Sunday, May 31, 2009


Death By Fanaticism


Dr. George Tiller

August 8, 1941 – May 31, 2009

Victim of religious terrorists.


Evolution, Naturalism and Theism

For those interested in Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, the Wikipedia article I referenced before mentioned that Branden Fitelson and Elliott Sober had criticized Plantinga's Bayesian argument. I've found the article online at Professor Sober's website.

The arguments are fairly technical but they come to the same conclusion that I did:

Plantinga suggests that evolutionary naturalism is self-defeating, but that traditional theism is not. However, what is true is that neither position has an answer to hyperbolic doubt. Evolutionists have no way to justify the theory they believe other than by critically assessing the evidence that has been amassed and employing rules of inference that seem on reflection to be sound. If someone challenges all the observations and rules of inference that are used in science and in everyday life, demanding that they be justified from the ground up, the challenge cannot be met. A similar problem arises for theists who think that their confidence in the reliability of their own reasoning powers is shored up by the fact that the human mind was designed by a God who is no deceiver. The theist, like the evolutionary naturalist, is unable to construct a non-questionbegging argument that refutes global skepticism.
Consider what Plantinga and other theists have to believe in order to be in any better position than naturalists. First of all, as Fitelson and Sober point out, Plantinga maintains that naturalism and "traditional theism" are the only two "significant alternatives," i.e. that there are no other possibilities worth considering. That has certain consequences: the probability of our cognitive faculties being reliable is high if and only if God exists (or else theists are equally subject to the evolutionary scenario that Plantinga spins). But why should they believe God exists unless whatever arguments in favor of his/her/its existence (even assuming the arguments themselves are good) are the result of reliable cognitive faculties? In other words, the probability of God existing is high if and only if human cognitive faculties are reliable. And the probability of human cognitive faculties are reliable is high if and only if God exists.

It seems to me that such tight circularity is every bit as much a "defeater" of the rationality of theism as the alleged poverty of evolutionarily derived cognitive faculties could possibly be to naturalism.



Carnival of Elitist Bastards 1101

Lucky Carnival of Elitist Bastards 13 is walking under a ladder at En Tequila Es Verdad. To demonstrate the true value and importance of science and the critical thinking skills that Elitist Bastardry celebrates, there is this recipe for life on a research vessel:

The tools you need are simple: an electric drip coffee maker with hot plate, a coffee filter, 2 1-liter sample jars, 2 handkerchiefs, 2 rubber bands, and a source of clean (preferably R/O) water.

You'll have to be more creative with your ingredients. What you need are some sort of grain, some malt, and, if possible, something that can act as a clarifying and hopping agent. You need a simple grain to release the tannins, starches, and enzymes. The best bet is common cereals – Raisin Bran, Cracked Wheat, Kashi, whatever you can find. The fruit and nuts will add flavor, but are not important.

Malt is tricky, and sometimes gross. In my experience, the best you can hope for is vegemite, marmite, or some other yeast extract. If you have chocolate malt balls or some other malt based candy, those can be ground up and used as well.

The hops are the hardest, and you may have to forgo their goodness. Alfalfa or some other green roughage may work, but a clever biologist will bring their own hops on board.

Finally, you'll need to find some yeast. Most ships will have bakers' yeast. If you're very lucky they might have brewers' yeast. ...


A cool, smooth brew, flavored with whatever you found. It may be very bad, it may be good. It will be beer.


You are now the most popular person on the boat. Enjoy.

There's nothin' like watching science in action!


Saturday, May 30, 2009


Of Philosophers And Scientists

PZ Mxyzptlk has a post on Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, as summarized in an article at Christianity Today.

I think PZ underestimates the philosophical sophistication of the argument (which, of course, does not mean it is either correct or true). The Wikipedia article on the argument shows that there is a lot of nuance going on and, indeed, an entire collection of objections to the argument and Plantinga's responses has been published.

I won't pretend to have studied Plantinga's argument or the responses thereto beyond the Wikipedia article and a few expositions of it by Plantinga and other theists, so my thoughts on it are best described, charitably, as preliminary.

PZ states:

In Plantinga's world, if we queried the inhabitants with some simple question, such as, "Is fire hot?", 50% would say no, and 50% would say yes. This world must be populated entirely with philosophers of Plantinga's ilk, because I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you'd actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either.

But that's not what Plantinga is on about. As he says in his article:

Of course you are more likely to achieve your goals, and of course you are more likely to survive and reproduce if your beliefs are mostly true. ...

... This means that the neurophysiology that caused or produced that behavior has also been adaptive: it has enabled them to survive and reproduce. But what about their beliefs? These beliefs have been produced or caused by that adaptive neurophysiology; fair enough. But that gives us no reason for supposing those beliefs true. So far as adaptiveness of their behavior goes, it doesn't matter whether those beliefs are true or false.

