insight of hard science is that physical mechanisms are free of teleological encumbrance; they are purposeless! This does not mean the existence of the physical as such is purposeless. God (if he exists) might have a purpose for a physical universe of purposeless mechanism (see “Why Free Will”). Religion has no business making pronouncements about any detail of physical mechanism, while science has no business declaring God’s non-existence based solely on its evaluation of physical mechanism whose [possible] overall purpose science is not qualified to evaluate.

Mind, whatever it is, complicates this picture because science is done in mind by minded entities. Clearly mind of the individual variety with which we are familiar is a part of the universe. There are minds in the physical universe. But whether mind itself is physical, or takes origin solely from the physical is problematic. The methods of science so well adapted to explicating purposeless mechanism are ill suited to evaluating purposeful mind. Purpose enters the universe through mind.

If God is real, then substance dualism is possible and not problematic except for the infamous “interaction problem” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”) which science is not qualified to resolve other than to say the interaction must take place in brains whose material mechanisms are within its scope. Nor is there any reason to believe that religion (or philosophy) is qualified to explicate the interaction. My relationship to God does not require that I understand how mind is evoked from (or evokes) events in my brain. There are several related interaction problems. I will not concerned myself with their details here (see essay linked just above).

The first question throws together so much it is impossible to answer it straightforwardly. For example libertarian free will (or the illusion of it) is something that only appears, like purpose, in association with minds. Science (meaning the “hard sciences”) by itself suggests that such a thing is impossible, but then again as John Searle says (“MIND” 2005, “Making the Social World” 2011, and “The Construction of Social Reality” 1997) nothing about human experience makes sense unless libertarian free will is genuine (Searle being an atheist admits that he cannot resolve this riddle). Indeed, accepting that a contra-causal (meaning that, as Sean Carroll puts it, “mind causes physics”, something Carroll denies — see  “The Big Picture” 2017) free will must be genuine is among the strong philosophical reasons to believe there must be [something like] God.

Ethics (also lumped into question #1) only makes sense in a free will context and resides in mind where decisions of moral import originate. Ethics is a social reflection of morality. It entangles the physical world only after some free willed choice made in mind. There is nothing for science to do here other than to illuminate the limits of what is possible given the bodies our minds control are physical. This includes, for example, the discovery that certain disease states of the brain might make ethical evaluation impossible by the consciousness evoked in such brains.

The contemporary notion that we can derive an ethics scientifically is ridiculous. Ethics, being about the interactions of the bodies of minded persons can be described by [soft] science and [soft] science can help to determine the reason-ability of various ethical ideas,  but ethics cannot be logically derived from science in any normative sense.

Question #2. Intelligent design is a hypothesis but not scientific because it implies purpose-directed (i.e. not purposeless) mechanism underlying certain observed physical phenomena. That doesn’t mean it has nothing to contribute to the debate. Intelligent Design is not Creationism!

Dr. Caruso’s book includes William Dembski (“No Free Lunch” 2001 and “The Design Inference” 2006) as a contributor. Dembski concedes his belief in an Abrahamic God, but his work does not commit him to this detail. Dembski’s point is that an accidental origin of life and its evolution (on Earth) to its present state is highly unlikely.  Dembski’s hypothesis is a statistical argument from empirical data — life’s extraordinary information content! It looks to Dembski like intelligence is involved in the process, but he is strictly committed only to the unlikeliness of its being an accident.

Dembski can easily get what he wants in a Darwinian context. His work only requires that not all genetic mutations are random! If I drop 1000 coins onto a floor and then deliberately flip 10 of them, will any statistician (looking only at the result) dare to say that the distribution of heads and tails is not random? If over 3 or 4 billion years 99% of mutations were random, but 1% were not, how would we from our present perspective ever tell the difference?

The origin of life (like the origin of the big bang and the value of the cosmological settings) is a special case. Physics entails that a contingent origin of life must be possible. Dembski concedes this. His claim is that such a beginning is unlikely and he makes a well argued case for that view. He does not insist that therefore an Abrahamic God must be responsible for it. Dembski exposes the unreasonableness of the near universal belief of science that life originated and evolved to its present state entirely by accident. That no one has come up with an alternative between accident and intelligent design is not really Dembski’s problem.

