Question Mark

Without God, what is outstanding about man?

I see that New Scientist magazine is advertising the newest issue of their anthology series, New Scientist: The Collection. This one is titled “The Human Species” and, as they describe it, it is…

“A compilation of classic New Scientist articles, The Human Story explains how an ordinary ape evolved into the most remarkable species the Earth has ever known.”

Mmm hmm. OK. Sure it does.

Actually, it doesn’t. As a subscriber to New Scientist, I actually enjoy each issue, but I also recognize that the magazine is rampant with unjustified underlying assumptions and anti-theistic bias. I’ve touched on some of that before here in the blog, such as this post about an article from the recently-late Victor Stenger. (Key sentence in the post: “Stenger likes the pretensions of an untainted commitment to truth, but his words reveal that his ‘commitment’ plays second fiddle to his personal bias and inclinations.”) It’s sort of a given for the editors and authors of New Scientist, and you will often find Darwin-of-the-gaps and Multiverse-of-the-gaps comments in their writings. (Actually, an article I recently wrote about the multiverse concept will be in the next Tomorrow’s World magazine, I believe.)

To expect the articles in this compilation to be any different would be silly. Still, that’s actually not my point in this post. I’m used to such things in New Scientist, but what got my attention was this statement in the e-mailed advertisement:

“A compilation of classic New Scientist articles, The Human Story explains how an ordinary ape evolved into the most remarkable species the Earth has ever known.”

The linked-to online ad expanded:

“We are a truly remarkable species. In the space of a few thousand years we have transformed the planet, created a technological civilisation the likes of which has never been seen, and even begun to explore space.”

[For those worried that my spell checker is broken, “civilisation” is spelled in the British manner.]

I don’t mean to assume that no one can give an answer, but really: Apart from God’s existence and purpose for him, what is remarkable about man?

By evolutionary standards, we aren’t necessarily the most successful species on the planet. (Though, the meaning of “successful” and the other such descriptors is a question, and I will get to that.) As this io9.com article starts off:

“As the most intelligent and technologically advanced species on Earth, we humans like to think that we own the place. But evolutionary success can be measured any number of ways. As evolutionary biologist Stephen G. Gould once noted, complexity, intelligence, and ferocity don’t count for much in the long run — adaptability and reproductive success matter more.”

The article then goes on to describe eight non-human organisms (bacteria, beetles, et al.) who, from an evolutionary perspective, might easily be considered more successful than mankind.

“Successful” is only meaningful to humans defined in terms we care about.

Still, the advertisement said man was “the most remarkable species the Earth has ever known,” not the most “successful.” However, I think the difficulty still applies.

I take that being “the most remarkable” means having qualities that are most worthy of being remarked on. Dictionary.com defines “remarkable” as “notably or conspicuously unusual; extraordinary” or “worthy of notice or attention” but it would seem to me that from a materialist, Darwinistic perspective it’s sort of begging the question to say that mankind has qualities that make it the “most remarkable species” according to mankind. Maybe not really question begging, but a little–I don’t know–meaningless?

I mean, really–what makes mankind so remarkable?

Don’t get me wrong–I certainly think mankind is the most remarkable species! But the things I value most and find most worthy of noting are things I value because God’s revealed values give them meaning: our intelligence, our ability to create, our culture, our different religions, etc. And not all of those “remark-worthy things” are good. Some of man’s qualities are quite remarkable because they are very, very evil. Yet, even that–our capacity for moral or immoral action only truly has meaning in an existent God who gives real, objective meaning to morality.

The advertisement mentions the (perhaps debatable) relative speed at which we have “transformed the planet”; our creation of an advanced, technological civilization “the likes of which has never been seen [(1) It should say “never been seen before” since we are, currently, seeing ours, and (2) to which species’ technological civilization are we comparing it? The great technological civilization of the horseshoe crab?]; the fact that we are now exploring space (don’t many theorize that earth was seeded by microbes from Mars or elsewhere?); our culture and other items.

But from the (unjustifed) value-free point of view of modern evolutionary thinking, what makes any of these truly “more remarkable” than the extreme attributes of other species? Nothing, really. In fact, when one embraces the nihilism that is the logical end of God-less, materialist, evolutionary thinking — especially when the science-destroying “all things happen somewhere” multiverse is thrown in — very little, at all, is worthy of remark. There is nothing to be truly valued over anything else, and why should one actually appreciate any attribute in any species at all? Even the supposedly evolution-programmed instinct to reproduce can be ignored when nothing at all has any real meaning or value that isn’t merely imagined.

[And, as an aside: I note that it is possible that by “remarkable” it is meant by the magazine’s marketers to (effectively) mean “remarkable to the sensibilities of most humans, regardless of the lack of actual, objective value of the ‘remarkable’ characteristics.” But that is just as unsatisfactory. That humans would be the most remarkable species to… other humans? Duh. Gary Larson nailed that schtick when he drew the “Far Side” cartoon where one dog in a car is totally fixated on another dog outside as the most interesting thing in the world, all while the city around the car is in chaos, a nuclear explosion is going off, and people are running for their lives. “Humans are the species that humans find most remarkable” seems the least revelatory statement I’ve heard in a long time. (UPDATE: Might be able to see that cartoon here.)]

Interestingly, other science articles here and there are busy selling themselves to us based on how unremarkable mankind is (sort of a biological “Copernicus Principle,” perhaps) and how we’re just another animal, yet this one attempts the opposite, claiming that we are super remarkable, while embracing the same materialist philosophy that drives the others. Well, there are magazines to sell, you know, and dollars to be collected. (Sorry: pounds, in this case.)

A bit of a rant, today, I know. Don’t mean to be cynical, but after wading through so much God-less gobbledygook that tends to come out of folks such as the editors and writers of New Scientist, comments like those in the ads just strikes me as philosophically dishonest. I don’t know. Might just be me.

End of rant.

Dr. Michael Behe speaking with a family after his presentation in Cincinnati (photo credit: me)

Review of Michael Behe’s Intelligent Design lecture in Cincinnati

Dr. Michael Behe speaking with a family after his presentation in Cincinnati (photo credit: me)
Blurry photo of Dr. Michael Behe speaking with a family after his presentation in Cincinnati (photo credit: me)

I had an unexpected opportunity last Sunday night to attend a lecture by Intelligent Design theory advocate Michael J. Behe — professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of the watershed Intelligent Design work Darwin’s Black Box.

He had been invited to speak at the Schilling School for Gifted Children here in Cincinnati. SW and, I believe, CR brought it to my attention this past Sabbath, just in time for me to make sure I had room for it in my plans for Sunday evening. So, make room I did, and come 7pm Sunday night I found myself in a room of 80-100 people, many of whom were parents and students of the school, listening to a presentation from Mr. Behe — a very personable and seemingly unassuming gentleman who has become a lightning rod of criticism on the topics of Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design. (He had fun with that, inviting any in the audience interested in reading critiques of his ideas to visit any web search engine and type in his name followed by any common curse word that comes to mind.)

The school invited him as a part of what I gather is a series of lectures by influential thinkers. The math & science department head of the school mentioned that after the Nye-Ham debate, they had invited Bill Nye (the Sort-of-Science Guy) to come and give a talk, which turned out to be a pleasant event. Wanting to keep the conversation going, they invited Dr. Behe as a representative of one alternative “middle ground” that the Nye-Ham debate missed: That of Intelligent Design, representing neither religion-based nor materialism-hobbled theorizing.

Dr. Behe’s presentation had, in my estimation, modest goals: Explain the concept of Intelligent Design, explain why it is real science (contrary to the assertions of its detractors), and explain why he considers it a more reasonable and more credible theoretical framework in comparison to Darwinian evolution. In these goals, I think his presentation succeeded.

Sure, the discussion could go deeper. His points would surely be disputed by evolutionists, and their disputations would be counter-disputed by IDers, etc. His presentation wasn’t a debate-ender, and it wasn’t meant to be. It was a gentle-but-persuasive presentation and not meant to be a bare knuckle “throw down” — and in this, it was refreshing. It was a pleasant atmosphere and solid presentation, appropriate to its audience — which was clearly composed of both skeptics and supporters — that did not avoid hard questions and which, in simple and clear terms, explained a topic that is shamefully banned from many of our public schools by those who fear open minds and thoughtful criticism of their most cherished theory.

Here are a few observations from the lecture, presented as points and elaboration. The points are generally points he made, but the elaboration is mostly mine. Still, I will try to mention his comments, as well, since that is probably what most of you reading are actually interested in. 🙂

  • “Intelligent Design” is legitimate science.

One of the most shameful tactics taken against ID by its opponents is that it does not represent legitimate science, and it is utter nonsense. If the question, “Does any element of life demonstrate signs of intelligent design?” is not accessible by scientific inquiry, then what is?

