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Star Trek and the supernatural: A paradox for naturalists?

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Over at RealClearScience, biologist Steven “Ross” Pomeroy has written an interesting piece titled, Why God Cannot Be Proven: A Star Trek Argument. Pomeroy contends that since aliens could duplicate anything that a Deity could do, author Eric Metaxas was wrong to claim that science could make a case for God, as he did an a Wall Street Journal article last Christmas.

It strikes me that there are several things wrong with Pomeroy’s argument. I’d like to point out four major flaws before I go on to discuss what I see as a paradox for naturalism which is implied by his argument: if it is correct, then our own species (Homo sapiens) was almost certainly produced by intelligent designers (aliens) who have intervened repeatedly in the course of evolution.

Four flaws in the “Star Trek” argument

First, I should point out that Eric Metaxas’s article was modestly titled, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” Making a case for God is not the same as proving the existence of God – something which Metaxas never claimed to do.

Second, even New Atheist Jerry Coyne thinks that the argument that aliens could duplicate the miracles wrought by a Deity isn’t a very good one. To begin with, let’s look at how Pomeroy argues for this conclusion, in his recent article:

Even if Metataxas presented stronger evidence, his argument still would have failed spectacularly. We can use Star Trek to elucidate why.

Perhaps the strongest evidence possible for the existence of God would be if some being came down from the sky and repeated all the feats performed in the Bible. But, as one enlightened listener of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast recently pointed out, “What could a God do that couldn’t either be done by a being such as Q or faked with high technology? Even if the Bible were 100% true, how could we be sure it wasn’t just some Q-like being screwing with us?”

Later on in his piece, Pomeroy quotes Rabbi Alan Lurie’s argument (made in a 2010 Huffington Post article) that even the growth of new limbs on amputees wouldn’t prove the existence of God):

Even if this did happen, it would not prove the existence of God but would instead prove that there is some kind of regenerative force or energy that responds to the right kind of conscious thought. Likewise, a glowing presence and booming voice appearing on the White House lawn proclaiming “I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” as the waters of the Potomac part, would prove that there is an entity with powerful technology, and would be no more a proof of God than an airplane to a cave man.

However, Professor Jerry Coyne rebutted this line of reasoning in a post he wrote back in 2012, where he responded to the “aliens-could-do-it-too” argument by pointing out that signs and miracles could still provide provisional evidence for the existence of God, if they were sufficiently distinctive:

I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.

Yes, maybe aliens could do that, and maybe it would be an alien trick to imitate Jesus (combined with an advanced technology that could regrow limbs), but so what? I see no problem with provisionally calling such a being “God” — particularly if it comports with traditional religious belief — until proven otherwise. What I can say is “this looks like God, but we should try to find out more. In the meantime, I’ll provisionally accept it.” That, of course, depends on there being a plethora of evidence. As we all know, there isn’t…

Science can never prove anything. If you accept that, then we can never absolutely prove the absence of a “supernatural” god — or the presence of one. We can only find evidence that supports or weakens a given hypothesis. There is not an iota of evidence for The God Hypothesis, but I claim that there could be.

Third, Pomeroy boxes himself in by asserting, in the final paragraph of his article, that science is committed to methodological naturalism:

Science is a far-reaching enterprise, but its purview is constrained to the natural world. Seeing as how God is undeniably a supernatural concept, the question of his existence falls outside science’s reach. No scientific evidence will ever conclusively prove the existence of God.

But it turns out that Professor Jerry Coyne convincingly refuted this argument, in his 2012 post, in which he wrote:

I don’t see science as committed to methodological naturalism — at least in terms of accepting only natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science is committed to a) finding out what phenomena are real, and b) coming up with the best explanations for those real, natural phenomena. Methodological naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a strategy that has repeatedly worked in science, and so has been adopted by all working scientists.