Question #3. The problem here (“faiths” referring to “religious institutions”) is that all the [major] faiths are based on “holy books”, the writings of their founders usually (but not always) taken to be divinely authored in some direct or indirect manner. The people (and leaders) of these faiths have, by in large, absorbed the idea that their textual sources are infallible. Not every religious institution on Earth believes this basic falsehood but to one extent or another, they hold the value of all parts of these texts to be roughly equal.

In these texts, statements consistent with a first principles theology (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”) are admixed with others that plainly contradict them. Moreover, these books (in particular the Bible) purport to tell not only the history of the faith, but of the world beginning with its origin and all of history between then and their writing. Some of this exposition concerns mechanisms of the physical world. They are all pre-scientific and should not today be taken seriously, other than as [possibly] great literature! I return to this in my answer to question #5.

Question #4. This question is implicitly answered above in my reply to question #1. To be brief, the scope of the sciences is the purposeless mechanism of subsystems of the physical world. Strictly speaking scientific method (methodological naturalism) cannot be applied (experimentally) to the universe as a whole. It cannot be applied, for example, to discover if the physical cosmos has a purpose in the mind of some god.

Because the mechanisms (events) of subsets of the physical are purposeless they behave always in the same way under the same relevant conditions. It is this consistency that enables mind (in which and by which the scientific method is deployed) to explicate the mechanisms themselves through observation and, where possible, experimental tuning of conditions. None of this has to do with the question of whether a god has brought all of this cosmos about or how that god might relate to minded observers arising within its physical context.

Once science turns its method on mind itself ambiguities necessarily appear. Mind isn’t [apparently] material for one, but it is unambiguously purposeful. There is nothing preventing a purposeful mind from starting different causal chains under identical material conditions. Science can address the material roots of mind, but applying itself to mind as such can never complete its explanations. This doesn’t mean it cannot help to narrow mysteries about the nature of mind’s relation to brains, but it cannot remove them as it can with regard to the behavior of the macroscopic physical world.

Question #5. This question is the most equivocal between the two literal definitions of ‘religion’, personal versus institutional. Conflict between “the faiths” and science will not end until the institutions (and by extension their leaders and members) give up the false claim that their texts are the work of God (see “Misquoting Jesus” Bart Ehrman 2009). There is a ready substitute (at least philosophically) in a “first principles theology” (see Prolegomena linked above).

Once institutions identify in their texts that which is consistent with first principles (legitimately discovered by human beings; there are a few qualities we can infer about God) the rest is free to be interpreted as literature. Literature has value, culturally and otherwise, but as science, as a description of the mechanisms of the physical world, it is only speculative fiction. Indeed, and for the same reason, “the faiths” have as much conflict with one another as they do with science. Different holy books contradict one another as much as they contradict themselves. The real God, like the real physical universe, must be free of intrinsic contradictions!

Science has, in the end, the easier job here. It must merely give up the claim to any authority on the question of God’s reality leaving all the rest of science unchanged. Because they are automatic, the purposeless mechanisms of the physical world can be explicated without reference to God (see “The Blind Watchmaker” Richard Dawkins 2006). But this truth has nothing whatever to do with the question of whether the cosmos as a whole is the product of a design having a purpose for purposeless mechanism observable and manipulable by purposeful mind!

Mind itself, its subjective qualities, is the evidence, albeit not scientific evidence, there is something more to reality than science can legitimately address. Because this evidence, experience itself, is not scientific the individual scientist is free (though ironically we might ask how so?) to reject, intellectually, the conclusion that there must therefore be something more than physics. But such a rejection is philosophical and not scientific. Speaking as a scientist, one should stop asserting there is not or (in some claims) cannot be, anything more than physics.

There is no question #6 but one comes neatly to mind. “What, if anything, can religion say about the purposeless mechanisms of the physical universe”? In “The Goldilocks Enigma” (2008) Paul Davies, speaking of “fine-tuning” from the cosmological settings to the geophysical evolution of the Earth, notes that “if God is real, none of this would be surprising”. This is what religion in its institutional form can say about physical mechanisms. Their existence as such is not mysterious; there is an over-all purpose to their being just the way they are, a  purpose to physical purposelessness!