Plantinga here is not saying that nearly 100% of people wouldn't conclude that "sticking your hand in fire is a bad idea" -- that's adaptation -- or even that people wouldn't converge on a description of fire as "hot," rather than the term "cold" (used for another set of phenomena), he's saying that such adaptation does not guarantee that our "beliefs" about such things as why fire is hot (say, the existence of phlogiston) are correct. Furthermore, though Plantinga does not so state clearly (a point Wikipedia notes that Michael Ruse has made), his argument goes to beliefs that are not, themselves, empirically testable, such a philosophical naturalism/materialism. In the case of those kinds of beliefs, it is less obviously wrong to assign them a 50/50 probability of being, in fact, true.

It should be understood, as the Wikipedia article points out, that Plantinga is not arguing against the fact of evolution:

Plantinga states that he is not attacking the theory of evolution,[16] which only yields the self-contradiction when connected with philosophical naturalism but is not equally inconsistent with theism.

He is not even arguing that philosophical naturalism is wrong; only that holding to a belief in adaptive evolution renders also holding to a belief in philosophical naturalism not rational. I think there are a lot more holes in his arguments than Plantinga would like to admit but, as I said, I haven't studied it enough to spout off about it.

PZ does touch on a point that, in my opinion, renders the argument as a whole ... well ... academic:

He's reduced to a bogus either/or distinction. Either we are organic machines that evolved and our brains are therefore collections of random beliefs, or — and this is a leap I find unbelievable — Jesus gave us reliable minds.

I don't think that's quite what Plantinga is saying. From his article:

The problem, as several thinkers (C. S. Lewis, for example) have seen, is that naturalism, or evolutionary naturalism, seems to lead to a deep and pervasive skepticism. It leads to the conclusion that our cognitive or belief-producing faculties—memory, perception, logical insight, etc.—are unreliable and cannot be trusted to produce a preponderance of true beliefs over false. ...

Clearly this doubt arises for naturalists or atheists, but not for those who believe in God. That is because if God has created us in his image, then even if he fashioned us by some evolutionary means, he would presumably want us to resemble him in being able to know; but then most of what we believe might be true even if our minds have developed from those of the lower animals.

What he is saying is that, given the premises of philosophical naturalists/evolutionists and the premises of theists, theists do not have a logical objection to the conclusion that their minds are reliable enough to deliver truth about these higher-order assertions about the world, while naturalists do. It seems to me that Plantinga is performing a bit of philosophical sleight-of-hand here, arguing at two different levels of the logic involved. On the evolutionary account as stated by Plantinga (large caveats there), maybe it is not rational for naturalists to believe that philosophical naturalism is also true. But on a evolutionary account it is equally irrational to believe that theistic belief is true and theists are in exactly the same boat as naturalists are. Plantinga wants to keep the evolutionary argument when discussing theism (denying he is questioning it) but doesn't apply it to theism. Simply saying that theists assert the premise that a god exists doesn't render their account rational (though it might be formally logical) if there are no grounds to believe the premise is true.

Remove the evolutionary account for both beliefs and the argument dissolves into the traditional theist/atheist brawl and ya pays yer money and takes yer choice.

One last point (which is what got me to write anything at all on this): PZ mocks Plantinga for being innumerate:

(First, an amusing aside: footnote [7] is an acknowledgment of the assistance of someone else in doing those calculations. He needed help from an expert to multiply simple probabilities? Does being a philosopher mean you're incapable of tapping buttons on a calculator?)

There was also a fairly well-known 19th Century naturalist who had a similar problem:

Caerleon, North Wales, June 19, 1869.

I am much obliged to your Correspondent1 of June 5 for having pointed out a great error in my 'Origin of Species,' on the possible rate of increase of the elephant. I inquired from the late Dr. Falconer with respect to the age of breeding, &c., and understated the data obtained from him, with the intention, vain as it has proved, of not exaggerating the result. Finding that the calculation was difficult, I applied to a good arithmetician; but he did not know any formula by which a result could easily be obtained; and he now informs me that I then applied to some Cambridge mathematician. Who this was I cannot remember, and therefore cannot find out how the error arose. From the many familiar instances of rapid geometrical increase, I confess that, if the answer had been thirty or sixty million elephants, I should not have felt much surprise; but I ought not to have relied so implicitly on my mathematical friend. I have misled your Correspondent by using language which implies that the elephant produces a pair of young at each birth; but the calculation by this assumption is rendered easier and the result but little different. A friend has extended your Correspondent's calculation to a further period of years. Commencing with a pair of elephants, at the age of thirty, and assuming that they would in each generation survive ten years after the last period of breeding—namely, when ninety years old—there would be, after a period of 750 to 760 years (instead of after 500 years, as I stated in 'The Origin of Species'), considerably more than fifteen million elephants alive, namely, 18,803,080. At the next succeeding period of 780 to 790 years there would be alive no less than 34,584,256 elephants.