I think this is an important question even beyond biology. If an explorer or artificially intelligent probe were to stumble upon a structure of some sort on another planet, would the question, “Has this been designed by intelligence or is it a natural formation?” completely inaccessible to science? That such questions cannot be addressed by science is ridiculous to me. Is it impossible to design an artificially intelligent probe, for instance, that could encounter something like the ancient ruins of Greece or Rome and conclude that there was intelligence behind their construction? What if the probe came upon the Louvre in Paris? We recognize such things, immediately, as intelligently designed, and the implication of that fact is that we could design probes to do the same. (Turing fans and AI folks, feel free to run with this assumption.)

If so, cannot such reasoning be turned toward the structures we find involved with life?

If the statement “Life empirically demonstrates characteristics for which the most reasonable explanation is intelligent design” is not a statement that can be evaluated by science, then why not?

One can claim (falsely, I believe) that Intelligent Design theory represents ideas that have been disproven, but one cannot legitimately claim that it is not science. Like a president standing in front of a crowd and talking about a contentious and unpopular piece of legislation and claiming that “The debate is over” (ahem), such claims sound more like desperation than fact. If SETI represents a scientific enterprise–that is, activity and research grounded in real science–so does the work of Intelligent Design theorists and researchers. I’ve read some try to defend SETI as activity grounded in science but Intelligent Design research as pseudoscience. (Amanda Gefter’s 2010 article in New Scientist is a good example.) But their arguments ring hollow and demonstrate themselves to the careful reader as poor reasoning motivated by either ideological predisposition or by ignorance of the work done by ID theorists.

Ignore the hypocrisy and the smoke screens of ID’s detractors who say otherwise. And the detractors are many. More honest and/or educated critics, even while not agreeing with the conclusion of intelligent design, recognize ID for the scientific endeavor it represents and do not feel the need to dodge legitimate debate through such illegitimate means.

(Actually, in response to a question Behe offered an argument that ID may represent legitimate science better than evolutionary theory does. I will try to remember to describe his point later.)

  • The identity and nature of the “intelligence” is irrelevant to ID theory

Weird concern about the identity of the “intelligence” behind the intelligent design evident in life is a red herring often brought out to distract people from considering ID theory (school district decision makers, gullible judges, etc.). The fact-based detection of the presence or absence of intelligence in design should not depend on how one feels about who or what the source of that intelligence might be.

Imagine a police investigation into  death that begins to point to murder. Should the investigation be abandoned because some folks are uncomfortable with the possibilities of who such a murderer might be? Of course not.

Dr. Behe brought this point out (not the murder example, but the point above), and it makes perfect sense. Some of the attendees did not get it, one or two of the school’s students, in particular. Questions about the “designer” in Intelligent Design theory are irrelevant to determining whether or not there is intelligence present in the design. The fact that some of the students were either oblivious to the point or that they had been feeding on various anti-ID tropes were pretty evident. For instance, one individual asked how a perfect designer (clearly, here, a “Designer” with a capital-D is in mind) would designed creatures that show so many imperfections. While both philosophy and theology (and, importantly, the Bible) address such questions related to God’s Creation, in terms of the scientific theory of Intelligent Design, the question is irrelevant. Determining whether or not intelligence is necessarily involved in the design of living systems is not dependent on whether the “designer” is perfect or imperfect, a single intelligence or multiple intelligence, etc. For example, detecting what seem to be flaws or inefficiencies in the design of of a Volkswagen Beetle does not negate the obvious fact that there is, indeed, intelligence present in the car’s design. That is, outstanding questions about the nature of the “designer” of the Volkswagen Beetle (number of designers, his or their purpose, power, or intent, etc.) do not negate the conclusion that there is intelligence on display in the design of the Volkswagen.

There is literally zero scientific justification for rejecting the theory of Intelligent Design on the grounds that it leads to questions about the nature of the “designer.” Quite the contrary, questions that lead to other questions are normally part of what scientists enjoy.

I think that this is potentially where some atheists sometimes show their bias-driven prejudices. For instance, the idea of a finely-tuned universe designed to make life possible is rejected by a cacophony of voices among various atheists. (I say a cacophony, because many of them do not agree with each other–running away from a feared conclusion instead of running toward a truly better one tends to produce such results.) However, I believe that once a “fine tuner” can be safely hypothesized that will provide an “escape hatch” away from the more natural conclusion that a divine God is the Creator, suddenly “fine tuning” will become more acceptable. I’ve already seen this in one major, mainstream publication, where someone pointed out that certain particle physics work has the potential (important: under some theories) to create multiple universes that are expanding alongside our own. Seeing that (again, under some theories) we have the power to initiate such “creations” of alternate “cosmoses” as we smack particles together, one person speculated that perhaps in the future we will learn to “fine tune” such creations to craft universes with particular characteristics. He then speculated that perhaps our own universe was initiated on some past laboratory table top by a physicist in a previous universe who had learned to do just that.

And that’s how it goes: Once we come up with possibilities we are more comfortable with, we become willing to embrace certain conclusions. Once we can substitute someone in the place of a God to Whom we might be accountable, suddenly “fine tuning” becomes palatable. Until then: No way, José.

And that’s wrong. The proponents of ID continue to say that they long only to follow the evidence where it leads: If to an intelligent designer of some sort, then so be it. If to no designer at all, then so be it. But let science be honest with the evidence. What sort of self-respecting scientist would disagree with that?

Again, drawing a conclusion on the intelligent design of life should be a matter that is irrelevant to the matter of who or what that designer could be.

All of this is related to a point I felt Dr. Behe made very well, coming up next:

  • Science has gotten into more trouble in the past trying to ignore conclusions that felt uncomfortable than it has in embracing them.

Some have said that Intelligent Design must be ruled forbidden out of hand simply because its implications are uncomfortable and seem “unscientific” (they aren’t, but play along).

Of course, the same scientists lament about how many people they believe avoid trusting them about Darwinian evolution because of its implications. Sauce for the goose is not, apparently, sauce for the gander.

But more to the point, Dr. Behe’s example was a good one. He presented an idea: “Maybe Intelligent Design could be true, but its conclusion is radical enough that perhaps its acceptance should be put off — say, a century or so — while efforts are focused on finding alternate explanations that are more palatable.” He compared such sentiment to the resistance originally expressed concerning the Big Bang theory. Imagine how far behind physics would be if we put off accepting the Big Bang theory due to discomfort about its implications.

Some might say that the difference between the Big Bang and Intelligent Design is a matter of compelling evidence. The evidence of a Big Bang, while not necessarily completely unavoidable, eventually became strongly compelling, while the evidence for Intelligent Design simply is not. I would disagree with that conclusion, and the fact that resistance crumbled concerning the Big Bang but remains strong concerning Intelligent Design is due, I believe, to the stakes involved. Given the vagueness and impersonal nature of the universe’s origins–conceptually distant–the Big Bang is easier to embrace, regardless of its metaphysical implications, because those implications are easier to “shelve” and emotionally avoid. It can be ascribed to impersonal “forces” and “conditions”–and although a thorough consideration of the possibilities for such “forces” and “conditions” leads unavoidably to the same uncomfortable metaphysical implications, there is a comfortable cushion of abstraction that aids one’s efforts at denial and self-deception or distraction. However, the idea that life, itself, has been designed by an “intelligence”–that is more personal. The metaphysical implications of that are much harder to avoid. That life may have a “designer” means that you may have a “designer” . . . a “designer” who may actually be a Designer, if you get my capitalized drift. And many people do not want a Designer.

  • The evidence against Darwinian evolution as the mechanism by which life has developed in complexity is rather damaging.

Michael Behe's book, The Edge of EvolutionDr. Behe summarized a number of the points he makes in his book The Edge of Evolution, including the observation that Darwinian evolution (natural selection–survival pressures–acting on random mutations) can be seen in life’s development but only in ways that are very clearly not creative in nature.

His examples in the lecture were solid, looking at research on literally tens of thousands of generations of E. Bola bacteria and, in more detail, evolution in humans enabling resistance to malaria. In the latter case, for instance, humans have, indeed, “evolved” some resistance to malaria and, as natural selection would dictate, those who have “evolved” that resistance have had better reproductive success, growing to represent disproportionately larger segments of the population in areas where malaria represents a serious challenge. However, as Behe points out in detail, the mutations in the human genome that have enabled the increased resistance are, in every case, the results of genetic information being destroyed in the human genome, not information being built or added. None of the mutations have demonstrated an increase in complexity — rather they are, in a sense, a matter of de-evolution.

His analogy was a good and memorable one. Behe showed a picture of a bridge in South America destroyed by drug lords to prevent the army from coming in to their area and halting their operations and pointed out that this is the equivalent in what we see with malaria resistance. The “bridges” have been wiped out genetically, preventing the disease from being able to proceed in those individuals whose mutations have protected them. The mutations are destructive–not constructive–and, in many ways, harmful, but in the case of preventing malaria from killing the individual, they have been helpful. In these ways, Dr. Behe points out, Darwinian evolution can be seen in action.

