Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen this video before have a look at it before reading on.
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t seen this video before have a look at it before reading on.
In my recent post Creationists prefer numerology to real scientific research I discussed the “research” approach used by those few scientists who are proponents of intelligent design. And I concluded:
“they ignore the normal honest research approach. They never advance a structured hypothesis, one that is consistent with intelligent design. They therefore never submit such hypothesis to any testing or validation.”
Recently I noticed another blatant example of this lack of scientific honesty – the refusal to propose and test their own hypotheses of intelligent design. It’s a quote that seems to be going around the religious apologist bogs at the moment. For example, have a look at True Paradigm: Monday quote, The Big Bad Wolf, Theism and the Foundations of Intelligent Design – Page 13, or Still Speculating After All These Years at Contra Celsum.
It’s a quote from Michael J. Behe‘s book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution – this is the short form.
“The overwhelming appearance of design strongly affects the burden of proof: in the presence of manifest design, the onus of proof is on the one who denies the plain evidence of his eyes.”
Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution p 265.
Notice the problem?
Behe is asserting that he has no need to produce any evidence, outline a structured hypothesis, or do anything to test or validate his claim.
He simply has to make an assertion – based on nothing more than his claim of an “overwhelming appearance” (to him). Then it is up to those with different hypothesis to do all the work. To test his assertion (please note – a vague assertion – not a structured hypothesis) and prove him wrong.
Or else he declares his assertion correct by default!
Richard Dawkins’ latest book is due out next September. The title – Childhood, Boyhood, Truth: From an African Youth to The Selfish Gene
It’s yet a new genre for Dawkins – autobiography. Mind you he has reached the age where people do tend to write memoirs and autobiographies.
Richard says this book covers his life up to the writing of The Selfish Gene. There will be a second volume, published in 2015, covering the second half of his life.
I have enjoyed his other books and am looking forward to this one – especially as I have a special interest in scientific biography.
These two volumes will be a good read – he is an excellent writer and has had an interesting life, scientifically.
I wonder if it will get the same sort of emotional attacks his earlier books received?
Ian Wishart is a local “investigative’ journalist and well-known conspiracy theorist from way back. He’s dabbled in climate change, creationism, health, political, crime, and other issues. He’s a firm creationist and so it’s no surprise he has picked up on a recently published paper Scientists dumbstruck: signs of intelligent design in DNA code. No surprise because it’s currently being promoted by creationists and the Discovery Institute as some sort of proof of intelligent design. And Wishart is part of that echo chamber.
The paper itself is extremely dense – probably only fully intelligible to computational biologists and similar specialists. Fortunately, local science blogger Grant Jacobs, who has skills in this area, has been through the paper and explains it in an article that is accessible to most people – see Investigate magazine struck dumb by numerology of genetic code. Have a read, you can see what the paper really says, what the problems are with it and make up your own mind about the degree to which Ian Wishart, and other creationists, have been fooled by it.
I think there is a bit of a lesson here. Grant describes a basic problem with the paper.
“it rests on a false comparison of two options:
- Created by random chance
- Created by space aliens
This is set up so that if the first is unlikely, the second “must” be right.
The setting is rigged because these two aren’t all the possibilities. There is at least one more:
- Created by a non-random natural process (e.g. evolved)
To declare any one the ‘preferred’ choice they’d have to investigate all three possibilities, then compare what was found. But they don’t: they only look at the first then declare the second as the ‘winner’ without ever looking at the third.”
Anyone who has followed the so-called research carried out by intelligent design proponents may recognise this pattern. Discovery Institute senior fellow William A. Dembski even formulates the pattern as a basic way of detecting intelligent design. Creationists often call it the Design Filter. (He describes it in his book The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities).
Usually the “design inference” boils down to:
Now, combine that approach with the other leg of intelligent design research – “reinterpretation research.” This has extremely low overheads as it only involves taking published work, rubbishing it by misinterpretation, etc., and inventing a different interpretation of the facts to “prove” design.