Just because some of us need help with math is no reason to assume we're stupid.


Friday, May 29, 2009


Unuseful IDiots

Here is another admission by the Discovery Institute that it perceives theistic evolution as a real threat to its version of creationism within its target audience. David Klinghoffer writes:

This [TE] is just what the Darwin Lobby needs, people of faith complacently casting their vote for a cultural force that undermines faith. Lenin is said to have called such people "useful idiots." He was not a very nice person.

You see the effect most poignantly in religiously and politically conservative circles. Conservatives should be the first to grasp that "ideas have consequences," as Richard Weaver put it. Darwinism's corrosive effects on faith, on belief in human dignity and the sacredness of human life; the sinister way Darwin's theory has had of inspiring social movements of organized evil -- these are solid reasons to go back and look again critically at the science. Does natural selection operating on random mutations really explain the history of life without the need for a guiding spiritual force outside nature? Did the software in the cell, DNA, really write itself?

For many of us who should know better, it's easier, whether intellectually, socially, or both, not to come too close to the edge of the sacred mountain of Darwinism.

Apparently "many of us" "religiously and politically conservative" "people of faith" are beginning to cotton to the notion that they can accept science without jettisoning "faith, [or] belief in human dignity and the sacredness of human life." Without that filter in front of their eyes, the DI knows that any "look again critically at the science" will result in their seeing just how vacuous ID is when it tries to turn science into just another "cultural force."

That Klinghoffer has to drag poor Lenin out of his tomb to fright the souls of the flock is a nice measure of the DI's sense of impending doom.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Good News ... Sort of

From the Texas Freedom Network:

The Texas Senate today failed to confirm Don McLeroy as chairman of the State Board of Education. The 19-11 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for confirmation. Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller is releasing the following statement:

"Watching the state board the last two years has been like watching one train wreck after another. We had hoped that the Legislature would take more action to put this train back on the tracks, but clearly new leadership on the board was a needed first step. The governor should know that parents will be watching closely to see whether he chooses a new chairman who puts the education of their children ahead of personal and political agendas."
That's the good news. The bad news is the rumor that Gov. Rick (The South Will Rise Again) Perry is considering the equally lunatic Cynthia Dunbar to replace McLeroy and, if I understand correctly, whoever Perry appoints will not face confirmation for another two years.

Poor children!


Non-Vintage Whine

Donald James Parker is back and his whine is not aging well. It seems that, when confronted with the contradictions in his position that Intelligent Design Creationism is science suitable for teaching in public schools, he retreats into ever tightening circles of self-contradiction.

To begin with, he claims I accused him of:

... wanting to pervert the children of the world by teaching them that a loving God created their world and them and He wants us to live with Him forever ...

I did no such thing, of course, "accomodationist" that I am. I did not discuss at all what I thought of his religion, except to say that I respected Ken Miller's attempt to reconcile his religion with the facts of the world and, by implication, did not respect Parker's attempt to do the reverse by bending the knowledge so painfully gained by science (presumably through his God's gift of intelligence) to fit his narrow sectarian belief. I suppose it totally fails to register with Mr. Parker that his statement contradicts his original claim that the ID movement features "a total focus on scientific arguments and a total exclusion of specific mention of religion from the agenda."

As a strong supporter of our Constitution and the rule of law, my personal opinion of his religious beliefs is not relevant. I will defend Mr. Parker's right to try to proselytize his religion, including to children who don't have the intellectual ability to see through his claims. He may even mislead children about science with such hoary creationist tales as Nebraska Man and Piltdown, though, in doing so, it is a mystery how he can keep a straight face while contending that ID should not be "confused with the Creationism movement." He can also throw around "irreducible complexity" (likely without any understanding of it) in apparent ignorance of the fact that, long before Michael Behe was a gleem in his parents' eyes, evolutionary theory predicted and explained such structures. What he cannot do under our law is use the government to proselytize for him. In short, preach ID in churches, preach it in homes, preach it on every street corner but you cannot use my tax money to preach it in public schools.