However, the picture painted by proponents of evolution is of natural selection plus random mutation as a great, materialistic bridge builder. The idea we are supposed to believe is that nature–with no assistance from any designer at all–can build bridges where there are none, yet this is overwhelmingly not observed in the laboratory or in the field. Bridge destruction, sure. Bridge building, not so.

  • The charge of “science stopper” is a terrible excuse not to do science and to avoid following the evidence where it leads.

This was one area where I benefitted from the lecture in a way I did not expect.

Intelligent Design is often called a “science stopper” because it is felt that once activity is accredited to a “designer” then it can no longer be explored, tested, or investigated. Consequently, all research on life would apparently stop and we would all just sit on the floor with our smartphones and play Angry Birds. More seriously, the idea seems to be that once Intelligent Design is concluded, there is no more exploration of possible non-intelligent means and mechanisms concerning life and its processes. If things aren’t materialistic, then they are not accessible to science, so we “must” continue to assume materialism lest we stop prematurely and cease to learn. So, accepting the conclusions of Intelligent Design supposedly puts a stop to the production of testable hypotheses and predictions — hence the term, “science stopper.”

If I got him rightly, Michael Behe shed fantastic light on this attack and why it is disingenuous. The points to be made are several.

Less revelatory to me, personally, were the facts that the “science stopper” claim is simply not true as it is pictured. The concept that life on earth has a richer information source in its past or that it has access to richer information resources than generally accepted could invigorate additional avenues of research, including investigating claims by researchers such as James Shapiro concerning seemingly intelligent genetic engineering going on at the cellular level. Being freed from the assumption that only blind mutation and fundamentally undirected selection are at work in life could create the sort of environment where new ideas can grow instead of meeting the stifling resistance they now suffer. Being free to consider the world of genetics in a context that is more accurate — materialistic and naturalistic or otherwise — would begin to allow new frameworks of understanding, which could hardly be “science stopping.” Accurately understanding the limits of mechanistic, undirected processes would help in understanding them better, as well. How is this somehow “anti-science”? And if science must take place in a context where a true fact must be disallowed because it is a “science stopper,” then we’ve lost sight of just what science is supposed to achieve.

[Asked in a different context but related to being a “science stopper” was a student’s question to Behe about the falsifiability of Intelligent Design. He answered this well, by demonstrating that various principles of Intelligent Design are, indeed, falsifiable (that is, subject to being shown false), where as it is the theory of Darwinian evolution that is treated in an unfalsifiable manner. Every finding that demonstrates evolution’s weaknesses is dismissed, and every experiment or cumulative experience that demonstrates its unviability is discounted and excused.]

However, those things aside, one thing Dr. Behe pointed out has stuck with me: “Science stopping” conclusions aren’t failures at all but successes. His examples really sold the point.

For instance, consider the success of Einstein’s theories of relativity. While they are generally not referred to as “science stoppers” that is exactly what they were. One can read of the fantastic experiments that were being done, for instance, by many trying to discover the medium in which light travelled and the many theories that were multiplying about the “æther” that carried light along. Newtonian mechanics-based theories on various scales were “killed” — slain by the understanding that they were inaccurate and inadequate. A great deal of science was stopped cold — and rightly so. In this way, relativity is a success not a failure.

Anti-relativity theories are still formulated and pursued by some, to be sure. But the success of relativity has put such researchers on notice: “Don’t expect this to be promising work.” While a “science stopper,” relativity has, instead, been a “science focuser.”

The same could be said about other theories. Should the recent evidence supporting the existence of the Higgs boson be ignored because it solidifies the Standard Model of particle physics and makes alternate theories less likely? Is it a “science stopper”?

The success of the Big Bang theory certainly put an end to considerations of an eternal universe. Any such theorizing certainly stopped — at least in any significant volume. But cosmology has been properly and profitably focused by the theory’s success, hash;t it? Shouldn’t unprofitable and inaccurate science be stopped?

Bringing our work and research more in line with reality should always be embraced, should it not?

In this case, the charge of “science stopper” is simply a matter of trying to smear a good theory with a negative sounding pejorative. People worried that accepting a beginning to the universe would move cosmology into the “metaphysical” and put an end to science and research. And yet, cosmology has exploded (sort of a Big Bang pun there!) with theories, research, experiments, etc. The beginning hasn’t gone away — the “Genesis Problem,” as it has been called, is still there. But the science goes on, with new questions, new findings, new knowledge, and new theories — actually, with deeper questions, more illuminating findings, more accurate knowledge, and more profitable theories. As a “science stopper” — even one with metaphysical implications — accepting the universe’s beginning has been a “science focuser” and a “science energizer.”

Doesn’t it make sense that embracing truth should do just that? And if embracing something that is increasingly seen as false is necessary for science to “continue” then haven’t we lost our way a bit?

Al the best theories are, in a number of ways, “science stoppers.” If Intelligent Design is a “science stopper,” it is only so in all the right ways. Don’t let the name-calling fool you.


I know there was more, but if I don’t post this review today, I may never do so. 🙂 Life is busy with the Spring Holy Days knocking on the door, so I think I will cut it short here. If I think of additional points to make, I will try to follow up with a “Part 2,” but for now I think this will do.

It was a great talk, and I enjoyed the opportunity. I took my copy of Darwin’s Black Box up for Dr. Behe to sign and was able to chat with him a bit. I had the chance to ask him about the work of William Dembski and others concerning trying to quantify information and signs of intelligence in a way that may add more objective analysis, and he said he thought it was promising as long as the work stays rooted in the realm of experimentation. I wanted to ask about David Berlinski, as well, but feared I would turn into a fan boy in that case. 🙂

Michael Behe was a very nice fellow, and I enjoyed the brief interaction and the chance to hear him present his case in person. It is my understanding that he stayed overnight so that he could spend time with the students of the school in a more intimate setting the following day, and I am sure that they found it profitable.

Image of Earth from NASA's Terra satellite

News Reporting Fail: The National Science Foundation Survey

The National Science Foundation has published the results of a survey it conducts from time to time as an “assessment” of Americans’ scientific knowledge. However, some of the sloppy reporting of the results confuses belief with knowledge.

For instance, ABC News online article completely twists the results. In one paragraph, they report:

“Only 39 percent answered correctly with ‘true’ when asked if ‘The universe began with a huge explosion,’ while only 48 percent knew that ‘Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,’ according to the statement.”

The statement that “only 48 percent knew that” human beings have developed from other animals grabbed my attention. It implies ignorance of a fact, when the statistic probably says no such thing.

The lazy ABC News article can’t take all the blame, as they are “reporting” on a press release about the survey which makes the same mistake:

“For example, only 74 percent of those queried knew that the Earth revolved around the sun, while fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.”

For people dedicated to science, they are woefully ignorant at interpreting the results of what should be a simple survey. If they can get such a no-brainer wrong, how can they be trusted with interpreting more complicated results?

I say all of this because, if the survey is conducted in the same manner it apparently was back in 2004, what it did was ask if the following statement was true or false: “Human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Stating “False” on this statement is apparently being interpreted by many to imply that they are not familiar with popular theories of evolution–as if it is a given that anyone taught the “fact” of human “evolution” would agree with that statement.

However, there are many, well-educated, scientifically literate individuals who are very familiar with the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolution theory who simply disagree that the statement is true. The survey did not measure ignorance about a fact. It measured doubt about an assertion.

Some reporting did get it right. For instance, the Independent Business Times wrote more accurately:

“The questionnaire also found that less than half (48%) of Americans believe that human beings evolved from an earlier species, while 39% said they believe that the universe began with a huge explosion.”

Also, United Press International reported:

“On two controversial questions, whether the universe began with a large explosion and whether humans are descended from other species, fewer than half in the United States said those are true.”

Actually, kudos to the UPI for the next statement, which–unlike the lazy ABC News “effort”–reflects some actual work performed to help their readers understand the facts they were trying to present (you know, reporting). For instance, the quote above was followed by this:

“The Atlantic said those percentages go up by a significant amount when the questions are rephrased to ask if the big-bang theory and evolution are scientifically accepted.”

Get that? Those surveyed understood that evolution is widely accepted in the scientific community, they simply don’t feel the matter has been proven to them sufficiently. The question measured belief, not knowledge.

(An aside: Some of you out there may think that the only conceivable way one would fail to conclude that humans evolved into their current form from other decidedly non-human species would be if the non-believer is scientifically ignorant, so the interpretations of the results are correct in all these reports. You are free to conclude that. You are also free to tape a rolled up newspaper to your head and declare yourself a unicorn. But don’t confuse the things you are free to declare with reality. Dawkins’ “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked” comment reveals more about Dawkins’ arrogance and boorishness than it does about those who reasonably doubt the standard evolutionary dogma. Moving on…)

Actually, the UPI did much better. Rather than allow their small news item to be yet another “Americans sure are stupid, amiright?” article, it goes further:

“Generally, U.S. residents showed a knowledge of science comparable to those of other countries with high levels of education, including Japan, the European Union and South Korea, the NSF said. In fact, they did better than EU residents on the question about whether Earth moves around the sun.”