In essence this is what all intelligent design “research” boils down to. At best it can only find possible problems in current understanding (which is surely the purpose of all research). It cannot support an alternative hypothesis.
So you can see the basic character of all the intelligent design publications they claim. Work which investigates possible problems with existing ideas in evolutionary science without offering, or even considering, alternative hypotheses. Plenty of that around – put it on the list.
But they ignore the normal honest research approach. They never advance a structured hypothesis, one that is consistent with intelligent design. They therefore never submit such hypothesis to any testing or validation.
Yet they want to claim their ideas as science – and want to teach it to children in science classes!
Victor Stenger has a short, but important, blog post in the Huffington Post. Appropriately (because it’s about evolutionary science) dated February 12 – Darwin Day, 204th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.
Stenger’s article, No Belief Gap, considers Gallup Poll data on the numbers of American who accept evolutionary science and who believe in a god. But in contrast to some commentators, he differentiates between those who see evolution as guided by their god or as a so-called “naturalistic” process – defined in the polls as: “Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life [and] God had no part in the process.”
This is, of course, what we mean by evolutionary science. Guidance by gods, goblins, elves or whatever is not part of that science. (Nor is it currently part of any other science). The distinction is important and it is no accident that some religious apologists like Alvin Plantinga misrepresent the issue and are trying to create the impression that “divine” guidance is an essential part of evolutionary science (see Naturalism and science are incompatible).
Stenger finds of those accepting a proper definition of evolutionary science:
“This is exactly the same percentage of Americans who declare themselves unaffiliated with any religion.
“It may be that the only Americans who accept naturalist evolution are those who do not participate in any organized religion.”
His last comment:
“Virtually all Christians who accept that species evolve, contrary to the Bible that they believe is the word of God, think evolution is God-guided. This is not Darwinian evolution. God-guided evolution is intelligent design creationism. How many American Christians believe in evolution, as it is understood by science? The data indicate none.”
Could we draw the same conclusion about New Zealand Christians? I would be interested to see similar poll data for our country.
Quite a concise and clear argument from Lawrence Krauss on the silly idea of giving equal time to creationism in a science classes (a big problem in his country – the USA). As he points out – the role of education is to overcome ignorance – not confirm it.
Teaching kids that the earth is 6000 years old, just because (in the USA) half the population believes it, is only validating ignorance. The fact is that half of the US population does not think the earth orbits the sun – they are clearly wrong but should that widespread belief mean that kids must be taught that mistake in their science classes?
Of course not.
That would be validating ignorance and is a form of child abuse.
I know someone is going to accuse me of “scientism” for this. But I guess that goes with the science blogger’s job – and it’s a diversion anyway. It will hardly be the first time.
What I want to dispute here is the claim that “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”
Now, I have no problem with private belief. And many people no doubt retain this “limits of science” argument as part of their private belief. We all have beliefs or quirks which we don’t feel the need, or wish, to expose to critical investigation. That’s fine by me.
But I do object to those religious apologists who make this “limits of science” claim, but at the same time resort to arguments from scientific knowledge, or even just from reasoning, to claim their god belief is completely justifiable, and that my god disbelief is not. You, know – those who prattle on about “fine-tuning” of physical and cosmological constants, of evidence for an origin of the universe as “proof” of the existence of their god! Even those who claim the facts of “moral truths” prove their god! And then go on to rule “out of order” scientific arguments used by those who don’t believe.
Don’t these people realise they are claiming one rule for themselves (use of “scientific proof” argument) and denying the same to others by claiming “limits of science”? You would think the contradiction was obvious but there seem to be just as many (probably more) books, newspaper opinion pieces, etc., out there claiming science has proved the existence of a god as there are claims that such subjects are “outside the limits of science.”
I think both claims are unjustified – they are just emotionally motivated “logic” arguing for, and protecting, a preconceived belief.