What purpose, or what range of purposes? Religion can address these questions (see “Why Free Will” linked above), but doing so takes us immediately away from physical mechanism into mind and mind’s sensitivity to values, our only (and strictly mental; subjective) contact with spirit; the character of God. It should not be surprising that we must account for purposeless mechanism, purposeful mind, and mind’s sensitivity to values, in any inference towards an answer to such questions.

Institutional religion however does disservice to its flock if it claims absolute authority to specify every detail of what it can reasonably infer of God’s purposes. This is the same disservice done by scientists who claim that science as such rejects God’s reality. Religion must face its own limitations. It is it not qualified to make pronouncements regarding physical mechanisms, and it can never declare its interpretations, inferences, and conclusions about the relation between persons and God final! Philosophically it faces the same insurmountable “interaction problem” as does physics, though unlike some physicists (see “The Beginning of Infinity” David Deutsch 2012), it does not assert that mind must in the end be able to resolve every such question.

I would like to add one note tying this subject to what I take to be Dr. Caruso’s view that contra-causal and libertarian (not the same concept but always found together) will is physically impossible. None of the answers given above make sense if a robust libertarian freedom, at least for human mind, is not presupposed. Yes philosophers have constructed a conundrum called “theological fatalism” in which libertarian freedom is rendered impossible by the very infinity (omniscience) of God claimed by religionists (see “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”). Here I note only that the matter is resolved by observing that human freedom is limited both as to conceiving and to acting in time while God’s foreknowledge is not. The outcome of this from our perspectival viewpoint is that God’s knowledge is not a cause of our choice. God’s knowledge also includes all possibilities from which our choice might be made. It is because we have real freedom from our perspective within mind that any choice, and in particular moral choice (the only domain in which our freedom is absolute) has any real meaning.

So following Searle, I have to say that nothing about the human experience, including all of its social history (including religion in both senses distinguished here), makes sense unless the robust reality of a libertarian free will is presupposed! I differ from Searle however. I do not automatically also suppose that this cannot be right because of the philosophical claim that this is impossible as no evidence of contra-causal cause has ever been found by physics.

It is my contention that the manifest freedom I exercise in dozens of choices made every day (most trivial, some of import) is that evidence! I concede that this is not scientific. This evidence, should it be evidence, exists in, and is only available to, subjective mind. Freedom is the quintessential manifestation of my agency, the central quality of my experience (noted ironically by Schopenhauer “The World as Will and Representation” 1844). There is in effect only one example of it in the universe, the connection between subjective consciousness and brains. But while brains can be studied by science, the experience they effect cannot except by report which is physical and can not evoke experience as such!

If then I take my experience of free will to be real then its [seeming] physical impossibility must mean that there is something else going on in the universe, something that must in some sense be independent of physics! If such considerations ultimately point to the conclusion that something like God must exist, then so be it. My aim is philosophical rigor based on experience, not rejection of possibility based on illegitimate philosophical induction on the part of physicists.

Why Free Will?

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Let’s begin with physics. I love physics! The mechanisms underlying the physical universe in which we live are fascinating to me. What most strikes me about these mechanisms is that they are purposeless. Underneath the deterministic behavior of macro-physics (expressed today in classical Newtonian Mechanics, electro-magnetic field theory, and both special and general relativity) there is the quantum realm in which a true randomness replaces determinism. This is important. Randomness becomes determinism as quantum phenomena emerge into the classical. Neither exhibits any evidence of purpose in its mechanism.

Authors note: Since writing this essay I have come to learn and understand that quantum phenomena are not random, but indeterminate. The difference is technical and has to do with there being a definite and determined statistical distribution of quantum outcomes. The outcome is NOT determined, but the distribution of outcomes is. That’s indeterminate! The argument in the rest of this essay does not, however, depend on this difference.

If there is any evidence for the existence of God it does not come from physics. Oh we can observe the universe, note its fantastic propensity for delicate structure from strings of galaxies to the operations of the living cell, recognize beauty in it all, and suppose that all of this was brought to be in a purposeful way by a God having some purposeful end in view. As it turns out, this association might be true and not interfere with the progressive discovery, by physics, of purposeless mechanism. We attribute to God the power to paint his purposes on the canvas of purposeless mechanism. But when we get down to the physics of it, we discover not that God couldn’t do this, but that God’s hypothetical purposes are not needed to explain the effect. Gravity, heat, and the values of the physical constants together can get the job done. Of course that these things got this particular job done (including life and what has followed from it), and not some other less amazing result, was simply an accident as far as physics is concerned. But that’s ok. Physics’ job is to uncover the mechanisms, not to pronounce upon their justification in a wider context.