So, more people in the European Union stated they believed that the sun goes around the earth than Americans, and the Americans apparently did not do significantly better or worse than Japan, South Korea, or the EU.

Consequently, the article is almost “dog bites man” news–that is, not really news at all.

But that really isn’t true. There really is a story. The fact that one-quarter of the people surveyed didn’t seem to understand that the earth moves around the sun instead of vice versa is really spooky–let alone that apparently our international brothers and sisters faired about the same. (Of course, given the move by some European leaders to make the EU the center of all life in Europe, it is perhaps not surprising that they thought the EU at the center of the solar system, itself.) (Yes, that is supposed to be a funny political joke.) (Yes, I am aware that it isn’t that funny.)

But it is a shame that there wasn’t more real reporting and that what reporting there was–the UPI report being a notable exception–was so lazy and poorly done. Then again, the survey is more likely than not simply a public means for the National Science Foundation to feel important about itself, so, for them, perhaps it is “mission accomplished.”

[UPDATE: A little more from the articles… The IBT article stated, “Almost 90% of respondents said they believe that the benefits of science outweigh any dangers…” You have got to be kidding me. I don’t know which is worse, the confusion of the response or the inanity of the question. Maybe some context can make more sense of this point. Are the alternatives simply “science” versus “no science”? If so, then it’s a little like saying, “The benefits of food outweigh the benefits of no food.” But if the statement is meant to say something significant, then a blanket consideration is not possible unless the practice of science, by itself, is a virtue, which would make the need to evaluate some research from an ethical perspective meaningless. But tell me that some of the experiments done on children during the Holocaust were all OK because it was in the name of “science.” I’m pro-science, but goofy statements like that reflect a lack of sophistication that the science community–like the NSF which presses this dumb survey–normally accuse others of. It highlights the effort as more propaganda than anything. And, for the record, I have a hard time calling the Big Bang an “explosion” and I’ve heard a number of scientists say that they don’t like calling the Big Bang an “explosion.” When space-time, itself, is expanding, “explosion” just doesn’t really cut the mustard. So, yes, I find that question irritating, too.]

Final Thoughts on the Nye / Ham Debate

Thanks to everyone for their comments on the previous post. From what I see here and on Facebook and in some discussions here and there, it seems as though insights and opinions differ, but not too starkly. I mentioned then that I would share my own thoughts, so I will do that in this post.

First, though, a few links. I was able to put together a commentary on the matter for the Tomorrow’s World website. The need to aim at 650 words or less limits what you can say, and the audience will be rather broad (including mostly people who did not see the event), but it is an opportunity to direct folks to additional alternatives, including our own understanding of the biblical record. That commentary is here: “Creation vs. Evolution: Bill Nye and Ken Ham Are Both Wrong!” Here’s the leading paragraph:

When science-advocate Bill Nye faced off in debate Tuesday night against Ken Ham, CEO of Answers in Genesis, the issue of creationism vs. evolution gained a rare degree of media scrutiny. Nye had called the teaching of creationism “a dangerous choice,” and promoters saw the opportunity for a profitable public event. Certainly much attention came to the subject. But, amid all the controversy, was there something that both participants missed?

(Click here for the rest)

Also, I thought that Elizabeth Dias of Time magazine had a very funny “blow by blow” report on the whole thing. It can be read here: “What You Missed While Not Watching the Bill Nye and Ken Ham Creation Debate.” My favorite bits of her work were her tongue-in-cheek comments about Ken Ham’s “drop the mic” moments. Very funny. (Well, my sort of funny.)

And the irritated reaction of Intelligent Design scientists was very understandable, and they went to the Internet to make their (pretty good) points. They published several pieces in Evolution News and Viewslisted here in this search. Among them, I enjoyed “In the Ham-Nye Debate Not So Much as a Glove Was Laid on Intelligent Design”–which points out the very real distinction between Intelligent Design work and the work of Creationists–and “The Ham-Nye Creation Debate: A Huge Missed Opportunity” — which discusses, well, exactly what the title says. (They also encourage you to listen to a more serious and enlightening debate between Intelligent Design theorist Stephen Meyer and UC Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall.)

However, back to the point of my post. In one of his ENV posts pointing out that the science of Intelligent Design and Creationism are not the same, David Klinghoffer made an insightful summary comment: “Isn’t it interesting that Bill Nye chose to debate Ham, then, where their respective views are incommensurable and no meaningful conversation is possible.”

This is a great way to summarize much of the Nye/Ham debate. In some ways it might as well have been a discussion about which spices bring out the flavor of barbecued unicorn.

Yet, there were things to be seen, and each fellow made some good points, not all of which were related to the “official” question being debated, which was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

The question, alone, embodies a number of problems. “Creation,” for instance, could mean many things. The implication is that Ken Ham’s favorite understanding of the events of the book of Genesis is “the” understanding, and Mr. Ham spent precious time here and there defending his position not against Mr. Nye’s arguments, but against the idea that there are other possibilities, highlighting the problematic use of that word without qualifiers. Also, what constitutes “viable”? It’s a good word, but “viable” clearly differed in the minds of the debaters While that wouldn’t be enough to make it a bad debate–indeed, the positions could have (and sort of did) revolved around just that point: “What does it mean to be a viable model?” But the participants could have profited the audience with a clearer presentation of their positions on how they individually determine a model’s viability.

However, the fuzziness and lack of focus in the debate was rooted in the fact that each man had motives other than the simple question at hand. For instance, Ken Ham wanted to ensure he had the chance to share his faith to the hundreds of thousands who were/would be watching. (The video on YouTube currently sits at more than 827,000 views.) Also, he wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to believe in the Young Earth Creationism model he supports and still be a working, active scientist. That isn’t relevant to the debate, technically, but is a part of the contention motivating the debate, to be sure. On Bill Nye’s part, he seemed to want to give religious people permission to think differently than Ken Ham and to make the pitch to the viewing audience that America is going to fall behind scientifically in the world if viewpoints like Ken Ham’s are taught to our children. Again, this last point isn’t relevant to the viability of Ken Ham’s Creation model, but it is a big part of the impetus behind the debate.

Those things said, let me try to boil down my observations and reactions to the debate.

Overall, I agree with Evolution News & Views’ statement that the biggest victim of the debate was the Truth.

On one hand, it is great to see discussions of this sort on a bigger stage. Origins should matter to us. But on the other hand, this debate helped to cement in the minds of many, I believe, that these two individuals represented “the” two sides of the issue. It is not a two-sided issue, and these two, together, certainly did not represent the universe of possibilities. Our own contention, for instance, represented in today’s commentary, is nowhere to be found. Intelligent Design is nowhere to be found. Neither is the view of many with whom I would disagree (theistic evolutionists, et al.) but whose views I respect as serious attempts to understand the issues at hand. Consequently, this debate served to simply solidify the stereotype that the issue of origins is a matter of science vs. the Bible. And that’s a shame.

The best impression, overall, on the official question of the evening was made by Bill Nye, in my opinion.

It doesn’t mean I agree with him, to be sure. And both men made points that the other left hanging, so it isn’t as though the matter was truly settled, even in “debate” terms, if you will. If it had been a boxing match, there was no “knock out,” and the match would have come down to the judges.

And if I were the judge, I’d say that while neither man really “won”, the better impression was made by Bill Nye. I thought he did a good job of pointing out that the scientific evidence seems to contradict Ken Ham’s model and he suggested the idea that since there are many religious people in the world who don’t see things as he does, maybe he doesn’t have the Bible right, either.

On this second point, he was weak, and had he done as Ham did (which I will mention in a moment) by presenting testimony from, say, theistic evolutionists–even big namers, such as Francis Collins–he would have been more decisive. It would have robbed Ham of the force of his claim that the Bible must be considered as evidence that his position is true.

However, it seems as though this would have contradicted the heart of Nye’s approach, which is that such considerations should not enter into the interpretation of evidence, at all.

That doesn’t change the fact, though, that his examples meant to damage the idea of a young earth did a good job. The “winter-summer” cycle present in what seems to be 680,000 years of snow fall; the number of new species that would need to be generated daily over 4000 years from Ham’s choice of “kinds” (did his homework there, props to Nye); the pressing of the issue that even one fossil of a struggling animal, swimming for dear life during the flood, showing up in a “wrong” strata would disprove his case and that finding it would make you a “hero”; the lack of kangaroo fossils between the ark’s understood resting spot in the Middle East and Australia… All of these combined to give the edge to the idea that Ham’s model isn’t viable. Well, that’s too strong. They gave the edge to the idea that his model is “less viable than advertised.”

It isn’t that Ham didn’t score points. His comment about how 90% of the other dating methods disagree with a billion-years-old earth (I wish his print had been bigger in that slide), his example of trees being found that were found fossilized in rock, in which the trees were dated at 45,000 of years old, while the rock encasing it was supposedly dated at 45,000,000 old — all of these did have their effect, I believe. But, in the end, they weren’t enough, in my opinion, to counter the weight Nye’s examples seemed to carry. (At least some of his examples. His picture of various skulls and the claim that they needed time to evolve, for instance, seemed to fall flat.)

