October 16, 2009

Falsifiability and the Argument Regarding Design

Posted in Answering Apologists, Science, The Universe tagged , , , at 10:26 am by Andrew

Conceptually, I think the Argument Regarding Design — the notion that something must have created this wondrous universe that displays such complexity is bogus on basically every level, from the incorrect factual premise to the unsubstantiated conclusion. I set forth a lot of those arguments in my article “The Heavens Do Not Declare The Glory of God.”

One of the arguments I’ve made only by implication in that article is the falsifiability argument; namely, that the Argument Regarding Design is empty as a hypothesis, because any state of the universe could be offered as “evidence” for the hypothesis. So, for example, many apologists argue that the narrow band for various cosmological constants is evidence that the universe is “finely tuned” so as to permit human life.

The problem is that if the evidence were completely opposite, the apologist could make the exact same argument. Go ahead and scroll through the link; you’ll see classic cosmological fine-tuning arguments like, “if the cosmological argument were fractionally larger, the universe would have expanded too quickly for stars to form,” and “if the strong nuclear force were fractionally larger, then carbon-based life would have been impossible” and the like.

Now consider if the laws of the universe were fundamentally different, such that virtually any value for the cosmological constant would produce stars, and virtually any value for the strong nuclear force would produce stable carbon atoms, and the like. (Yes, this is a difficult thought experiment, but the original apologist is asking you to imagine different values for a constant, so in some sense we’re already through the looking glass.) Wouldn’t that be used as exactly the same kind of evidence for the Argument Regarding Design? The apologist could say, “See! God created the universe so that it would inexorably lead to human life no matter what; that’s proof that the universe was designed with us in mind!”

I’ve found that Christians often have a difficult time understanding this response, so, while working my way through Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians (which I would highly recommend to anyone who reads this blog; just click on the link for a free PDF), I found a passage in which Altemeyer critiques Freudian authoritiarian theory for precisely the same set of reasons; i.e., lack of falsifiability. Here’s what he says:

Several theories have tried to explain authoritarian aggression, and the Freudian one has long been the best known. I was quite seduced by its ingenuity and drama when I first heard of it. Let’s see if it can seduce you.

Supposedly the future authoritarian follower was severely punished as a child by his cold, distant parents for any signs of independence or rebellion. So such urges were repressed. Instead through a reaction-formation the child became obedient, loyal, even adoring of his parents. But deep down inside he hated them. However the Freudian “deep down inside” doesn’t have a shredder or burn-basket, so ultimately the repressed hostility has to come out some way. Thus the authoritarian follower projected his hostility onto safe targets, such as groups whom the parents disliked or people who couldn’t fight back, and decided they were out to get him. That projection provided the rationalization for attacking them and, voila, you have authoritarian aggression–thanks to just about all the ego defense mechanisms in Freud’s book.

Seduced? Resistance is futile? Ready to be assimilated into the Freudian bloc? You’ll find it lonely there. You may have heard that Freud no longer rules the roost in psychology, and this explanation of authoritarian aggression reveals a big reason why. It’s basically untestable. You have no way of discovering whether it is right or wrong, because it supposedly involves deeply unconscious defense mechanisms which the defending mechanic knows nothing about and so will quite honestly deny.

If you try instead to study the “leaks” from the Freudian unconscious, such as dreams or fantasies, you get a mishmash that can be interpreted however you wish. Suppose you did a study of dreams and concluded that authoritarians greatly love their parents. “Ah ha,” the theory would say with goose bumps breaking out, “there’s that reaction-formation I told you about.” Suppose you found, on the other hand, that authoritarians seemed to hate their parents. “Ah ha,” the Freudians would remark, “Just as we said; their unconscious mind is so filled with dislike for dad and mom, it can’t be held back any more.” Suppose you found that authoritarians dream both good things and bad things about their parents. “Ah ha,” goes the explanation. “You see both repression and the true feelings are at work.”

One gets nowhere with a theory that can “predict” whatever happened, after it happens. Having an answer for everything may make one a great used car salesman, but it rings the death knell for a theory in science. In science, the best explanations are nailed-down-testable.

Altemeyer’s critique here — of an entirely secular theory, mind you, so there’s no anti-religious bias — is exactly what’s wrong with the Argument Regarding Design. All potential evidence fits the hypothesis, so the hypothesis is worthless.

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