The evidence for God’s existence, if it comes from anywhere, has to come from consciousness, the fact of a libertarian free will (at least in persons), and the detection of values – truth, beauty, and goodness. All of this is discussed in far more detail in two of my books (published in Amazon Kindle format), “Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free Will” (2014) and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” (2016). I’m not going to reprise those arguments here. Let’s assume that what I take to be “evidence of God’s existence” really is the evidence we need, at least provisionally, to accept God’s reality. The question I want to address is what the combination of a purposeless physical and libertarian free will accomplishes and how it helps to answer the question, why this universe? Why are free will and purposeless mechanism juxtaposed?

The Nature of Free Will

Free will comes down to our capacity to initiate novel chains of causation in the physical. Chains whose beginning cannot be attributed to an infinite regress of physical causes. The higher animals also have something of this power, but human-initiated causal chains, are novel in a much stronger way than chains initiated by animals. If a lioness hunts and kills a zebra for food, feeding parts of the carcass to her cubs, there are causal chains precipitated from those events, chains that would be absent if the lioness misses the zebra(or chooses to leave it be), while other causal chains would ensue – perhaps her cubs would starve. Animals can manipulate purposeless physical mechanism to initiate different futures by manipulating pre-existing agents and processes. In doing this, they introduce purpose into universe process. For animals, such purpose is limited to manipulating what already exists. The zebra already exists when the lioness sees it. She can leave it alone or hunt it. If she hunts it, she can succeed or fail. The result is a still-living zebra, a dead zebra, or a tired (but still living) zebra. None of these things would be new in the world.

Humans can also manipulate existing objects and processes in this way, but we can do something animals cannot. We can create genuinely unique objects and processes. These begin with ordinary pre-existing things, but we are capable of assembling such things into new things that did not exist before. Human initiated causal chains not only rearrange what existed prior, but from that re-arrangement build up new things whose effect on the world is entirely novel, an effect that never existed prior to the object (or process’s) creation. Human purpose imposes an entirely new level of order on deterministic physics, an order that did not exist prior to its imposition. Human choice, the capacity of human free will to create new realities, novel orders on top of deterministic mechanism, is novel in itself, something that is not exhibited in the rest of the animal kingdom.

Let’s imagine an analogy. God is a master artist, and we are his beginner student. The master can work in any medium, any paint, on any surface, sculpt in stone, clay, or bronze, compose and play magnificent music in any style, write masterpieces of literature, write, produce, and act in dramatic work. One might notice right away, that art is in fact one of the channels through which humans use free will to create what is new, but here the art analogy stands for novel creation in general. As beginning students of our master, we are given only one medium on which to create, a canvas which happens, in our case, to be a purposeless physics. Further we are given only one physical instrument with which to create, that being our bodies. It’s pretty obvious how the analogy goes. We impose purposeful order, the purposes being chosen by ourselves (freely) on the canvas we are given, the physical universe, with the only instrument we have, our bodies – and other instruments that we create using them.

But what purpose are we to impose? What are we to create on the canvas that surrounds us? We began by creating simple tools, stone axes, and clothing. A million years later and we have reached atomic bombs, aircraft, computers, vast scientific instruments, medicines, and more. Much of what we have created has, over all, benefited human life on Earth, or at least some portion of it. Much of course has brought also misery on a scale not imagined by our stone-axe-weilding ancestors. Here is where the values come back into this picture. In the theistic view, values, truth, beauty, and goodness, are not invented in human minds, but detected by them. They are the compass, the suggestion from the master (keeping to the art analogy) as it were, for what sorts of novelty we are supposed to create. But for free will to be genuinely free, the master is allowed (in God’s case restricts himself) only to suggest what we create and never dictate it!

Why not? Surely many masters dictate to beginning students. Here I have to leave my teacher-student analogy. In our real case, in the real world, the decision as concerns what to create lies only and exclusively in our will. Why should that be? Given that this can, and has, resulted in much misery throughout human history. Couldn’t God have arranged everything so that we were free in just about anything except as concerns the kinds of choices; choices that initiate causal chains having direct and deleterious impact on other human beings? I have to suppose he could have so arranged things, but the restriction must have an impact on the intended outcome (and God would know exactly what the difference would be) such that it wouldn’t work out to be what God intends.