And Ham’s argument that the data must be interpreted was made well, though I think it could have been made better. Even just a few more choice examples–like the recent case of a single discovery, in particular, one single skull, throwing much vaunted human “family trees” into disarray–would have better illustrated the under-appreciated role assumption plays in building our understanding of the data. If Ham didn’t drop the ball on this, I do think he fumbled it a bit. That’s a shame, because those who are a part of his Answers in Genesis team have serious credentials and could have provided a number of easily summarized examples. All Ham could do was refer to those papers vaguely, mentioning that they are highly “technical”–meant to be a positive description (and it is), but surely coming across to some as a bit of a smoke-screen.

So, in the vague battle that this debate represented, on the issue that was supposedly at the heart of the matter, I think the edge was had by Bill Nye.

On one of the important “between the lines” issues–that teaching kids Creationism will mean we will no longer be able to practice good science–Ken Ham won the point.

Ken Ham trotted out a number of videos of various, credentialed scientists with PhDs in solid scientific fields who passionately vocalized their support for Ham’s Creation model, including the inventor of the MRI. Their appearance wasn’t, in my opinion, strong enough to win the main, “official” question in Mr. Ham’s favor, but they did help to win the day for one of the underlying motivations behind the whole debate: The idea, pressed by Mr. Nye, that we are risking destroying science education in America if parents teach Creationist ideas to their kids. The existence of these working, active scientists in their fields of expertise seemed to be living proof that Nye’s point was too strong–that his viewpoint was driving by either ideological beliefs or by ignorance of the caliber of people who claim belief in Creationism.

That was an important win for Ken Ham, and regardless of the official “result” of the debate–whatever in the world that would be–it was a win for the credibility of his organization and museum.

And given the extreme nature of the Young Earth position, the softer claim–that one cannot do good science unless one believes in evolution–was also refuted by those examples. Richard Dawkins’ statement that those who do not believe in Darwinian or neo-Darwinian evolution is either “ignorant, stupid, or wicked” is simply either ignorant, stupid, or wicked, itself. And Ham did a good job of showing the statement for the lie it represents.

(On this last point, it is a shame that the overwhelming focus of this debate was the age of the earth. Every other interesting element of origin-related discussions was marginalized, I believe. A real shame, and part of the stereotype reinforcement effect I mentioned above.)

In short, if the statement to be debated was Bill Nye’s claim that (my paraphrase) “Unless our young people abandon these Bible-based ideas of Creation and embrace evolution America will fall desperately behind scientifically,” that point would have been lost to Ken Ham.

One other point: Ken Ham also did a pretty decent job of defending elements of the story of Genesis against criticism. The kinds-into-species ratios is worth further thinking, and I think Nye scored a win with that one. But other points, such as his claim about the unfeasibility of a wooden ark, fell short. His comparison to the experience of the USS Wyoming, along with the accompanying chart of boat sizes, was an excellent attack, and I give him credit for it. But Ham defended well, pointing out that other cultures (I believe he mentioned China and Egypt) have done much better with much larger than his example. And his on Nye’s claim that a handful of “unskilled workers” couldn’t have built such an ark–a standard trope of anti-Genesis folks–Ham’s response was a surprisingly effective and humorous dismissal: “Why would you say Noah was unskilled? I didn’t meet Noah. Neither did you.” (By the way, that is Elizabeth Dias’ record of the comment, which she humorously characterized as Ham’s first “drop the mic” moment.) Of course, if you believe that Noah was called and personally spoken to by the Omniscient Creator and Designer of All Reality, there is not an issue with his level of previous boat building expertise, regardless of what it has been, let alone when you consider the stated lifespans of the day. Those points could have been made, but Ham’s dismissal was better: effective, short, and sweet.

There were some surprises that added to both the enjoyment and the frustration of watching the debate.

For example, Bill Nye mentioned the discovery of the Big Bang as a “plus” for the naturalistic science. That is comical, because the Big Bang story is actually a cautionary tale of what happens when scientists are too afraid of the theological implications of their work–a fear which delayed the acceptance of the Big Bang for quite some time. (In fact, “Big Bang” was a derogatory term coined for the theory–a fact that was conspicuously absent in Nye’s discussion of the term’s origin.) More on this can be read in the Tomorrow’s World article, “Where Did the Universe Come From?” When all the information is considered (initial entropy conditions, et al.), the Big Bang theory is powerful evidence for not only a created universe, but an intelligently crafted universe. Even the fad of the day–multiverse concepts–have not diluted the power of the Big Bang theory and its current mutations as evidence.

However, Ken Ham was not in a position to capitalize on this and did not even seem to bother. (Other than in his later “Bill, there’s a book that tells us where matter and energy came from” comment, which was fun.)

It was a nice treat to see Ham make the point that science depends on assumptions that cannot be scientifically proven, namely that the laws of logic are dependable and valid, that there are trustworthy laws of nature to be discovered, and the uniformity of nature in the universe. (To advertise myself, this week’s Tomorrow’s World program–“What Is Truth?”–makes a similar point, though it differs in that the point is made by a fellow my wife believes is more handsome than Ken Ham. 🙂 )

However, Nye could have capitalized on those points by granting them for the sake of argument and then stressing that it is those very three principles–the laws of logic, the laws of nature, and the uniformity of nature–that allow us to extend what we experience today into the geological record to understand what occurred in the past, and they are the reason why the “old earth” conclusion is drawn. It’s not an undefeatable point, but one I think he could have made some points with by using his opponent’s points against his own position.

Bill Nye made some false and misleading statements, I notice, but I don’t think he did them knowingly or purposefully. For instance, he mentioned the Tikaalik fossil as a good example of evolutionary theory making a prediction and being shown to be right. However, since its discovery Tikaalik has been demonstrated not to be the link that it was thought to be, neither in nature or in timing. Also, his argument that nature is not “top-down” like in Ham’s model but is “bottom-up” is under increasing attack within the pro-evolution community. Those points were well-covered in one of ENV’s articles, but it is possible as a “popular” scientist and not one up on the latest discussions or publications, maybe he wasn’t aware of these things.

On the “top-down” model of life’s development–a model much more in line with the idea of a Creator and Designer than modern evolutionary ideas–even atheist Thomas Nagel seems to have moved to search for alternatives to evolution, considering purpose-oriented natural laws as a God substitute. Nye is behind. But, frankly, most public, pro-evolution folks seem to be behind on this.

More could be said, to be sure, but I have other things to do this afternoon!

If you missed the debate, in a sense you didn’t miss much. Nothing has changed. Most everyone who felt this way or that still feel this way or that. But it was a good airing of two particular points of view. There are better comments about the debate than mine, and those interested should shop around the links I have provided, as well as others. For me, I’m feeling done with this! Or, actually, not too done. I hear from my brother-in-law that there is a bit of tussling going on over on Facebook about my commentary today. I think I will poke my head in and take a look. But after that, I’m done! 🙂

Again, feel free and add your own thoughts below.

Conspiracy 1

Just another Jesuit, government-owned, mind-controlled goober rediscovering his blog

Howdy! I am not sure (and I am too lazy to look back and tell), but I think this is the longest I have ever been away from my blog! And it hasn’t suffered too much in my absence — there was traffic looking for a number of things, even though I wasn’t writing anything new. I’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let me say that I hope all of you had a wonderful Feast of Tabernacles! Ours at the Lake of the Ozarks was amazing. Many asked me if it would be there again next year, and all I can say is that (1) I don’t know, (2) the overall impression of people who attended is positive, (3) let HQ know if you want it there again, and (4) talk to God about it, since everything depends on where He chooses to place His name (Deut. 14:23, et al.).

The messages were powerful (the ones I heard, I should say; I didn’t listen to my own 🙂 ), and left me really wanting to come home and make of my life something worthy of Christ’s coming Kingdom and something that represents a taste of that Kingdom now. Wherever you were, I hope that your Feast was just as uplifting and edifying as ours was. I’m tempted to dive in and discuss the messages and other highlights of the Feast, but I think I’d rather save those things for another time — give myself time to go over my notes again and work to make what I learned a part of my life and not just my blog posting. However: for the record, it was awesome. My thanks to everyone who came to the Lake of the Ozarks for God’s Feast and my thanks to all who served with me in any capacity at all — you made it a wonderful Feast for my family and for each other, and I pray we take all God gave us and do some good with it!

I also learned during the Feast from my brother-in-law, Wade Brown, that someone out there believes that I am a Jesuit — or, at least, a Jesuit-controlled lackey — due to the fact that our Church falls under 501(c)(3) taxation guidelines (hence the title of this blog post). We laughed about it, because such a thought is, of course, stupid. It’s interesting. The sort of people whose minds are so corrupted and twisted as to swallow “whole hog” the sort of conspiracy drivel that would equate 501(c)(3) with Jesuit control of your church and government ownership of your members are the same sort of minds that you cannot reason with in any way whatsoever. I know. I’ve tried.