The scientific proof of the religious apologist amounts to nothing more than weak claims that “the evidence of an Intelligent Designer is all around us.” Or that scientific explanations of life and the universe have huge gaps. That somehow when a scientist says “I don’t know” this “proves” the religionist’s myth-based belief must be true – bugger the need for evidence or validation of ideas.
That’s not scientific proof! You need to do a lot more than just badmouth scientific theories. In science you actually need to advance a structured hypothesis. One based on evidence that makes predictions which can be tested against reality. Hypotheses and ideas that stand up to scrutiny, are open to modification, even outright abandonment, in the light of evidence.
You know, the sort of science which leads to publications and conference presentations.
That sort of hypothesis would surely show a serious attempt to approach the questions scientifically – even if we were forced to acknowledge that we did not have the technology or mental capacity to provide a good answer. Whereas at the moment such talk of scientific proofs for gods is
As for the “limits of science” argument – this is never properly justified. If their god is part of objectively existing reality then surely the scientific approach is an acceptable way of investigating the claim. Of course science may not be up to that job. There are certainly areas which it finds difficult to investigate now – and there are potentially areas we may never be able to investigate because of limits in our technology and our intelligence. But at the moment the scientific approach is the best one we have to investigate difficult aspects of reality. And if science cannot sort things out then no-one has yet been able to produce an alternative, a specific “other way of knowing,” which could do the job – have they?
Yes, I know, these Sophisticated TheologiansTM have some clever arguments. Their god is outside space and time. Outside the universe. Therefore we have no way of investigating it. No way of detecting it even.
The obvious question that comes to my mind is “How do you know that? You seems to be so certain – what evidence do you have.” And isn’t this another one rule for me, another for you argument? After all - you claim that god is answering your prayers, influencing events in the world, helping believers win races and overcome illness. Even causing a few hurricanes or earthquakes to discipline us for sinning! Going in for a bit of smiting! If that is the case your god is leaving an evidential trail which science can investigate.
But if you god is truly outside time and space, outside the universe, not only would we not be able to detect it, it would not have any influence here – would it? Haven’t you gone overboard in your attempt to protect your god from scientific investigation. You have ended up in defining your god out of any practical existence!
So before you start chanting “scientism” – ask yourself who is guilty of scientism? Of using science inappropriately?
Surely it is the religious apologist who claims “scientific proof” which is not at all scientific. Or who claims they know things about reality which they cannot possibly know. That they have an alternative “way of knowing” which can produce Truth with a capital T – but which they cannot even describe.
Occasionally I watch videos, or listen to podcasts, distributed by the Intelligent design crowd at the Discovery Institute. So, I wasted a few minutes on this video below where one of their tame scientists, Ann Gauger, spoke “authoritatively” on population genetics and why this proved Darwin wrong!
It’s a load of old rubbish, aimed at convincing the gullible with sciency sounding words, but causing giggles from real biologists. However, I was interested in the background chosen for the interview. Could this be a lab in the much vaunted ID Biologic Institute? The one set up by the Discovery Institute to do “real” research. The lab where no journalist or non-ID scientist has been allowed access.
Why go to such trouble?
Well, I guess the simple answer is they don’t have a lab, or access to a lab, they can use as an impressive background – so they fudged it. But of course, there’s more to it than that.
The whole purpose of forming the Biologic Institute was to impress. I mean, to impress their convinced adherents (because no-one in the scientific world is impressed by such a façade). It’s the “silo effect” such ideological communities go in for. They can maintain beliefs because they have their own tame experts and members of the community usually self-censor. The faithful can go along with the pretence their beliefs are supported by scientific evidence and avoid having to deal with real science and scientists.
The ID community provides the amenities require for such a blinkered outlook. They even have their own list of “scientists” rejecting Darwinism. The faithful can thus repeat the lie evolutionary science is on its last legs. That high ranking scientists have proven it wrong.