How can we begin to say what God intends? In fact though, supposing God to be both infinite and [infinitely] good, allows us to say something at least of what must be true of what God wants. It must be the most repleat possible manifestation, in the physical, of his values which for now we know only as our dim detection of truth, beauty, and goodness. In theological circles this is expressed by the phrase “best possible universe”. Whatever else he might want, God must want the “best possible universe” that can be made. Clearly this is not the case now, at least not on Earth. This place is literally hell, tormented existence, for billions of people alive to day, and countless more who have come and gone since human history began.

Of course we do not know the status of life on other worlds, but a generally inhabited universe is easily supported by theism. More importantly, even as concerns this world, time must be factored into the eventual emergence of “best possible universe”. Apparently, at least God apparently thinks so, the best possible universe emerges over time when human beings, of their own free will, choose purposes and create based on what they perceive to be alignment with the values! What God wants is that world that results from that choice when the choice is utterly free. Apparently, those people will live in the best possible universe and it will be better, even than a universe that evolves through the same amount of time but in which humans were not free as concerns value entangled choices.

So there we’ve got the whole thing sort of summed up. To make the “best possible universe” human beings, all of them and for all future time, must (and will eventually) choose to align themselves with the values, with truth, beauty, and goodness, and all of that happens to come out to God’s will (metaphysically) and love in human experience. God could, by himself, have created a fantastic universe. But what seems to be the case is that an even better universe can (and will) come from a partnership between God and creatures who detect values and freely choose to incorporate what they detect in the causal chains they initiate. This cannot come about unless human beings are actually free to make those kinds of decisions. That means they are free not to make them, and that, in turn, leads away from the best possible universe, at least temporarily. I will return to this last point below.

The Relation between Free Will and Values

I want to say something more here about values, in particular how and why they figure in this process of human instantiation of God’s will. Three things are traditionally taken to be values as such; truth, beauty, and goodness. Separately, they are the root concepts of three major branches in philosophy, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics respectively. Within these separate domains there are outcomes or instantiations within the world of values, and these outcomes are taken to be “of value” because they do in some sense embody one or more of the core values. A true proposition is “of value” because it instantiates truth, fairness is “of value” because it embodies goodness. Beautiful things are “of value” because they are beautiful, etc. Truth is value in the intellectual domain, beauty is value represented in physical, while goodness is the value of personal choice, the value of interpersonal relationships.

Taken together, all the values raise the same metaphysical question: from whence do they come? In rejecting any theological metaphysics, most philosophers assert one or another version of human invention of values. Phenomenologically, they are entirely subjective although it might turn out, as we share much of our phenomenology, that they come out roughly the same in most persons. Their subjectivity is under normal circumstances constrained to a range. Your notion beauty might be different than mine, but it is rare that I would find beautiful what you find repulsively ugly. Truth we normally take to be somewhat more objective, less tolerant of subjective interpretation, while our sense of goodness falls somewhere in between beauty and truth. This view seems to explain how it is that while most persons seem to have some shared sense of values, many do not. Not only are there persons who perceive values in almost exclusive terms, there are those who do not appear to respond to them at all.

Importantly however, as much as philosophers have tried to ground “objectivity of value” on our shared biological experience, such grounding offers no reason why any one individual should pay attention to values. If on the whole the universe is purposeless, its only purpose being our purposes, who is to say that your purpose, to love others, is any more right than my purpose, to make all people my slaves? You might argue that more people will come our happier given your purpose. I might even concede your point but note that if values are invented by us, in the end, the happiness of the many is not any more intrinsically valuable than the satisfaction I derive from being slave-master of all. As concerns the purposeless universe, from my viewpoint, neither outcome is intrinsically to be preferred. If values are metaphysically subjective, the happiness of others can be justifiably irrelevant to me.