For instance, if I don’t make the statement, “I’m not a Jesuit nor am I controlled by Jesuits,” then I will be accused of “admitting” I am by my silence: “See, he didn’t deny it! I’m right!” Yet, if I do make such a statement–in fact, let me do so right now: I am not a Jesuit, nor am I controlled by Jesuits–then the response is “Well, he’s lying, just like Jesuits do!” You can’t win with such people. Their mind is set, and the facts are irrelevant.

Actually, the other response that such conspiracy addicts give is, “Well, he says he isn’t controlled by the Jesuits, but he doesn’t know about the top dealings of his church.” Yes, that’s right. I attend every single Council of Elders meeting, am blessed to be able to speak openly and privately with Dr. Meredith and Mr. Ames and Dr. Winnail and Mr. Wakefield on a regular basis, occasionally sit in (as do lots of folks on their own visits) on Dr. Meredith’s weekly meetings with his executives, and have unfettered access to the individuals who are actually running the Church under Jesus Christ, and yet I have somehow I’ve missed the giggling Jesuit Ninja hiding in the closets of Charlotte, North Carolina. You’re brilliant.

Unbelievable.

(Oddly, the people Wade mentioned to me don’t seem to care that they slander the person they claim to respect: Herbert W. Armstrong. He placed his corporation sole under the exact same 501(c)(3) taxation status up until the very day of his death in 1986. I suppose he was a Jesuit/Government/Reptilian Overlord/Freemason/Zionist puppet, as well.)

And there was a new one I hadn’t heard before: In the same exchange with my brother-in-law, it was claimed by the accuser that the Council of Elders of the LCG votes on matters and is a democracy. Really? Wow… I’ve been attending all of these Council meetings — both in person and in our phone conferences — and somehow I’ve missed every single vote they’ve ever taken to the point that I had no idea we voted at all! Why, the Council must take those votes when I am taking a bathroom break. Oooo, or maybe when they tell me we are all breaking for lunch, they let me leave the room while they furtively spend a few seconds electing someone or voting for something behind my back! That’s it! Why, those devious Jesuit/Zionist/Alien/Illuminati/Government mind-slaves!

Wait, wait, wait… Maybe there is another, more rational explanation… Maybe I’ve never participated in even a single vote in any decision during my tenure so far in the Council of Elders because we actually don’t vote, because we are actually an advisory council just like Mr. Armstrong’s was, because we actually believe in our own doctrinal positions on voting and government, and because the person who said otherwise has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. Hmmmm… I suspect that is more likely. 🙂

(In other 501(c)(3) news, I notice that one person who said that 501(c)(3) entanglements come with government control and force you to limit your message now takes what kind of donations for his website? Come on, you can guess! That’s right! He has now found a way for him to be comfortable with taking 501(c)(3) donations, himself. Wow — this stuff is like the gift that keeps on giving.)

Enough about all of that. It was good for a laugh at the Feast with my brother-in-law (thanks, Wade!), but, frankly, it is pretty sad. The devil has some people so wrapped up in conspiracy hooey that they not only can no longer think clearly or see straight and not only slander people without even the slightest of evidence, but they have also erected an idol of their conspiracies and don’t even know it. Yes, any time foolishness parades itself, it can be funny (I’ve put on a few parades like that, myself), but knowing that the root of it is an individual caught up in the devil’s deceptions and so entangled by them that they don’t even know the spiritual harm they are doing to themselves is just tragically sad. That’s part of why the lies that some of those individuals say about me don’t really bother me all that much. Just watching them flounder so helplessly in their own spiritual, emotional, and intellectual filth turns my desire, instead, to requesting of God that He do whatever He needs to do to prevent me from ever falling into such a spiritual tar pit.

And requesting of God, too, that He help such individuals in whatever way He can. I’ve spent, literally, hours and hours answering their questions (even though they wrote under an assumed name), and it did no good. I’ve spent time digging through online public archives and have sent them documents with Mr. Armstrong’s signature, and it does no good. God is help them, to be sure, if they are willing. But until then, it’s clear that there’s nothing I can do for them but pray.

Wow — I thought I said “enough about that,” above! Move on, Smith! All that gum-bumping (or, typing, I suppose) from one thing my brother-in-law had a laugh about at the Feast… Sorry about that! Moving on!

In other news, even though this blog has languished in neglect for about two-and-a-half months while I played at various camps (thanks for your prayers for those), did a TWP (which went great! 130 new folks!), taped some new programs (thanks for your prayers for those, too!), and worked on the Feast that has just concluded (woo hoo! the Feast!), the blog still got a good bit of traffic! Searches took people to various posts, and it has been kind of fun looking at what garnered people’s attention while I was away. Here are some of the posts people Googled their way to during the last few days of my absence…

And, perhaps one of the most obscure posts to receive some Google-love while I’ve been AWOL:

Finally, a post I was surprised did not receive much attention while I was gone, since it is usually a regular search engine stopping spot:

Actually, someone even asked me about that question this past week at the Feast, which was a happy moment. 🙂

Traffic on this blog has never been a big thing for me, else I would take the time to do more SEO, keyword analysis, etc., etc., etc., which is what Internet people do. (Though if you are interested in knowing how to do that, talk to an expert!) It has been, as I said way back at the beginning, a chance to keep my writing muscles active, provide a place for my congregation members to hear from me more regularly, and to post some TW news now and then, as well as — I hope — a source of at least a little traffic for the Work’s websites, lcg.org and tomorrowsworld.org. But given the weird, eclectic collection of stuff I have rambled on about over the years, it is interesting to see some of what people have been coming across over the last few days given that I haven’t posted anything new for a couple of months.

And speaking of rambling, I’m done! As is probably clear from the title, there wasn’t much of a point to this blog post other than to get my feet wet again, so it has, indeed, been pretty rambly. If that has made it unprofitable for you, please feel free to keep your receipt and request a refund. 🙂

Now that I am back posting, I hope to write again soon — hopefully on something a little more worthwhile!

DNA (square)

That pesky word “design”

ADN_animationMy latest issue of New Scientist has an interesting article about the discovery of four-stranded DNA in cancer cells. “Normal” DNA is a double helix, like a twisted ladder in which two sides are connected by rungs (see animation at right). However, DNA structures with different numbers of strands, three and four, have been studied, as well. The article mentions that three-stranded DNA is thought by some to be involved with disorders such as Huntington’s disease and Friedreich’s ataxia. Quadruple helices, using four strands of DNA, had been created in laboratory settings, but they have now been found in cancer cells and are thought to be related to problems in cell division. The hope is that they are present in unique quantities in cancer cells such that they can be used to specifically target the cells for treatment.

One of the ideas is that the quadruple helix might be an element in the process embryo development which is somehow reactivated in cancer cells. The possibility is mentioned at the end of the article, where Dr. Shankar Balasubramanian says, “We need to find out whether the quadruplexes are a natural nuisance or there by design.”

Ahhhh, “there by design.” Just one of the many, many, many examples of design language that slips so naturally into discussions about biological function. In spite of themselves, authors of works on the nature and functioning of life systems always tend to invoke such “intelligence-involving” words: designengineeredpurpose,…  I would not take it to mean that they are all secret believers in intelligent design, which would be false, nor do I believe that such words cannot be used in a metaphorical sense. After all, when I say that “circumstances conspired against him,” I don’t necessarily mean that circumstances, literally, were conspiring against someone, nor am I trying to imply that God, Himself, was actively doing so through those circumstances. (Though I would not say that the circumstances happened apart from His allowance, though that;s a different discussion for a different time!)

However, it is really telling, I believe, that such language remains the most natural for us to use in trying to make certain distinctions in biology. It reminds me of the comment made by Francis Crick–coincidentally, the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA–in his memoir What Mad Pursuit (p.138): “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.” In other words, they must firmly tell themselves to ignore the most natural conclusion one would draw, and, due to the overwhelming nature of the evidence, they must do so “constantly.”

Earth_cropped

Evolutionary biologist on the limitations of scientism

There were so many things that came to my attention during the end of December when I was consumed by telecast work and the Charlotte weekend, that my “what I wish I’d have posted” list is long. However, I will remedy one of those items on the list here.

Can Science really explain it all?  (NASA photo)
Can science really explain it all? (NASA photo)

I enjoy the e-mails I get from the Discovery Institute, and one of them had a link to an article on their Evolution News and Views website titled “Evolutionary Biologist Austin Hughes Praises Fine-tuning Arguments, Critiques Scientism” written by frequent contributor Casey Luskin. It concerned an article written by Dr. Hughes, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, for The New Atlantis titled “The Folly of Scientism.”

