Sunday, June 22, 2014

This world was not made for you or for me. But for cockroaches!

"Damn cockroaches" father cursed in the morning.  "I killed one in the bathroom.  A second one ran towards the front door and out the door and I made sure it kept going.  The problem with tropical countries" he added.

"Oh, they are in colder countries too" I eased his mind.  "Various species have come and have become extinct, but the cockroach survives everything."

I was reminded of this discussion on where everything came from, and on the issue of whether or not a creator made this entire universe for humans to exist on this pale blue dot.  The discussion is between Tim Maudlin, a professor of philosophy at New York University, and Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.  Professor Gutting asks:
So is your view that we don’t currently know enough to decide whether or not fine-tuning for human life supports theism?
Which is when the cockroach relevance kicks in; Professor Maudlin responds:
First, note how “humans” got put into that question! If there were any argument like this to be made, it would go through equally well for cockroaches. They, too, can only exist in certain physical conditions. The attempt to put homo sapiens at the center of this discussion is a reflection of our egocentrism, and has no basis at all in the actual structure of the universe.
Egocentrism. Anthropocentrism. We have barely been around for a few thousands of years when the roach has been on this planet for much, much longer:
Fossil evidence indicates that cockroaches have been on earth for over 300 million years. They are considered one of the most successful groups of animals.
Where did the roach come from?  Did a creator create a roach too?  A male roach and a female roach so that they can reproduce and inherit the earth?  Professor Gutting asks whether we can bypass such messy issues by postulating a minimal theistic view:
that the universe was created by an intelligent being (regardless of its purpose). Does scientific cosmology support the atheistic position that there is no such creator or does it leave us with the agnostic judgment that there isn’t sufficient evidence to say?
Sounds tempting, right?  Removes the complications of figuring out how and when a creator set about creating each and everything that ever existed.  But, wait a second for Professor Maudlin's response:
Atheism is the default position in any scientific inquiry, just as a-quarkism or a-neutrinoism was. That is, any entity has to earn its admission into a scientific account either via direct evidence for its existence or because it plays some fundamental explanatory role. Before the theoretical need for neutrinos was appreciated (to preserve the conservation of energy) and then later experimental detection was made, they were not part of the accepted physical account of the world. To say physicists in 1900 were “agnostic” about neutrinos sounds wrong: they just did not believe there were such things.
As yet, there is no direct experimental evidence of a deity, and in order for the postulation of a deity to play an explanatory role there would have to be a lot of detail about how it would act. If, as you have suggested, we are not “good judges of how the deity would behave,” then such an unknown and unpredictable deity cannot provide good explanatory grounds for any phenomenon. The problem with the “minimal view” is that in trying to be as vague as possible about the nature and motivation of the deity, the hypothesis loses any explanatory force, and so cannot be admitted on scientific grounds.
Why do people continue to cling on to fancy narratives of how we came about?  Why this anthropocentrism?

Of course, I dared not to engage father along these lines.  There are some topics that a father and son should not discuss--it is stated so in the holy book according to cockroaches ;)


Ramesh said...

Yes, cockroaches are incredibly adaptable as a species - which is why they will perhaps outlive homo sapiens. That is probably a pointer to what is most important in a species to survive - adaptability. Something maybe for humans to think about - how can science help us to be more adaptable in the future.

Anne in Salem said...

I am not going to touch the question of whether God created cockroaches. Though have you heard the joke about Noah's wife asking why he allowed the mosquitos on the ark? Instead, a cockroach story. We lived in Phoenix for five years, and Phoenix has lots of cockroaches. It was a huge adjustment for a girl who believed only bad housekeepers had roaches! No matter how much I scrubbed, those filthy bugs came back. I learned to like the scorpions because they (I was told) would eat the cockroaches. Woohoo! But, I didn't want the scorpions around my children. As such, I learned to like the little lizards that were all around because they would eat the scorpions. Strange how we adapt to and appreciate nasty little things we would not otherwise tolerate.

Sriram Khé said...

I know that feeling of keeping a clean house and yet ... A couple of years ago, during one especially wet spring in Oregon, ants took up shelter in my home. I felt insulted that despite my cleanliness those critters came in ... finally, when nothing worked, I had to call the pest guy, who explained to me that it was not my fault and that he has even gone to hospitals to clean up the ant problem.

Neyveli, where Ramesh and I grew up, had scorpions also. I hated and hate all those damn critters!!!! But, they all have their roles to play in the ecosystem.

Indeed, we can learn a lot from all those critters, including those annoying cockroaches. Let's see how well we adapt ...

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