The Discovery Institute and the Biologic Institute also provide another element of the façade – peer reviewed publications supporting ID. To this end they have established their own “scientific journal” – BIO-Complexity. This presents a veneer of a peer-reviewed journal – but look at it. A small handful of papers, all by the same people listed under the “staff” of the Biologic Institute.
Again, this fools no credible scientist but it can be used to fool the faithful.
But what a a situation – having to lie to your own supporters.
Credit: The Teaching Company
John S. Wilkins, at the Evolving Thoughts blog, has a nice short article, Why is Darwin’s theory so controversial?, on the so-called “controversies” around Darwin’s theories. I think he nails it. He shows that the usual tired old objections to Darwin’s ideas are just excuses.
“Darwin thought species are mutable.” But:
“This was a widely held view by preachers, moralists, Aristotelians, naturalists, breeders, formalists, folk biology, and even biblical translators.”
“Darwin had racist ideas about humans.”
“He never did and the racism that is sometimes associated with his ideas preceded him by centuries (and were good Christian virtues) and were mediated by those who disagreed with him.”
“Darwin thought the age of the earth was large:”
“This preceded him also, and was settled in the late eighteenth century, although the present value wasn’t finalised until the 1960s.”
“Darwin’s claim humans are animals contradicted the Bible.” But:
“Linnaeus knew humans were animals a century earlier, and indeed the only issue was whether humans were animals with souls (or if all animals had souls), which Darwin never implied anything to the contrary.
Moreover, it was Christians who rejected the literal interpretation of the Bible, long before Darwin (beginning with the Alexandrian school in the second century), and those who realised that the global Flood was a myth (or an allegory) were Christian geologists a half century at least in advance of Darwin.”
“No, the reason why Darwin was controversial is very, very simple. Darwin argued that complex designs could arise without a mind to guide it. In short, his controversial idea was natural selection (and sexual selection, but even that preceded Darwin). Almost from the day it was published, critics attacked the implication that the living world was not all that special, and that it lacked a Plan or Meaning. Theologians, moralists and even scientists objected to this, and while even most of the Catholic Church accepted common descent and modification of species, it was natural selection they hated.”
But instead of honestly confronting and debating the real issue they lie and slander:
“All the supposed “controversies” of Darwinism (or that phantom, “neo-Darwinism”) are post hoc attacks based on the prior objection to the lack of a guiding hand in biology. Don’t like natural selection? Attack Darwin by calling him a racist or blaming him for the Holocaust. Say he is antiessentialist. Say he is anti-religion. No matter how much evidence one puts forward that these are deliberate lies manufactured by those who hate Darwin for natural selection, it won’t stop the prevarication industry.”
“Sensible philosophical critics of Darwin focus on selection for that reason. It undercuts our prior belief that We Are Special. Human mentation, cognition, language, morality, religion or economics is somehow privileged in the universe. Bullshit. We are an animal and we arose without the universe seeking us.”
But some philosophers will devote their energies to attacking this position while refusing to justify their alternative:
“The human exceptionalism which critics like Fodor, Fuller, Plantinga and the rest presume but do not argue for unfairly places the onus on Darwinians. It is time to stop taking them seriously.”
Amen to that.
But I want to add something to John’s analysis – and I do hope he doesn’t feel I misrepresent him.
Darwin’s approach of looking to nature, and not to scripture, for the explanation of nature was simply being scientific. It extended the progress made by modern science in physics, astronomy, etc., into the understanding of life – including human life. Galileo in the early 17th Century argued our understanding of the world should be based on evidence from the world – not on fallible interpretation of scripture. Scientific knowledge, or natural philosophy in those day, should be based on evidence from reality and resulting ideas and theories tested and validated against that reality.
Today, sensible philosophers (even sensible philosophers of religion) accept this approach in the physical sciences. We no longer hear them talking about, or justifying, divine guidance in the movement of stars and planets, or the reaction of chemicals. Why should Fodor, Fuller and Plantinga so adamantly wish to sneak divine guidance into the biological world?