Amusingly, Mr. Parker relates an "epiphany" that he "will probably never convert a single atheist because of the compelling logic that I spew out of this mortal brain." Never mind that I am not an atheist -- no doubt, by his "definition," I am, along with Ken Miller, because I don't believe in his particular (dare one say peculiar) version of God. It never seems to occur to Mr. Parker that perhaps there is another explanation for his failure. And it isn't like he needs to look all that far for the reason. Take the "arguments" he retreats to:

"#1 Where did matter/energy come from?" Well, from the Big Bang, of course. Now, where did the Big Bang come from? We don't know, though we have some intriguing ideas, including the elegant math underlying string theory. But Mr. Parker is quite right that there is an argument to be made that there is an infinite regress involved in explanations of matter and energy (and space) and something outside of what we consider "natural" must have started it all. But that "something" need not be anything that looks remotely like his version of God. It could be Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, the Deist god who retreated from the world once it was set it in motion or a pantheistic god. And, of course, once the existence of matter and energy are granted, it is no longer an argument against evolution by natural means, which can be explained by the workings of the universe we do observe.

"#2 Where did information come from?" First, Mr. Parker will have to define "information," a task he doubtless cannot accomplish, since his mentors at the Discovery Institute have never managed it. Waiving around vague terms does not impress. Simple, and well-understood, chemistry, coupled with a feedback loop from the environment called natural selection, is sufficient to explain biology as "complicated" as we see. It is up to the IDers to show that there is something "magical" about whatever it is they are calling "information" that makes it impossible.

"#3 From whence came the natural laws which govern our universe and are actually given credit for birthing the universe? No matter who is telling the story, everybody has to rely at some time of a supernatural first cause (something bigger than nature itself)." This is simply #1 restated in different terms and subject to the same response. The "laws" of nature -- an example of the constraints of human language -- can also be thought of as the proposition that matter and energy, given the same conditions of each within identical space, will interact in the same way. The "laws" of nature are simply the regularity of effects that would be expected from identical causes. Once you grant the existence of matter, energy and space the "laws" of nature follow.

"#4 If evolution occurs by mutation of genes, where did the genome come from?" Now Mr. Parker is descending into farce (which will get worse, trust me!). Genes are chemical reactions operating by the ordinary processes of chemistry. Nothing in Mr. Parker's presentation stands in the way of their evolving from simpler precursors by -- what else -- mutation of simpler versions of those chemical reactions. Surprisingly, Mr. Parker here misses the old '#2.1 Where did life come from?' but we are getting better and better ideas about that all the time. As a conceptual argument, this fails because Mr. Parker omitted the step of showing that there is something unique about the genome that prevents its evolution.

"#5 – has anyone ever traced the formation of a complex creature from a one celled organism?" What does Mr. Parker think happens when a newly fertilized zygote develops into, say, a human baby? But I'm guessing that this confused statement actually means something like "have humans directly observed (omitting caveats about what "direct observation" is) the step-by-step evolution of some extant multicellular organism from its unicellular ancestor?" The answer, of course, is no. But no one has ever directly observed each and every cellular division leading from a human zygote to a baby either. That doesn't mean we aren't tolerably sure of where babies come from. This is just another claim that, if we don't have perfect and complete knowledge, we don't have any knowledge at all and is silly in the extreme.

But it gets worse. Mr. Parker follows in the hallowed footsteps of Ray Comfort in asking truly idiotic questions:

How did legs develop in pairs? How did the muscles get attached to bones, ligaments, and tendons, and how did the brain assume control over the whole structure – in gradual steps? Logic dictates that partially completed and useless appendages etc. would be detrimental to the survival of a creature.

This is actually two "arguments," one having to do with bilateralism and the other with the old "half a wing" cavil, again straight out of the creationist handbook. Legs developed in pairs because, long before any multicellular creature developed legs it developed a bilateral body plan. Such creatures developed a bilateral plan because, as we know from the embryology of modern multicellulars, it is easier and more efficient (natural selection again) to "build" a body by constructing two mirror images along a "central core." Mr. Parker demonstrates his ignorance of the very evolutionary theory he presumes to criticize by assuming that legs are something that are "slapped onto" creatures, in the nature of some childlike creator playing with Lego blocks, instead of appendages evolving over immense time from precursors that were quite different and with different uses. Leg muscles get attached to bones, ligaments, and tendons, and are controlled by the brain because what they evolved from were all attached to the body and already wired to the central nervous system. And at every point the precursors to legs were useful (or at least not exceedingly detrimental) to the creature.

All this has a lovely metaphor in a "joke" Mr. Parker thinks is applicable to scientists:

A guy took a flea and cut off a leg. He yelled "fly" and threw it into the air. It flew. He took another one and cut off both legs and did the same fly routine. It flew. Then he cut off the wings and threw it into the air with his exhortation to fly away. The flea dropped to the ground. Ah ha! When you cut the wings off a flea, they become deaf.