Coyne goes on to quote a commenter named Explicit Atheist, who explains why science is essentially a pragmatic, rather than a naturalistic enterprise:

Science is about discovering what is true about how our universe works. If divine revelation given to those who worship a particular deity in a particular way was the method that worked then science would adopt methodological supernaturalism and scientists would be people who devote themselves to obtaining revelations about how the world works by worshipping that deity that way. Mr. Coyne, Stenger, and Dawkins are correct, science a- priori presumes nothing and rules nothing in or out. Science is completely pragmatic and will adopt any methodologies and any conclusions that are successful. Success is the only criteria that defines what is scientific and what is not, both up-front with methodologies and down-back with conclusions.

Fourth, one could plausibly argue that there are certain miracles which aliens could not duplicate. Thomist philosopher Ed Feser has argued that the resurrection of a dead person is such a miracle:

A miracle that could reasonably be expected to be compelling evidence of a divine revelation across different cultures and historical periods would have to be … something that could not in principle have any cause other than God (which means, of course, the God of classical theism). Fire coming down from the sky doesn’t fit the bill. But I would submit that a man known for certain to be dead coming back to life does fit the bill. (Obviously I mean literally and unambiguously dead, not merely “brain dead,” or “having flatlined,” or the like.)

In a subsequent post, Feser explains that a resurrection from the dead is beyond the power of natural agents (such as humans, aliens, or even angels) because some of the powers possessed by human beings (viz. intellect and will) are immaterial powers, whose exercise does not involve the operation of any bodily organ:

Though not naturally possible, such a resurrection is nevertheless supernaturally possible because the human soul is immortal. If there were nothing that persisted between the death of an individual human being and his resurrection, the resurrected human being would not really be the same human being, but only a duplicate. (This is why a non-human animal cannot be resurrected. Since such animals have no immaterial operations, there is nothing left of the individual after the death of its body. The most that could come into being after Rover’s death is an exact duplicate of Rover, but not Rover himself.)

Now, I happen to find Feser’s arguments for the immateriality of the human intellect (and the human will) highly persuasive – indeed, I cited them in my online e-book, Embryo and Einstein: Why They’re Equal. However, I would like to point out that Feser’s arguments are philosophical arguments that contain built-in metaphysical assumptions which require an elaborate defense, and which an atheistic materialist is likely to reject. For instance, someone who doesn’t believe that things have essences or substantial forms won’t be particularly impressed by the Thomistic argument that a material entity is incapable of receiving the substantial forms of many different kinds of beings at once; hence, the human intellect (which can grasp the forms of many kind of things at the same time) must be immaterial.

For that reason, I prefer to appeal to scientific considerations, when arguing against the possibility of raising an individual from the dead – complete with all their memories – by purely natural means. A strong prima facie case could be made that the level of specificity involved in such a resurrection – especially in remaking a living human brain and restoring its old memories – would be prohibitively high, even for advanced aliens. (I might point out that the human brain contains about 1.5×10^26 atoms. Duplicating that, or even making a passable approximation, would be a formidable technical task.)

Why the “Star Trek” argument generates a paradox for naturalism

But even if it were possible for aliens to transform a corpse into the living body of a recently deceased human individual, complete with all their memories, the “Star Trek” argument generates a paradox for naturalism: if it is correct, then we probably live in a universe designed by aliens who intelligently guided the course of evolution in order to produce us. The paradox can be formulated as follows:

(a) as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has pointed out in his simulation argument and as physicist Paul Davies has also argued, if the multiverse is real, then our own universe was probably designed by aliens;

(b) since the probabilistic resources of a multiverse are infinite, whereas the probabilistic resources of our own universe are finite, then we may conclude that if we ever encountered any aliens who were capable of raising a long-dead human body back to life, these aliens would most likely come from some other universe outside our own;

(c) however, if such aliens were capable of reaching into our universe in order to bring a long-dead body back to life, then they would also be quite capable of intelligently guiding the course of evolution, since the latter requires only the ability to engineer specific mutations, which is a much easier technical feat than resurrecting a long-dead body;

(d) moreover, if aliens wanted to make a world containing sentient and/or intelligent beings (such as ourselves), then it would make much more sense for them to do so by a reliable process (such as intelligently guided evolution) than a hit-and-miss process like Darwinian evolution, or for that matter, neutral evolution;

(e) consequently, if there exist aliens in other universes who are capable of bringing a long-dead human body back to life, then our own evolution is most likely the result of intelligent design.