As already noted, in the theistic view values are not invented they are detected. They are extrinsic to us, a signal as it were from God, detected by human (and not animal) minds. Now as it might happen, minds are not equally sensitive to this signal, sometimes altogether, and sometimes separately. This explains some of the variation we have as concerns them, but more importantly, however well we perceive them, we are free to ignore them and this explains the rest. Of course our detection capability is imperfect as is our capacity to effect what we detect on the universal canvas. Importantly, value’s metaphysical objectivity provides the reason why any given individual should pay attention. Your purpose to love is in alignment with God’s will, while my purpose, to make slaves of all, is antithetical to it! “Knowing the end from the beginning” God’s will must eventually come to pass. Your free will choices are dedicated to assisting in the bringing about of that end, precisely the use God (apparently) forsees will result in the best possible universe! My will, by contrast cannot possibly contribute to that inevitable outcome. It must be, that while I might appear to gain something for a time, that which is gained has no intrinsic value. It incorporates nothing of truth, beauty, or goodness. This has consequences not only for others made miserable, but for me. I will deal with some of these issues in a future essay.

There is another important property of our relation with values. Our value-entangled free will choices are the only choices about which we are absolutely free. As such, they are the crucial link in the chain of process that (apparently) brings God’s will into the world; evolving purposeless mechanism into the best possible universe. All our other non-value related choices, while yet free, are hemmed in, constrained by what we can do physically with our tools. Only as concerns value-laden choices are we free in an unconstrained sense. It is with respect to this freedom that we become agents of the connection between God’s will and the physical universe. True our capacity to instantiate value in the physical is limited by all the constraints that limit our other choices. We can act only with our bodies and the tools created with them. But the choice to attempt that instantiation (or to refuse to do so), however imperfectly, is radically open. The best possible universe not only requires freedom, it requires radical freedom. Given that we are otherwise constrained to the physical, it is only with respect to value-entanglement that we are radically free. It isn’t merely through choice that we incorporate God’s will into the world, it is through choosing to instantiate the values! They are the link that connects God’s will and purposeless mechanism with human freedom. It is by following their compass that human choices remake the world over into God’s image of what must be the best possible world.

None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that the process of human partnering with God in the making of the best possible universe is straight forward. Although we are radically free with respect to the choice to attempt some mapping of value as we perceive it into the physical world, the process of carrying out that decision depends on our skills utilizing the same tools, starting with our bodies, that we employ in carrying out any other action-demanding decision we make. As concerns the individual’s relationship to God it is said that only the motive of the agent is important. An omniscient God knows us each most intimately, and would be an unfailing discerner of motive. The consequences to the individual of such choosing can be the subject of another essay, but I note that as with many kinds of physical action, practice contributes to skill.

As concerns the world however, that is as concerns the effect of some individual act on the world, much depends on both the skill of the actor in effecting the action, and also on the state of the world (including other actors) in which the action is set. Although this last is outside the control of the actor the two arenas do interact. A part of what constitutes skill with respect to a particular act at a particular time takes the state of the world into account up to some limit of which the actor is capable. I’ve already noted that we do not detect value perfectly. As some people have better eyesight than others, some are better value detectors. Detection capacity contributes to an individual’s skill as concerns value instantiation, but it is the state of the world that underlies the apparent relativity of values as they manifest in the world.

Any attempt at value instantiation that impacts more than one or a few near-by persons comes to interact with a wider milieu of states and personal actions that affect its outcome. On a crowded world, vastly different economic, social, political, and geographic circumstances, along with their specific outworking as concerns any particular individual, guarantees that no attempt to do good, avere truth, or enhance beauty will have straight forward and universally beneficial effects. This can be true even as concerns two individuals! If I give some money to two hungry people on the street one might buy alcohol while the other buys needed food. True I might have been more skillful in my choice of action, perhaps bringing food instead of giving money, but even in this case I have no way of knowing (unless I subsequently follow these individuals) how my megar attempt at bringing some goodness into the world plays out.

On larger scales the problem becomes more severe. Ethiopia wants to dam the headwaters of the Blue Nile, electrifying parts of the country for the first time, bringing economic opportunity to millions. But if the dam is built, the flow of the Nile will be much reduced and those nearer the mouth, in Egypt, will loose economic opportunity and their food supply as the river level falls. These kinds of problems are playing out all over our world, and anything the world community agrees to do as concerns these things invariably helps some and harms others. This would remain true even if the community’s motives were purely moral. As it happens, many more motives are typically involved.