Mr. Parker, fleas don't have wings and they don't fly.

Similarly, all your "arguments" are made in profound ignorance of the natural world, evolutionary theory and science in general.

Yes, Mr. Parker, scientists don't know everything and they do only answer the things they can answer. Contrary to your assertion, they do not claim to have everything "staked out like a butterfly on a pin." Scientists are themselves skeptics who question evolutionary theory, constantly revising it as new evidence comes to light and, if there ever comes a day that it does not fit the evidence, they will overturn it. But it isn't being a skeptic to deny all knowledge -- that is, I'm afraid, as you say, being a moron. With the present state of our knowledge about life, denying evolution is exactly on the order of denying that the Earth orbits the sun rather than vice versa because our knowledge of gravity and astronomy are not absolutely complete.

Mr. Parker, you are correct to say that "[t]here is nothing in nature that can't be explained by an all powerful creator" but that is a basic reason why such a being can't be a scientific explanation. There is no test that can confirm or deny such an explanation and science is about testing (though not in the narrow sense you mean, limited to recreations in laboratory test tubes). You can posit a world in which there is no such thing as gravity and the planets stay in their orbits because invisible and undetectable angels push them around but it would take a moron to call that science. I'll leave it up to your theology to deal with such a trickster god that gives us the intelligence to formulate a science that empirically tests the workings of the world, and use it to such good effect, but then fools us by actually making the world in such a way that science must mislead us.

You are, as I've said repeatedly, free to argue that there is some "logic" that points to a designer/creator. You can even call it "science" in your church or home or on any street corner and we will do no more than point and laugh.

Just don't try to get me to pay with my taxes for your comedy routine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Fire and Maneuver

One of the main arguments of the "incompatiblists" is that "accommodationism" hasn't worked. They point to polls on acceptance of evolution in America that have stayed pretty constant over the last 50 years or so. Rarely, if ever, do they mention the great increase in membership of conservative Christian churches at the expense of the more liberal, evolution friendlier, "mainline" Protestant denominations, over the same time.

Be that as it may, here is another possible marker more sensitive than polls. The Discovery Institute, still desperate after all these years to project an air of scientific probity, is apparently feeling the heat enough from the "'new theistic evolutionists' like Francis Collins" (Ooh, look! "New Theists" to go along with the New Atheists!) that they are launching their own theology site:

"FaithandEvolution.Org is for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the scientific, social, and spiritual issues raised by Darwin's theory, but who is tired of the limited options they are currently being offered by the media," says Dr. John West, Associate Director of the Center. ...

“[W]e’ve always been clear that science has larger worldview implications, and so we want to encourage open and informed discussion of the implications of Darwin’s theory as well. This has become especially important in recent years as both the ‘new atheists’ and the ‘new theistic evolutionists’ have tried to monopolize the faith and evolution conversation. FaithandEvolution.Org is an effort to inject some balance back into the discussion.”

Translation: ID is being more and more ignored in the media (and in the pews?) as power in evangelical churches is inherited by younger and less doctrinaire preachers, with the old guard dying off or losing their grip. Others social forces are at work, including conservative fatigue after eight disastrous years, a new and popular (so far) administration that is science oriented and, yes, the greater familiarity of the population with atheists, because of the "noisy" ones, reducing the fear of "the other" for the DI to play off. The TEers, however, may be perfectly positioned to ease the way to an increase in the acceptance of evolution and science in general by making the transition less stark and traumatic.

In a war, it is not always a good idea to leave the enemy no way to retreat.


Update: Amanda Gefter at New Scientist and Larry Moran have also taken notice of the DI's new site.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I Knew Him When

Woo Hoo!

Brian Switek of Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking has hit the big(ger) time ... specifically, the London Times!

A little more than 55 million years ago there was a split in primate evolution. One branch contained the early relatives of lemurs and lorises, while the other was composed of the ancestors of tarsiers, monkeys, and apes (including us). Ida was an adapid, a group of primates placed on the lemur branch by many palaeontologists. But those who described her disagree; they claim that Ida brings the adapids closer to the ancestors of monkeys and apes.

But as my elementary school maths teachers drilled into my head, you cannot receive full credit for an answer unless you show your work. To resolve evolutionary relationships palaeontologists compare hundreds of traits across a wide array of related creatures and use computer analysis to create a hypothetical evolutionary tree. Ida's description, by contrast, compares only 30 traits (some of which cannot even be observed in Ida) with living primates. The evidence that Ida shares a closer kinship with us than with lemurs is simply not there. ...