Dr. Hughes’ article is a long read, and not for the Internet surfer just looking for a quick post before he moves on to something else, but if you would like a “short take,” the ENV article by Luskin does a great job of summarizing the points most of those who read this blog would be interested in. The topic of the article is scientism, and Luskin includes Hughes’ definition of that term: “the belief that “sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field.” Here’s the paragraph from the original article where that idea is found:

Of course, from the very beginning of the modern scientific enterprise, there have been scientists and philosophers who have been so impressed with the ability of the natural sciences to advance knowledge that they have asserted that these sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field. A forthright expression of this viewpoint has been made by the chemist Peter Atkins, who in his 1995 essay “Science as Truth” asserts the “universal competence” of science. This position has been called scientism — a term that was originally intended to be pejorative but has been claimed as a badge of honor by some of its most vocal proponents. In their 2007 book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, for example, philosophers James Ladyman, Don Ross, and David Spurrett go so far as to entitle a chapter “In Defense of Scientism.”

I am sympathetic to this idea of scientism, only because it is easy for me to imagine that of the many paths my life may have wandered down, if God had not intervened in it when He did, a path that included my being beholden to such a scientism-based worldview would have been a very likely one for me. And our culture, today, does seem thoroughly drenched in it. It is essentially the “faith” that led Richard Dawkins to such execrable, irrational conclusions in his overreaching book The God Delusion. Actually, as Dr. Hughes points out, overreach is exactly what scientism leads to consistently.

If you find the concept that science really does have all the answers (or, at least, that all the answers to be had are only reachable through science), then at the very least you ought to read Casey Luskin’s article on the essay. If you have more time or deeper interest, then consider reading the original essay by Dr. Austin Hughes–an evolutionary biologist who isn’t motivated, it seems, to sock ol’ Darwin on the jaw and, thus, carries a credibility and, importantly, a credible sincerity.

Hughes doesn’t seem to pull any punches, making points–similar to points made here–about the very human quality of the practice of science. To wit: “[T]he high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals.”

Luskin quotes one of the closing paragraphs at the end of his article:

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

I would like to quote Hughes’ final paragraph, as well:

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics — seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence. Continued insistence on the universal competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase of radical skepticism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence. One longs for a new Enlightenment to puncture the pretensions of this latest superstition.

Hughes doesn’t seem to be motivated by any negative feelings about science. Rather, he seems to be trying to save science from its abusers. I respect that, and I wish him all the best in that effort.

Mind and Cosmos (Square)

An Atheist against Neo-Darwinistic Evolution

Mind & CosmosI have been delighted with what I have read so far of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos. As fully declared by the book’s subtitle–“Why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false”–Nagel takes the position that evolution (that is, the concept that life on earth is purely the result of natural selection acting on random variations) is simply not true and is insufficient as an explanation for what we see all around us. Going further, he points out that if there can be no materialist reduction life to simple, unguided action by unbiased physical and chemical laws, then there must be something in addition to those physical and chemical laws at work–something that is in some way goal-oriented.

Thomas Nagel is unquestionably an atheist and this makes his conclusions, I believe, all the more damaging to the materialist cause: He has no religious-based objection to evolution and is not interested in defending a deity of any sort. Many who attack the arguments of Christians, theists, or simply design proponents work to discount those arguments by pointing to the religious beliefs or motivations of those putting the arguments forward (whether real or not). Of course, this does not have anything to do at all with the strength of those arguments, which should be considered on the merits of their reasoning and evidence. In the real world, however, knocking the messenger is an effective way to fully discredit the message in the eyes of the public, regardless of whether or not it should be so.

As Nagel is an atheist, the lazy-man’s routine punching bag–faith in a Creator–is not available. Yet even without a “god” to fight for, so to speak, he still finds the “goo to you by way of the zoo” stories of purely materialistic, mechanistic, and mindless evolution to be completely unconvincing. Some might accuse him of simply defending his own philosophical turf from encroaching Darwinists in that he has been arguing for the non-materialist view of mind for decades, but I hope that his arguments are considered on their merits.

I’ve only started the book and am into the second or third chapter (haven’t been able to revisit it in a while). But the introduction was very promising. Let me quote here some selections…

“…I believe there are independent empirical reasons to be skeptical about the truth of reductionism in biology. Physico-chemical reductionism in biology is the orthodox view, and any resistance to it is regarded as not only scientifically but politically incorrect. But for a long time I have the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works. The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes. This is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist. Perhaps that literature presents the situation with a simplicity and confidence that does not reflect the most sophisticated scientific thought in those areas. But it seems to me that, as it is usually presented, the current orthodoxy about the cosmic order is the product of governing assumptions that are unsupported, and that it flies in the face of common sense.

“I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for an explanation, supported by some examples. What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.”

“What is lacking, to my knowledge, is a credible argument that the story has a nonnegligible probability of being true.” That’s good stuff. And the turn of phrase “untutored reaction of incredulity” concerning evolution is appreciated, as well. It puts succinctly a concept that my wife and I struggled to find words for in some long car ride discussions.

Nagel makes clear that he is not motivated by religious belief, which would be clear to anyone familiar with his work as he is a committed atheist. Concerning his belief that the neo-Darwinian/reductionist account of life and evolution is false, he says,

My skepticism is not based on religious belief, or on a belief in any definite alternative. It is just a belief that the available scientific evidence, in spite of the consensus of scientific opinion, does not in this matter rationally require us to subordinate the incredulity of common sense.

Among the things I appreciate in this statement is the idea that one need not accept a bad idea simply because one does not yet have a better one to take its place. Richard Dawkins seems fond of saying that evolution is “the only game in town” — a statement that is not only downright false but also misleading as an argument in favor of evolutionary theory. What if the only game in town is Russian Roulette? Do we still play? To accept a theory simply because one wants to avoid the implications of having a Creator (or even a “little c” creator) and this seems to be the only working way of doing so at this point is truly stupid. If Nagel made only this point, his statement would be of great value.

Even braver, perhaps–though he has defended the scientific nature of their work before–is Thomas Nagel’s giving of credit to some of neo-Darwinism’s critics:

“In thinking about these questions I have been stimulated by criticism of the prevailing scientific world picture from a very different direction: the attack on Darwinism mounted in recent years from a religious perspective by the defenders of intelligent design. Even though writers like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are motivated at least in part by their religious beliefs, the empirical arguments they offer against the likelihood that the origin of life and its evolutionary history can be fully explained by physics and chemistry are of great interest in themselves. Another skeptic, David Berlinski, has brought out these problems vividly without reference to the design inference. Even if one is not drawn to the alternative of an explanation by the actions of a designer, the problems that these iconoclasts pose for the orthodox scientific consensus should be taken seriously. They do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met. It is manifestly unfair.”

Amen to that. While I would disagree that the challenge made by intelligent design advocates is one “from a religious perspective” since intelligent design ideas, in and of themselves, do not describe the implied designer (though I do agree that the men may be motivated by their religious beliefs, as have been many great scientists of our past and, in a way, are all scientists, though that’s a post for another time), I appreciate Nagel’s unbiased view of the gravity possessed by their arguments and evidences. Behe and Meyer are, indeed, abused and scorned by evolutionists with a zeal that one cannot help but feel is religious in its motivation, and it really is manifestly unfair. And to see Nagel reference David Berlinski, as well, is a treat, as I am one of Berlinski’s fans.

Nagel highlights that while he does not find the evidence intelligent designers present in favor of such a designer to be convincing, he does believe that “the general force of the negative part of the intelligent design position–skepticism about the likelihood of the orthodox reductive view, given the available evidence” to be powerful, indeed, and to be essentially strong and intact after much attacking from neo-Darwinian believers:

“Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine–that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law–cannot be regarded as unassailable. It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”

In all this, again, Nagel speaks as an atheist. But even in this he garners a level of respect from me. Not that I’ve forgotten Psalm 14:1 or Psalm 15:1, but I respect that he is at least honest in his stance, however wrong it may be:

“I confess an ungrounded assumption of my own, in not finding it possible to regard the design alternative as a real option. I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables–indeed compels–so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling”

(He, at that point, adds in a footnote: “I am not just unreceptive but strongly averse to the idea, as I have said elsewhere.”)

Later, he adds, “I believe the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” If only more of that world view’s “adherents” were as honest.

I am still reading the book, and I think I sense the shape of the argument he is going to make. Rejecting both materialist reduction of all of nature to mindless physical law and the idea of a divine intelligent agent behind the physical realm, he will first begin with the idea that mind is beyond the reach of materialistically reductive explanation–protests by zealous reductionists notwithstanding. (I, myself, have talked about the failures of materialist reductionism in this regard in a number of places–among them, here and here.) He will then point out that if purely material explanations cannot account for the human mind–the chief mechanism by which we experience literally everything else–than material reductionism has failed utterly to account for reality in any complete way at all. In this sense, mind did not have to be the failure point, as any failure point would do: you can’t succeed at explaining reality and leave anything out of your scope. Any unexplainable element is sufficient to prove that there must be something more. I suspect he will then attempt to offer some ideas about what must fill the gap, likely something like the existence a set of “non-material” laws of a teleological (goal-oriented or end-oriented) nature, if I have picked up on his hints properly. Actually, this is interesting given some of the writings of James Shapiro, who seems to suggest a goal-oriented factor in evolution–a purposefully targeted creative system of “natural genetic engineering” within the cell–arguing that blind chance augmented by natural selection simply is not sufficient for the task. (See here and a bit of my post here for more on Shapiro and his “true believer” detractors.)