As they are so keen on divine guidance why not try to find and deliver some evidence for it instead of relying on logical possibility alone? That would be the scientific approach. And if they were really consistent they would also be arguing for, and producing evidence for, divine guidance in the physical world.
Now, that would put them in context.
How reliable do you think your cognitive facilities are? Your eyes, ears, etc? Your brain, memory and mental processes? According to philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga, not very good. He asserts any belief you form using these facilities is as likely to be untrue as it is to be true. “A probability of 0.5″ he says – like a magician pulling a rabbit out of hat.
But it gets worse. For some reason he thinks your beliefs are formed randomly – so “If I have one thousand independent beliefs, for example, the probability (under these conditions) that three quarters or more of these beliefs are true will be less than 10–58.” When he considers only 100 independent beliefs “the probability that three-quarters of them are true, given that the probability of any one’s being true is one half, is very low, something like .000001.”
So, you wonder – how the hell do you get by? You are in the middle of the road, a bus is speeding towards you, but the chance of your cognitive facilities leading you to believe you are in danger is minuscule. You are just as likely to belief you are having a pleasant bath – or a gazillion other things.
That doesn’t sound right, does it? Something is fishy here. Surely natural selection will have weeded out organisms which had such poor cognitive facilities millions of years ago. Well, according to Plantinga, no! Unless evolution was guided by his god! He just thinks that unguided evolution is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. In fact, he claims evolutionary science supports him saying: “The scientific theory of evolution just as such is entirely compatible with the thought that God has guided and orchestrated the course of evolution, planned and directed it, in such a way as to achieve the ends he intends.”
He argues that unguided evolution is “prohibitively improbable.” Not surprising to see that he has a soft spot for Michael Behe‘s irreducible complexity argument against evolutionary science (and for “intelligent design”). Plantinga’s recent book ( Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism) is full of theological pretzel twisting, motivated logic, unsupported logical possibilities, probability assumptions, cherry-picked quotations, and bald statements supporting his claims. But, unhappily for many of this theological supporters, he is also very careful to include qualifications for almost all his claims and arguments. This gives him deniability, wriggle room, but makes it difficult for his supporters to find supporting evidence for his claims.
Here I will deal with just his claim that evolution via inherited variation and natural section is incapable of producing reliable cognitive facilities. Even here he claims he is not arguing: “that unguided evolution could not produce creatures with reliable belief-producing faculties; I very much doubt that it could, but that it couldn’t is neither a premise nor the conclusion of my argument.”
Still, that is exactly what he does argue. He says “it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable.” That his god “could have brought it about that our cognitive faculties evolve by natural selection, and evolve in such a way that it is natural for us to form beliefs about the supernatural in general and God himself in particular.” “that God has created us in such a way that we come to know him; and the function of the cognitive processes, whatever they are, that ordinarily produce belief in God in us is to provide us with true belief.” And “According to John Calvin, God has created us with a “sensus divinitatis,” a natural tendency to form belief in God.”
So you can see where he is going with this. Belief in a god seems to be an indicator that your cognitive system is working well, whereas non-belief shows its not! You atheists have something missing from your brain.
Plantinga’s argument centres on a naive interpretation of natural selection:
“We might think that our evolutionary origin guarantees or strongly supports the thought that our basic cognitive faculties are reliable: if they weren’t, how could we have survived and reproduced? But this is clearly an error, . . . . . Natural selection is interested in adaptive behavior, behavior that conduces to survival and reproduction; it has no interest in our having true beliefs.”
And his followers see that as a key premise in his argument.
However, if a particular inheritable variation is selected because it aids survival or increases number of offspring this does not prevent that particular variation contributing to the life of the organism in other ways. A cat’s paw enables it to move, to pursue prey and avoid predators but this in no way prevent cats from using their paws in grooming.
We can understand how selected variations in our ancestors perception organs, brains, and the rest of their body, would have had survival and reproduction values. Tool-making abilities, a thickened pre-frontal cortex, language abilities, self-reflection and recall of memories would have contributed greatly to the natural selection of our ancestors.
