Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why Not Angels?

Science textbooks of the future.

Parodies of Intelligent Design.

When I am motivated to write something I intend to make available on the www, I sometimes use a search engine to find whether it's already been done (and then maybe I won't have to write it). In this case my intention was to illustrate the futility of "filling the gaps" in scientific knowledge with supernatural hypotheses. The obvious examples would be:
  1. In medieval times no one had any notion what kept planets moving in their orbits. So some asssumed that it must be that each planet had a dedicated angel to push it round and round.
  2. Since science has no "why?" explanation for anything that goes on in the natural world, then everythingrequires a supernatural explanation. Perhaps dedicated "industrious angels" (IA) do all of the "nature stuff".
Apparently those ideas were too obvious, especially to those who actually think about such matters. I turned up a wealth of commentary, parody and satire on these ideas, and one spoof "theory" already has a name: "Intelligent Falling Theory" (IFT). Now I'd seen this idea lampooned before, but was totally unaware that it has already swept the internet and has become a "phenomenon" of diverse satirical parodies of the "intelligent design" idea. A good place to start learning about IFT is an article in the Wikipedia: Intelligent Falling. The one I like best is from Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New 'Intelligent Falling' Theory from The Onion.
Since all the good jokes have already been taken, it remains for me to do the serious commentary on this idea. First, we must admit that the hypothesis that angels drive everything that happens in nature is a hypothesis that can't be disproven, nor can it be proven, either. So it's "as good" as any other supernatural explanation, even as good as the "intelligent design" idea. It can account for any fact of nature that you wish to specify, and even facts as yet undiscovered.

Angels in the History of Science.

Medieval scholastics were lampooned as "arguing over how many angels could dance on the point of a pin". I've not found documentation for that argument actually occurring, but we know they argued whether angels defecate and whether Adam had a navel. Clearly they took angels seriously. Even the argument over Adam's navel (the Omphalos question) raised the issue "Could God (or would God) create something with the appearance of a history that it never had?" Some thought this would be a deception unworthy of God. Others argued that God is all-powerful and certainly could do anything He wants, and surely could do this. Flash forward to arguments over whether geological and fossil evidence tells of a long history of the earth (longer than could be consistent with Biblical genealogies), or whether God just played a trick on us by salting the earth with vast amounts of consistent evidence pointing to a past history that never happened. This has already been parodied by postulating that God could have created everything just five minutes ago, giving us memories of our own pasts that never took place and filling the world of our experience with similarly consistent (but fake) evidence. Surely an all-powerful God could do it.
Angels, like sheepdogs, herd the Sun and planets as they orbit Earth.
Medieval concept of
angels pushing planets.
When Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) began to wonder why the planets move as they do, for a while he entertained the then-popular notion that planets were pushed by angels. After all, planetary motion had been found to be quite lawful and regular, yet there was no obvious agent to give them a push, as Aristotelian physics required. But Kepler did not leave it there, he wanted to know more about howthe process worked, and after considering and discarding many hypotheses over many years (some of them fantastical and mystical), he finally stripped away the supernatural notions and worked out his three purely mathematical laws of planetary motion. His model never answered the question of "what pushes the planets", but his model didn't have angels. (It turned out that that question was the wrong question, for Newton showed that nothing pushes the planets.) Still, Kepler's laws worked, and stand as a landmark of science to this day.
Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) proposed his theories of mechanics (in which the idea of force was finally interpreted in a useful way) and his law of universal gravitation. Critics called it an "occult theory". They complained that he hadn't explained anything, just worked out the laws of how things operate. They wanted an "explanation" of this gravitational force that could act on bodies without anything between them. Newton responded "I make no hypothesis", probably meaning "I don't speculate on such matters." But clearly he did speculate, at least privately. In a letter to the Reverend Dr. Richard Bentley in 1692, Isaac Newton wrote: "To your second query I answer that the motions which the planets now have could not spring from any natural cause alone but were impressed by an intelligent agent." [Those who support "intelligent design" can count Newton as one of their own.] Still, Newton was able to develop and perfect his scientific theory of mechanics without ever explicitly invoking anything supernatural or mystical. His mechanics worked without such assumptions. Perhaps he understood that the supernatural and mystical, even if they are a part of one's own philosophy, have no place in scientific theory. In my opinion, Newton showed the way, and the necessity, to keep natural philosophy (science) and religious philosophy separate.
Methodological naturalism is the result of scientists learning from their past mistakes. It is also the result of understanding that supernatural explanations don't advance science in any way. They are at best unproductive, at worst counter-productive, and always unnecessary. When we encounter things that we can't yet explain, we simply work harder to find explanations in nature. We don't throw in the towel and say "it must be supernatural". Sometimes we just have to be patient and wait for technological advances. There's no shame in admitting "we don't know". —DES
During the 17th century some scientists still tried to incorporate religious notions into their science, but as time went on scientists realized that mixing science and religion was simply unnecessary and unproductive. Today most scientists (whether or not they are personally religious) realize that religious and supernatural ideas are inappropriate in science. Such supernatural hypothesis are irrelevant, and do not in any way advance the progress of science. So methodological naturalism is not motivated by hostility toward religion, but is motivated simply by the practical "economy of assumptions", and the requirement that scientific concepts must be clearly linked to facts that can be observed and verified in nature.

Angelic Science.

The ID advocates seek to turn back the clock to pre-Newtonian times, when magic, mysticism, religion and science were all jumbled together. If there's something we don't understand, postulate a supernatural explanation. So why not revive angels as part of science? In theology it was never quite clear why God made angels, what their purpose was, or even how many there are. Perhaps God created them to perform the day-to-day operations of the universe, freeing up his time to do other creative things.
So why does a body fall? Science doesn't tell us. Science only describes "how" it falls, and gives us equations describing how it falls. Other equations relate the fall of the apple to the fall of the moon as it orbits the earth, and even to the motions of stars and galaxies and everything else in the universe. But is this an explanation? No, it is only a description. So, since one explanation is as good as any other, so long as it "accounts for the facts", let's explain all of science using angels as the fundamental concept.
A quantum-mechanic angel at work. © 1987 by John Holden.
Angels are very tiny, and undetectable with any instrument we might devise. Space is filled with them. There's a quantum sea of angels everywhere in the universe, in every nook and cranny. Why does a body fall? Simple. Angels pass it from one to another like a fireman's bucket brigade. They do this in strict accordance to the "Angelic Operations Manual", written by the hand of God, in which angelic procedures are carried out precisely so that everything that happens in the universe "goes by the book". Therefore everything conforms to the equations found in physics books—equations that scientists imagined they discovered. Once in a while a directive comes down from on high that certain procedures are to be suspended or modified when a miracle is required, but mostly things run like clockwork.
In this manner everything from cosmic to subatomic becomes explainable in terms even non-scientists can appreciate. Soon we will teach the quantum theory of angels in universities. Physicists' "strings and superstrings" will be seen to be nothing but clusters of angels acting in harmony—celestial harmony, of course. The speed of light will be understood as the limiting speed in the universe simply because it is related to the natural reaction time of angels.
Theists will look at this new angelic science and declare "It is good!". But some scientists will surely grumble, "It still doesn't explain the psychology of angels."
Seriously, such parodies of ID show that supernatural concepts grafted onto science are superfluous and unnecessary. They purport to "explain", but are themselves unexplained concepts or lead to more questions, equally unanswerable.
    —Donald E. Simanek