If Ida does turn out be more closely related to lemurs than to humans, creationists may use the hype to paint evolutionary scientists as glory hounds who care more about publicity than accuracy. Ida would not be an "icon of evolution", as Dr Hurum hopes, but a public embarrassment that creationists would surely use to sow further doubt about evolution. Likening Ida to the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark only compounds the problem; creationists will undoubtedly argue that these metaphors reveal that evolution is a religion with its own holy relics.

Or, worse, it will wind up where Hurum is practically begging for it to be: in a revised edition of Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution.

Well done, Brian!


A Leg Up

Here's an interesting claim:

Dr Justin Barrett, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind, claims that young people have a predisposition to believe in a supreme being because they assume that everything in the world was created with a purpose.

According to Barret:

The preponderance of scientific evidence for the past 10 years or so has shown that a lot more seems to be built into the natural development of children's minds than we once thought, including a predisposition to see the natural world as designed and purposeful and that some kind of intelligent being is behind that purpose.

From that, he concludes:

If we threw a handful on an island and they raised themselves I think they would believe in God.

While I'd certainly need to see more to accept that claim, it would explain a lot:

Children's normally and naturally developing minds make them prone to believe in divine creation and intelligent design. In contrast, evolution is unnatural for human minds; relatively difficult to believe.

It would go a long way to explain how such bad arguments by creationists, of the sort I've been detailing over the last few days, can still be convincing to people who nonetheless manage to feed themselves, find their way to a toilet and learn to use one.

Of course, it doesn't explain how the rest of us manage to accept evolution so easily ...

Monday, May 25, 2009


The Stinker

I just saw "The Link" and, like most such exercises, there was a lot of repetition, trying to stretch the material that can be understood by lay audiences into a show of over an hour and a half. I can forgive breathlessness and "gee whiz" gushing but there were some truly execrable things floated, such as Ida being the "earliest ancestor" of humans (which I think would have to be some protocell, if one could be identified at all).

It got worse, talking about where Ida fell on the "evolutionary ladder" (!) and how prosimians broke off of the "main stem" of primate evolution (i.e. the line that lead to humans). At one point, There was also talk of early primates splitting into "human and non-human groups" and apes "giving rise to humans" (though Richard Leakey later pointed out that humans are apes).

Of course, it is a marvelous find and certainly important. Ida deserves better though.

All and all, it was closer to the worst that television has offered on science than the best.


Doublethink Double Redux

Okay, Donald James Parker is not Willaim Dembski. Heck, he's not even Casey Luskin. But as an advocate for Intelligent Design Creationism not steeped in the misdirection so meticulously crafted by the Discovery Institute, his arguments are, in many ways, more revealing than what we get from those stalwarts of ID. Plus, there is a certain amusement in his flailings.

Despite having promised not to address ID again at the end of his last post, he's back again, after having gotten the relentlessly pedagogical Ken Miller to respond to an email. Parker posed three statements (apparently unable to pose a straightforward syllogism) and asked Miller if they were illogical:

A. God exists and created all things – which Miller believes

B. people, animals, and plants are things – which everybody knows

C. There is no design or designer for people, animals, or plants, and anyone who claims such a thing is endangering the soul of America (according to the hype for Miller's new book).

Does anyone else see the lack of logic? This seems pretty straight forward to me. Anyone who believes that God created everything yet argues against design must be saying that God created it, but he didn't design it. That's sounds like as slippery a slope as any I've ever seen. Perhaps I'd not heard that scientists were allowed to speak like politicians – out of both sides of their mouths.

Parker then claims that Miller "sidestepped the question of logic." In fact, Miller first pointed out that it wasn't the assertion of design (in their proper forums) that he maintains threatens America's scientific soul, it is the attempts by IDeologists to make science just another culturally-driven relativistic discipline that does that. In other words, Parker's conclusion was not a fair representation of Miller's position. Miller went on to discuss the meaning of "design" (Warning: theological content ahead):

As I drove to Church this morning, I thanked God for the beautiful sunrise that appeared in New England today after a stormy evening. When I acknowledge God as the creator of all things, that gorgeous sunrise is included. However, it's a fact that the cold front sweeping through the northeast pushed out last night's moisture, and that natural causes were the direct cause of the sunrise. We could go further, and explain the beautiful reds and blues in the sky as the product of refraction and light scattering…. In other words, that sunrise had a natural cause. It was not created directly by God. Nonetheless, God, who is the author of all things natural, is ultimately responsible for it.

Parker even says that there is "some validity to that argument." The fact that he can still assert that Miller has sidestepped the logical argument is a nice marker for the sort of intellect we're dealing with here. Just in case you drop by again Mr. Parker, when someone shows that the premises and/or the purported conclusion are false, that is addressing the logic.