Let’s now examine premises (a), (b), (c) and (d) in more detail.

As we have seen, premise (a) is argued for by top physicist Paul Davies, as well as Oxford philosopher Simon Bostrom. It assumes nothing more than the existence of the multiverse.

Premise (b) appears mathematically unexceptionable. It does, however, make the implicit assumption that it is possible for aliens in one universe to control events occurring in another universe – something they could easily do if the latter is a virtual reality simulation, which premise (a) implies most universes would be.

Premise (c) merely states that genetic engineering (causing a mutation here or there) would be easier for aliens to accomplish than bringing a long-dead human body back to life. Again, it seems difficult to argue with this point: our own scientists can easily do the former, but are light-years away from accomplishing the latter.

Finally, premise (d) merely makes the psychological assumptions that (i) if our universe was generated by aliens, as premise (a) asserts, then presumably one of their aims was the creation of sentient and/or sapient life, and (ii) if an agent intends to accomplish a task (in this case, the generation of sentient and sapient life), then they are more likely to choose a method that is guaranteed to work (i.e. intelligent design) than one that isn’t (i.e. Darwinian evolution or neutral evolution). Once again, this seems a fairly obvious point.

Assuming that the foregoing reasoning is sound, then Ross Pomeroy’s “Star Trek” argument generates an interesting paradox: if its claim that aliens could accomplish any technical feat that a Deity could accomplish is correct, then by the same token, our own existence is most likely the result of intelligent alien intervention in the evolution of life on Earth. In other words, if Pomeroy is right in claiming that the existence of God cannot be scientifically proven by any technical feat that God alone could accomplish, then his claim actually reduces the likelihood that we are here as the result of a purposeless process that did not have us in mind, as the majority of biologists (who are intellectually wedded to naturalism) currently believe.

At this point, I will throw the discussion open to readers. Comment is welcome.

