Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Murphy Bed

People who love books are advised not to open bookstores on the same reasoning that suggests that the perfect spouse is somebody you don’t hate but don’t particularly like either. I once contemplated a career in the ministry on this basis, figuring that a passionless disbeliever would make a well-nigh ideal Episcopalian priest. Besides, I rather looked the part. As a trial run, I once conducted a service at Pomona College, which went OK, although the congregation was puzzled why I had them sing the hymn about “those in peril on the sea”—I had written the wrong number down in my notes. The clerical theme crops up later in my story as well, though these days, I’ve given up impersonating a Protestant preacher in favor of being mistaken for a local Hassidic rabbi. The rumor that I’m actually Pope Benedict blogging under an assumed name is unsupported by credible evidence, however.

The point is—there must be a point around here someplace—the point is I don’t have any dislike of churches or theologies. I don’t think there is a particle of truth in the articles of anybody’s faith, but that’s not much of an argument against religion. Human life needs a ritual dimension; or, to be more accurate, we prefer not to leave dead family members out in the trash, even if we don’t believe in the prospect of recycling. It’s only humane and decent to frame the facts of our existence with due ceremony. Literal belief in Gods and spirits is unnecessary and, in any case, largely irrelevant even to most believers because modern religiosity is like a Murphy bed. It folds away when not in use.

You often encounter biologists who vigorously oppose the thesis of intelligent design on the unimpeachable grounds that it isn’t science and yet maintain their own Sunday-morning version of divine design. Nature shows no trace of the workings of an extraneous intelligence—the VIN numbers having been filed off the mitochondria—but one can certainly claim that the entire system of the world was created with just the right characteristics to produce intelligent life. Conway Morris, in his otherwise very impressive book Life’s Devices, makes this argument; and is obviously proud of it, too, even though it is very little more than a restatement of the rather basic theorem of modal logic that everything actual was formerly possible. Even the fact, if it is a fact, that the constants of physics have to be almost exactly what they are in order to make life possible, doesn’t provide any evidence of “fine tuning.” Indeed, the expression “fine tuning” is itself an instance of question begging since the whole issue is whether there ever was any tuning or any tuner in the first place. Anyhow, if it is miraculous that our emergence was, like the Battle of Waterloo, a close run thing, adding a second miracle to explain the first won’t lessen the peculiarity of the situation. But if Morris’ argument is a non-starter from a philosophical point of view, it is also a completely harmless one since it has been carefully crafted to have no consequences whatsoever for the conduct of the sciences or for our understating of nature. A perfect Murphy bed.

Incidentally, I was reminded of the Morris book recently when I encountered a somewhat similar line of reasoning in R.J.P. Williams and J.J.R. Frausto de Silva’s “the Chemistry of Evolution,” which, while carefully avoiding theological overtones, attempts to understand the evolution of living things as the more or less inevitable unfolding of the potentialities of elements under the conditions that obtained in early Earth history. Williams and de Silva speak about the emergence of general ways of processing energy and matter such as anaerobic prokaryotes or unicellular eukaryotes or animals with nervous systems and brains rather than of particular taxa while Morris argues, much less plausibly, for the inevitability of something recognizably human, down to bipedal locomotion. Even so, I expect that Williams and de Silva have overstated their case, but I’m inclined to think that the table of Mendeleev does explain rather more than the tablets of Moses. The Chemistry of Evolution book also has the virtue of underling the role of inorganic chemistry in the development and functioning of living things, something rather lost in many popular accounts of living things, reflecting as such accounts do the prejudices of the organic chemists and the journalists’ obsession with DNA.