Parker does get Miller's point to a degree, noting that such a definition of design "means that the Creator at least designed the laws which bring about the effects we see," a point I think Miller would agree to. But how could that possibly be a scientific conclusion that should be taught in public schools? Quite apart from the mention of a "Creator" running afoul of the Establishment Clause, Parker is still humping his ridiculously restrictive definition of science, which somehow excludes historic sciences, such as police forensics and archeology, but he has now added to it by excluding anything that "can not be reproduced by experiment or falsified in a test tube." So, according to Mr. Parker, astronomy, geology, plate tectonics, volcanology and the like are not "real" sciences and are just "conjecture based on circumstantial evidence and what I refer to as wishless thinking." By that standard, however, the notion of a creator that created the laws of the universe is an equally unscientific idea that cannot be taught in public schools.

Of course, Parker's definition of science or other forms of reliable knowledge is silly even on his own terms. Besides the fact that we find circumstantial evidence a good enough basis to execute people, what does Mr. Parker think such a standard would do to any arguments for the historicity of Jesus? Nor can the assertion of a designer of the laws of nature meet the correct definition of science, since it cannot be tested by the means available to science.

Speaking of logic, having declared that evolution is not science, he then says this:

ID people are not averse to allowing evolution to be taught. Why are evolutionists so paranoid about competition for their theories?

Why, if it is not science, should they acquiesce in it being taught as science? ... unless he realizes, as the Discovery Institute certainly knows, that the "evolution is not science" claim is a spectacularly losing argument?

There is a simple reason why the opposite is not true: evolution, as science, can and should be taught in public schools but ID, as religion, cannot be taught as true in public schools under our Constitution. It can be taught in churches and religious schools or even in comparative religion classes in public schools, though. Why is that not good enough? ... unless they know that their religion, without the imprimatur of government, can't stand the competition of science? No doubt sensing his loss on all these fronts, the best he can do in the end is beg for mercy for his beliefs:

William Jennings Bryan had the solution to this dilemma back in 1925. He suggested that the science classes just shy away from discussion of origins. I'm sure there are more than enough facts about the millions of species on this planet to stuff kids' heads without bringing up points of conjecture.

But that's the point of science, Mr. Parker! It is not just a catalog of unrelated factoids about the world; it is an attempt to understand them in the larger context of how the world works. To study biology without our best explanation as to why life looks the way it does would be like studying American history as a series of dates and events without mentioning our "conjectures" about democracy or the injustice of slavery.

In the end, Parker's arguments, as is the case with all creationists, are inconsistent and ad hoc attempts to save his beliefs from science -- either by using other peoples' tax money to bolster them or, in the alternative, by depriving children of the knowledge of the world that might save them from the kind of muddled thinking Parker exhibits. In one case, he is just a sneak thief, trying to pick my pocket; in the other, he wants to rob children of an education, which I would call a kind of child abuse.

Neither motive speaks well for Mr. Parker's fate if, in fact, he winds up before some eternal judge.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Doublethink II.1

Donald James Parker didn't like my pointing out his confusion of science and religion and dropped by to complain. He then disliked my reply to him here so much that he posted another article about it but without the courtesy of a link or even a mention of my name. That's all right ... it won't stop me.

I pointed out "You don't give a damn what the science is, you'll simply make up whatever nonsense is necessary to save your religion."

So what does Parker do but proceed to make up nonsense:

Sir, you're totally wrong. I care about truth both in science and religion. I have no beef against true science. I love science because my God created a magnificent world full of wonders and mini-miracles and gave me the intelligence to understand most of it. I don't make up anything - because I detest falsehood in any form. Besides, I don't need to fabricate any evidence. The onus is on the scientists who would claim that evolution of human beings is a fact to prove it. I don't have to disprove it.

You see science depends on skepticism. Proof must be provided. In the case of evolution, circumstantial evidence and imagination have been given free reign to dictate truth. If that is science, sir, I don't want any part of it. I promise you that I'll shut up when a scientist can create a living cell from scratch. Materialistic scientists won't accept anything that is supernatural. Yet they will accept a supernatural event of life being created from non-life which breaks one of the natural laws that supposedly govern the universe - life only comes from life. The real truth of the matter is that scientists aren't sure about how things really happened.

The first thing he does is make up nonsense about "true science," which he later defines as "real solid science which is not historical (and hysterical) in nature." Science is defined by ... who else? ... scientists and they overwhelmingly agree that common descent and the evolutionary theory that explains it is science. Heck, even the Discovery Institute agrees that it's science. But even if he didn't know that, only a moment's reflection would reveal that his "definition" is bull. Think of all the historic sciences that his standard would exclude ... from criminal forensic investigation to the very archeology Biblical literalists so love to trot out as supposed evidence for their beliefs (except when it contradicts them).