What Nagel will certainly not offer is any idea that there might be a divine Intelligence behind any of the things he is discussing. At the same time, that is what makes his rejection of “the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature” all the more compelling.

While Mind & Cosmos is not likely to be on most people’s reading list, I hope that it emboldens more people to resist being bullied into accepting neo-Darwinists’ account of the history of life on earth or the unfounded idea that there must be a godless physico-chemical explanation for everything. As Nagel argues, the “untutored reaction” of disbelief in the claims of modern evolutionists should not be abandoned so easily, regardless of the chest-thumping and teeth-baring of Dawkins and his tribe.

I’m looking forward to finishing the book. If anyone out there has already read it, feel free to leave your thoughts.

Bayesian thinking and evolution

Coin Collection
OK, I need a fair coin… Any volunteers? I’ll need references. (Photo credit: flash2)

A quick post, today, as pastoral, camp, and festival work is thick! But I read a nice article last night and thought it worth sharing.

It came in my e-mail, through my “Nota Bene” subscription with the Discovery Institute: “Understanding Bayesian Analysis, the Evolution Skeptic’s Friend”

I’ve mentioned the Bayesian approach to probabilities before (here, too), and this article–explaining how natural it is to think in a Bayesian manner and how truly reasonable and rational it is to doubt so many of the claims of neo-Darwinian apostles–does a nice job of giving the feel of it.

My favorite way of summing up Bayesian thinking is to talk about the hypothetical “fair coin” we always talk about when teaching probability. A coin doesn’t remember the results of its previous flip results, so if a truly fair coin is tossed four times and each time “Heads” is the result, what is the probability that a “Heads” will result again?  The answer–assuming a truly fair coin–is 50% (or, as some would say, 50-50). While some want to say, “‘Tails’ has gotta come up after all those heads in a row,” if it is truly a fair coin then, no, the odds are still even. And, sometimes to stress the power of independent trials, the teacher will exaggerate: “What if the fair coin produced a ‘Heads’ 100 times in a row, would that make any difference?” The correct answer is, “No–if it is truly a fair coin, then on toss 101 it is still 50-50, and you have even odds that you will receive a ‘Heads’ or a ‘Tails.'”  Yet, it is only in the hypothetical world of the theoretical math text book that a “truly fair coin” will produce a “Heads” result 100 times in a row (or, perhaps a world somewhere in Max Tegmark’s Ensemble).  Here in the real world, if you see someone call it a “fair coin” and it produces 100 “Heads” in a row, you start to think (actually, you began to think long ago) that the fix is in and something is fishy in Coin-Flippy Town. Consequently, you ignore the claim of “fair coin” and begin hedging your estimated probabilities based on what experience tells you: This coin favors heads.

That is Bayesian thinking. Actually, Bayesian probability gives a methodical means of bringing experience-based levels of confidence into the calculation of probabilities, but what I’m calling “Bayesian thinking” is at the heart of that approach. And the article from Evolution News and Views does a great job, IMHO, of showing how Bayesian thinking is natural to us and how it is the right way to consider the claims of neo-Darwinian apostles. Check it out, and, if you want to read more, you can click through to my older posts about how Bayesian probability analysis has been used to analyze the likelihood of alien life and intelligence in the universe and even whether or not God exists.

Lynn Margulis (square)

Lynn Margulis on the Insufficiency of Natural Selection

Lynn Margulis
Lynn Margulis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast to the idea that only scientifically illiterate individuals would doubt that natural selection is a sufficient “force” to power all the diversity we see on earth today through evolution, there are a number of scientists with unimpeachable credentials who doubt that natural selection is up to the task. Here is a bit, today, about one: Dr. Lynn Margulis, who died last November.

The late Dr. Margulis, an ex-wife of the famous Carl Sagan, was no creationist. Her theory of life’s history on the planet focused on the idea of constant interaction–symbiosis–between life forms, virtually arguing that even human beings are, in a way, nothing but bacteria who, given enough time, got their act together. She argued that the dynamic of symbiosis, not natural selection, has been the true engine of the biological change and of the climb in complexity in life forms on the planet envisioned by evolutionists. (This Wikipedia entry on symbiogenesis covers some of those thoughts pretty well.)

Do I agree with her? No. But I don’t doubt her sincerity concerning evolution, nor do I see any reason to pretend that she is a creationist, nor do I see a big flaw in her academic credentials. It’s hard to see how the normal ad hominem sorts of attacks that are normally leveled by Neo-Darwinists could stick to her.

Yet she is clearly no fan of natural selection. In her interview in Discover Magazine a year ago (“Lynn Margulis Says She’s Not Controversial, She’s Right”), Dick Teresi asks her, “And you don’t believe that natural selection is the answer [that is, to the question of what drives evolution]?” She replies (emphasis mine):

“This is the issue I have with neo-Darwinists: They teach that what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create.”

Later in the interview, she comments, “I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change—led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.”

(That last sentence is a kicker, isn’t it?)

Between those comments, she discusses how the laws of genetics discovered by Mendel emphasize stasis over change and that one of the reasons, in her opinion, that Darwinists are so zealous about the idea that natural selection is sufficient to account for the changes claimed by evolutionists is that they have too often failed to “go out of their offices” and truly observe what nature is really doing, more like Darwin, himself, did.

Though an evolutionist, herself, like many who oppose evolution in general Dr. Margulis points to the glaring lack of smooth continuity in the fossil record, pointing out that the term “punctuated equilibrium” suggested by Stephen Jay Gould may have provided a name to describe the discontinuities in the appearance of new forms, but it doesn’t help explain the fact of them.

She even says that Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches with their varying beaks provide evidence against speciation by natural selection rather than in support of it. Heresy if I’ve ever hear it. 🙂

Her complaint about intelligent design is nothing new. In the interview, she said that she believed, as many wrongly do, that it isn’t science. However, she isn’t as critical of intelligent design ideas as her more mainstream evolutionists, which is illustrated in this exchange:

Teresi: Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like those of Michael Behe, one of the most famous proponents of “intelligent design,” and yet you have debated Behe. What is the difference between your views?

Margulis: The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism. It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer but intelligent design or “God did it.” They have no alternatives that are scientific.

I disagree with the idea that exploring evidence that there is intelligent designer behind life on earth is somehow an unscientific pursuit–a completely indefensible position, even with a commitment to naturalism (methodological or, for that matter, metaphysical). But I appreciate her willingness to admit that critics of the supposed creative powers of randomness+natural selection are, indeed, correct. If science really is supposed to represent an unbiased pursuit of the truth, then there should be no one saying things like, “You can’t say that–the creationists will have a field day with it!” Truth is truth.

Her exchange mentioning Richard Lewontin and the comment about computer results versus field observations was, at least to me, very funny–and, if a true account, rather damaging to much of the computer modeling “evidence” used to bolster evolution:

Teresi: You have attacked population genetics—the foundation of much current evolutionary research—as “numerology.” What do you mean by that term?

Margulis: When evolutionary biologists use computer modeling to find out how many mutations you need to get from one species to another, it’s not mathematics—it’s numerology. They are limiting the field of study to something that’s manageable and ignoring what’s most important. They tend to know nothing about atmospheric chemistry and the influence it has on the organisms or the influence that the organisms have on the chemistry. They know nothing about biological systems like physiology, ecology, and biochemistry. Darwin was saying that changes accumulate through time, but population geneticists are describing mixtures that are temporary. Whatever is brought together by sex is broken up in the next generation by the same process. Evolutionary biology has been taken over by population geneticists. They are reductionists ad absurdum. 
Population geneticist Richard Lewontin gave a talk here at UMass Amherst about six years ago, and he mathematized all of it—changes in the population, random mutation, sexual selection, cost and benefit. At the end of his talk he said, “You know, we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab, and there are really no measurements that match the quantities I’ve told you about.” This just appalled me. So I said, “Richard Lewontin, you are a great lecturer to have the courage to say it’s gotten you nowhere. But then why do you continue to do this work?” And he looked around and said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do, and if I don’t do it I won’t get my grant money.” So he’s an honest man, and that’s an honest answer.

Could she have said all those things because she had deceived herself into ignoring the (supposedly) vast evidence supporting natural selection by her love for her own, competing theory? Certainly. Just as it is possible that those who believe in the (supposedly) vast creative powers of randomness+natural selection have deceived themselves. We’re all subject to force of Jeremiah 17:9, after all.

However, I found the interview refreshing and thought I would pass it along. Dr. Lynn Margulis died last November, not too long after I first found the interview on Discover’s website. I look forward to her resurrection one day, during a time when not only she but all of us will get a good look at how life really came about in earth and its history after creation–explained to us by the One who created it and sustained it for His purposes.

Check out the whole interview for yourself.