But once selected, not only did our ancestors become more social, more able to communicate and more able to change their environment with the tools they created. They also were able to use their perception and cognitive faculties in a more advanced way. To formulate more detailed pictures of their environment and to check out the accuracy of those ideas or beliefs. And to pass on this knowledge to their offspring.
It is just overwhelmingly naive not to recognise the wider implications of variations selected by the evolutionary process beyond survival and reproduction. And it is dishonest to cherry-pick, as Plantinga does, quotes from evolutionary scientists and philosophers which stress the role of survival and reproduction in natural selection as if there were no other consequences for the evolution of the selected organisms.
Why is it so hard to see the natural selection of intelligence in our ancestors has lead to huge technological and cultural changes quite above and beyond its value for survival and reproduction? Why should Plantinga accept that unguided evolution can lead to intelligence for its value in survival and reproduction but drag in the concept of guided evolution by his god to explain the resulting cultural, technological and social changes?
I find weird Plantinga’s idea that guidance of evolution by his god is necessary for our cognitive faculties to produce reliable results. Even weirder that in the absence of such guidance natural selection would produce cognitive faculties which caused us to adopt beliefs completely randomly. Surely such faulty cognitive faculties would have been selected against? And those organisms whose cognitive faculties produced a sufficiently reliable picture of reality (or belief) to enable survival and reproduction would have been selected for.
Plantinga confuses his argument by steadfastly referring to “belief” and “true belief” whereas the day-to-day life of an organism requires (usually unconscious) perception or knowledge of its environment and reaction to what it perceives. In effect, the organism, and particularly a species like humans, is continually forming a mental image or model of its environment. The accuracy of this model relies on the abilities of the perception organs, the unconscious aggregation of perceptions and memories to form a mental image and the amount of conscious deliberation. We can be sure that this knowledge never amounts to a completely accurate model of reality. All sorts of practical assumptions are made for the sake of efficiency. And animals like us are just not able to perceive bacteria and molecules, let alone atoms or subatomic particles.
So our mental model of reality will always be imperfect. It can never be identified with Plantinga’s “true belief.” But it is good enough for what we are doing – surviving, reproducing, making tools, telling stories, formulating theories, etc. And we quite naturally pay special attention when we need to fill out details. Or we can resort to tools and instruments which aid our perceptions.
If natural selection working on genetic variation has produced animals capable of surviving and reproducing by using their perception organs, intelligence, memory and imagination why should it be impossible (as Plantinga claims) for such animals to form “belief”, or knowledge about reality, which, for all practical purposes, can be considered “true?” Why does he claim guidance by his god is necessary?
When I hear this term “theistic evolution” used I never know what is intended. At one end it could just be that a person who claims to believe in theistic evolution is only saying they accept evolutionary science, while at the same time they are a Christian. Perhaps its just a way of avoiding criticism from their fellow church members. An assurance that their acceptance of evolutionary science does not signal rejection of their faith.
The adjective “theistic” is actually unnecessary – except for social purposes. One could equally say they believed in “theistic gravity,” “theistic chemical reactions,” etc. Sounds silly – but I guess social pressure produces silly conventions and scientifically meaningless terms.
At the other end of the spectrum I think the person is actually claiming a belief similar to Plantinga’s. That evolution is actually impossible without divine interference, specifically guidance from their god. They may imagine that their god actually fiddles with the atoms in an organism’s DNA, or aids selection with a flood, collision of an asteroid or a volcanic eruption or two. Even, as some of these people claim, the divine injection of determinism into quantum indeterminacy
Of course, people who claim such guidance is required for evolution to work just don’t accept the current scientific understanding of the evolutionary process which is very much unguided (except through the natural selection process). If adherents of “theistic evolution” mean this, something like Plantinga’s “evolution” then they don’t accept evolutionary science.
And that’s why I just don’t like the term “theistic evolution” and am always suspicious of people who describe themselves that way.