The values are not a formula for success in building the best possible universe. They are a compass pointing in a direction but otherwise incapable of yeilding specific measures having desired outcomes. Those measures, their implementation and adjustment as one comes to know their outcomes, is our collective task. The compass is important however, and for reasons noted above recognizing its objectivity is also important. But all of that only gets us to justifying the demand for action and that the action be motivated by a desire to benefit those affected. The rest, the creativity, will (personal, economic, and political), and specific action to take are all entirely up to us. Not only is it our mission (at least as concerns God’s intent) to bring values into the world we must learn progressively how to do it! Part of that learning experience involves comparing outcomes of acts back to the compass! But this would make no sense, it would not be guaranteed, or even likely to work, if the compass were not objective.

Theodicy: Free Will and Evil

I have covered this subject in great detail in my first and third book. Here I can only summarize it all. Philosophers divide this problem into two parts, natural and human-caused evil. Natural evil is an oxymoron. The universe God needed includes physical events (for example stars exploding, earthquakes, and naturally-evolved diseases, that harm (or can harm) human beings. Death by gamma ray burst, earthquake, or disease are all bad for us, but they are no more technically evil than are the natural events that give rise to them. No one would assert that an exploding star is morally culpable.

Philosophers also accuse God of being evil for just this reason. Why would he create a universe in which such processes harmed human beings, or for that matter any sentient beings? Consider that the meteorite that ended the dinosaurs was very bad for them, but without those animals disappearing from the face of the earth we likely would not have evolved. The universe God needed, where an animal capable of perceiving value and freely choosing to instantiate it, who evolved through purposeless physical mechanism, could not function if the same mechanism that gave rise to that animal could not, sometimes, also destroy it. The “accidents of time” are not as such evil. An earthquake that kills people is no more evil than an earthquake that doesn’t, either because people have learned to mitigate its effects (earthquake-proof buildings) or because no people happened to live where it occurs. Either way, it is just an earthquake. Remember also that there are other aspects to this theology, personal-survival of death (see “What is the Soul”), but lets move on.

Besides natural evil, human beings also cause harm to other sentient beings, humans included. Philosophers call all of this evil, but they fail of a crucial distinction here. Humans cause harm in two ways. One is by making mistakes. We make decisions and perform actions, both moral and amoral,  that cause harm to others because we do not have a full understanding of the future consequences of our actions. It is not our intent that these actions subsequently cause harm, but they do. Mistakes are not evil, they are just errors.

But there is another category. Human beings can deliberately and freely choose to do that which we know is a mistake, or what we know is “morally wrong” in the sense that it is an action in opposition to the value pointer. These actions are true evil. It is through error, deliberately and knowingly chosen, that evil enters the world. It is for this reason that free will is so intimately related to both the building-in-partnership-with-God the best possible universe, and to the degradation of any progress made in that direction, by the willful choice to contravene it. That choice is evil.

My view has been criticized on the grounds that “death is death” whether from earthquake, some error, or evil. This of course is true, but not to the point. Theology coheres together as a piece or not at all. Death from any source is temporary (see above link on the soul). What is important about the difference is that with evil human will is being freely (willfully) deployed in opposition to the direction of value compass. Because free will is so deployed there are consequences in addition to whatever might have stemmed from the action had it been purely a mistake.

Besides those impinging, psychologically and spiritually, on the person who commits evil, the consequences of evil are sociological. They impinge on human life in ways that error alone does not. They are, for example recursively reinforcing (one evil act leads to others by the same agent and others) where error is recursively-correcting. Agents, including the agent committing the error, tend to work toward mitigating the bad effects once they are known. Errors serve to teach. Evil can also serve to teach, but typically those who commit it resist such teaching and it is left to others, using their free will, to mitigate its effects.

To make the [future] “best possible universe” God juxtaposed free will and purposeless mechanism in a physical universe capable of evolving value-discriminating mind. He could not do this without allowing that sometimes the physical mechanisms destroy the very minds (and bodies) that evolve from them. In the same way, he had to allow that free will might, if it was really free, be deployed in direct opposition to the universe plan.

The plan must eventually come to pass and be completed. That means the consequences of evil can only be temporary albeit from our viewpoint can extend in time over multiple human generations; all a blink-in-the-eye from God’s viewpoint. As concerns our agency, God must permit much more than he himself wills if free will is to be genuinely free.