Hi Seversky, I was interested to read that you could get behind a god who was like Mr. Spock: "logical, objective, dispassionate, unprejudiced but leavened with humility, empathy and compassion." Actually, there have been people who supported Intelligent Design and who believed in such a God. One such person was Thomas Paine. You might like to read David Morris's 2005 article on Alternet.org titled, Thomas Paine and Intelligent Design. vjtorley
Star Trek! Now you're talking! As a Trekkie, I've always held that God, not being of this Earth or even this universe, is extraterrestrial and alien by definition. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think I could get behind a god who was like Mr Spock: logical, objective, dispassionate, unprejudiced but leavened with humility, empathy and compassion. Anybody know of one? The God of the OT comes across more like Klingon than Vulcan unfortunately. Seversky
wont take the time to read anything about star trek. But will make a comment anyway. What is this star trek crap. Came from the minds of the secular media public f-----s for a huge profit. Why even give any kind of publicity to these merchants of crap. There is nothing but BS from the scientific perspective. Just a bunch of BS. Pop culture is the enemy of science. Why give anything coming out of that any kind of publicity? bpragmatic
(a) as Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has pointed out in his simulation argument and as physicist Paul Davies has also argued, if the multiverse is real, then our own universe was probably designed by aliens;
A strong argument against this universe being a simulation is the amount of suffering that occurs would make it immoral. Another is that it would require knowing the initial conditions of an actual universe like ours as a starting point for the simulation.
(b) since the probabilistic resources of a multiverse are infinite, whereas the probabilistic resources of our own universe are finite, then we may conclude that if we ever encountered any aliens who were capable of raising a long-dead human body back to life, these aliens would most likely come from some other universe outside our own;
And advanced alien race could have picked a number of people to scan before they died for the explicit purpose of impersonating God. While this would prevent them from resurrecting absoluately on demand, completely arbitrary repeatability hasn't been an issue for theists believing in God.
(d) moreover, if aliens wanted to make a world containing sentient and/or intelligent beings (such as ourselves), then it would make much more sense for them to do so by a reliable process (such as intelligently guided evolution) than a hit-and-miss process like Darwinian evolution, or for that matter, neutral evolution.
You're assuming the advances an alien civilization would make would not include advances in epistemology. IOW, they would be more advanced because they had better explanations for how knowledge grows, which begins with a unified theory of the universal growth of knowledge. Intelligently guided evolution is not reliable in the sense you're implying because we cannot guarantee any solution we might conjecture will actual solve the problem at hand. Or it might solve some other problem we did not intend to solve. The idea that theories come from observations has not withstood criticism. As such, an advanced alien civilization would have better epistemological problems to solve, such as how people guess the contents of theories, rather than inducing them from observations. That would be a significant breakthrough which would usher in general artificial intelligence. Merely feeing computers with faster processors and more memory even more existing observations does not result in it generating genuinely new explanations. It's unclear why that same process would be any better for explanation for how designers create genuinely new explanations, either.
(e) consequently, if there exist aliens in other universes who are capable of bringing a long-dead human body back to life, then our own evolution is most likely the result of intelligent design.
A long dead body only need to be a specific target that already existed, not a completely novel design that was proposed from the ground up. Again, an advanced alien civilization would have better, wider, deeper explanations for the growth of knowledge. This would include better explanations for how human designers design things, not stagnation. In turn, this would result in even better explanations for the appearance of design other than authoritative sources of knowledge. For example, we've already discarded the idea of the divine right of kings to rule, which is authoritative in nature. What we are considered with is the content of ideas, not their source. Why you would expect this explanation to be held by and advanced alien civilization is unclear. To quote physicist John Wheeler..
Our whole problem is to make the mistakes as quickly as possible.
In fact, it would appear the entire argument in the OP is based on a specific philosophical view about the growth of knowledge, or the lack there of. Namely, it assumes our knowledge can grow, but our explanation for how knowledge grows itself can no longer grow in a way that would impact the author's conclusion in any significant way. Popperian
Bank of Canada urges ‘Star Trek’ fans to stop ‘Spocking’ their fivers http://dangerousminds.net/comments/bank_of_canada_urges_star_trek_fans_to_stop_spocking_their_fivers bornagain
"Do ID proponents believe it is possible that someday a synthetic biologist could create a mouse, essentially from scratch?" Since you first to have to be able to understand something in sufficient detail before you can build it, the answer, due to what is termed the 'complexity brake', is, at least from this IDist, no:
"Complexity Brake" Defies Evolution - August 8, 2012 Excerpt: Consider a neuronal synapse -- the presynaptic terminal has an estimated 1000 distinct proteins. Fully analyzing their possible interactions would take about 2000 years. Or consider the task of fully characterizing the visual cortex of the mouse -- about 2 million neurons. Under the extreme assumption that the neurons in these systems can all interact with each other, analyzing the various combinations will take about 10 million years..., even though it is assumed that the underlying technology speeds up by an order of magnitude each year. http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/08/complexity_brak062961.html The Humpty-Dumpty Effect: A Revolutionary Paper with Far-Reaching Implications - Paul Nelson - October 23, 2012 Excerpt: Put simply, the Levinthal paradox states that when one calculates the number of possible topological (rotational) configurations for the amino acids in even a small (say, 100 residue) unfolded protein, random search could never find the final folded conformation of that same protein during the lifetime of the physical universe. http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/10/a_revolutionary065521.html Francis Collins on Making Life Excerpt: 'We are so woefully ignorant about how biology really works. We still don't understand how a particular DNA sequence—when we just stare at it—codes for a protein that has a particular function. We can't even figure out how that protein would fold—into what kind of three-dimensional shape. And I would defy anybody who is going to tell me that they could, from first principles, predict not only the shape of the protein but also what it does.' – Francis Collins - Former Director of the Human Genome Project http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/collins-genome.html Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator - Fazale Rana Excerpt of Review: ‘Another interesting section of Creating Life in the Lab is one on artificial enzymes. Biological enzymes catalyze chemical reactions, often increasing the spontaneous reaction rate by a billion times or more. Scientists have set out to produce artificial enzymes that catalyze chemical reactions not used in biological organisms. Comparing the structure of biological enzymes, scientists used super-computers to calculate the sequences of amino acids in their enzymes that might catalyze the reaction they were interested in. After testing dozens of candidates,, the best ones were chosen and subjected to “in vitro evolution,” which increased the reaction rate up to 200-fold. Despite all this “intelligent design,” the artificial enzymes were 10,000 to 1,000,000,000 times less efficient than their biological counterparts. Dr. Rana asks the question, “is it reasonable to think that undirected evolutionary processes routinely accomplished this task?” http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0801072093 Dr. Fuz Rana, at the 41:30 minute mark of the following video, speaks on the tremendous effort that went into building the preceding protein: Science - Fuz Rana - Unbelievable? Conference 2013 - video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-u34VJ8J5_c&list=PLS5E_VeVNzAstcmbIlygiEFir3tQtlWxx&index=8 Computer-designed proteins programmed to disarm variety of flu viruses - June 1, 2012 Excerpt: The research efforts, akin to docking a space station but on a molecular level, are made possible by computers that can describe the landscapes of forces involved on the submicroscopic scale.,, These maps were used to reprogram the design to achieve a more precise interaction between the inhibitor protein and the virus molecule. It also enabled the scientists, they said, "to leapfrog over bottlenecks" to improve the activity of the binder. http://phys.org/news/2012-06-computer-designed-proteins-variety-flu-viruses.html
As the notion of aliens designing the human race has been raised, I'll ask: will humans ever have similar capabilities? For example, could humans ever develop the technology to synthesize complex lifeforms? Perhaps insects, fish, reptiles, and so forth? Do ID proponents believe it is possible that someday a synthetic biologist could create a mouse, essentially from scratch? daveS
Seemingly ignored in this thought experiment is biblical eschatalogical prophecy and the verification of God's interaction and causality of spacetime events. The resurrection and healing miracles are certainly worthy of discussion, but the planting of key particulars of distant future events is, in my personal walk from atheist to Christian, the primary avenue with which God used to communicate and verify His existence and trustworthiness. Indeed, the Bible speaks of antichrist's duplications of miracles, signs, and wonders, but he may make no "outside of spacetime" predictions. Does QM theory resolve this? Do these other-universe aliens also have the power to control major events? I suppose if this universe was just a simulation with preprogrammed inevitable outcomes, then the answer is yes....though answering yes would throw a big wrench in most people's understanding of the free will/ predestination debate. (I'm a compatabilist, btw.) The biggest problem I see in this whole thought experiment is that we dismiss God's existence by minimizing His actions, limiting them to healing the blind and parting waters...not to cast any pejorative inefficacy to these miracles simply by posing that hypothetical aliens could perform such. Making hundreds of predictions through prophets, they who are at risk of a proper and thorough stoning, seems the bigger challenge. mugwump3
I'm OK with the idea of being designed by aliens. Who designed the aliens? Andre
I'm a little confused. Is Feser really saying that animals are strictly material? If he is saying this does he have an explanation for how he arrived at this position? I'm no philosopher but I am curious when I interpret dualism constrained in this way, like materialism is false except for cases where it isn't. Unless I totally misunderstand his point. groovamos

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