And circumstantial evidence is recognized as valid enough to convict and execute murderers and rapists. The circumstantial evidence for evolution is convincing enough that scientists who study biology have nearly universally accepted it and the ones who don't are overwhelmingly doing so for religious reasons. All Parker is doing is demonstrating that proof beyond any and all reasonable doubt does not translate into proof beyond unreasonable doubt.

He also makes up the nonsense that it is only philosophically materialistic scientists who won't accept the supernatural as a scientific explanation, forgetting the fact that the scientist he was originally complaining about, Ken Miller (among many, many others), is no materialist. They recognize that supernatural explanations cannot be part of science since, by the very nature of such claims, they cannot be scientifically tested.

Then he makes up nonsense about a supposed "law" of nature that is nothing more than the same old ignorance about what "spontaneous generation" was supposed to be and what Redi, Spallanzini and Pasteur demonstrated. So I don't believe for a moment that he'll accept the results when a reasonable pathway to the first life (which would not have been anything so evolved as a cell) is reproduced.

But he's right about one thing: he doesn't want any part of science ... which was my point in the first place.

My other comment he thought unfair was: "Personally, I don't give a damn about what you or Miller believe about any god(s). Stop misrepresenting what science is to innocent children and you can believe any damn-fool nonsense you want." His complaint is:

If origins must be taught, then teach both sides of the issue. Let innocent children have all the facts and let them choose for themselves which is correct. And let me throw this out: if God does exist and you suppress the knowledge of Him and the salvation He offers from those children, you'd potentially be damning those innocent children to eternal life in Hell.

No one is "suppressing" whatever knowledge Parker thinks there is about god(s). He and the other IDeologists are perfectly free to preach their religion in their proper venues under our Constitution: in churches, homes, religious schools and, if they want, on any street corner. What they are not free to do is use other peoples' tax money to teach their religion in public school science classes.

I'll leave it up to Parker's interpretation of his god's wishes to decide if it is right to lie to children about what is and is not science. But, given his ability to claim that the "other side" he wants to teach is science and, at the same time, is "knowledge of Him and the salvation He offers" with a straight face, I suspect his moral sense isn't that developed.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Doublethink II

It seems is becoming a hotbed of creationism. Here is another example by one Donald James Parker. He is complaining about a talk by Ken Miller he saw on YouTube (for reasons which will become obvious, I doubt he heard a word said). Here is the amusing bit:

How the ID movement featuring a total focus on scientific arguments and a total exclusion of specific mention of religion from the agenda is confused with the Creationism movement is a real fascinating area of study. Talk about your red herrings. I've come to the conclusion that evolution proponents have so turned off their minds to anything that detracts from Darwinistic philosophy that they don't even hear the arguments being laid out by ID proponents. That is really frustrating because we argue against someone who isn't listening and have to listen to claims of how they've debunked intelligent design when they don't even know what it is they're trying to debunk.

That "specific mention of religion" is funny enough as it is, given Judge Jones' determination that ID is just creationism stripped of specific mention of God to circumvent the Constitution. But how does Mr. Parker go about demonstrating that ID is science and not religion? Why, by accusing Miller of being an agent of Satan:

I've had communication with Dr. Miller in the past. He laughs about those who tell him his eternal destiny will be hotter than the Mojave Desert in summer. I didn't say that in my letters to him, but I did suggest that if Darwin's work has been a tool of the devil that Miller was just a pawn in Satan's army and finding that out on judgment day will be a bit of rude (and perhaps unpleasant) shock. If you truly love God, how would you feel to find out you have been giving support to his enemy? ...

If God didn't design life, then in what way is he God? Why would he need to send his son Jesus to earth to die a cruel death and suffer the mocking of inferior mortals to save something that he didn't design? I don't know if God created the world in six literal days, and I don't get hung up on that detail. I do know it didn't create itself using natural laws which themselves would have to be created, and life didn't come along by itself. If God had any hand in how we arrived at where we are, that means it is designed. He has placed his signature in multiple places on this portrait known as the universe.

And here I thought he said there was no specific mention of religion in ID.



There is a fascinating (as in rubbernecking a car wreck) insight into creationist thinking at in the person of one Clyde Middleton, including a truly lunatic "summation" of the theory of evolution that reveals an absolute absence of any knowledge of science.

The interesting part involves his mocking of Darwin's attempt to deal with the fossil record. Darwin, of course, straightforwardly addressed what he saw as a valid objection to his theory, namely: the absence of innumerable transitional links showing species transforming from one into another. This Darwin largely attributed to the imperfection of the fossil record and proposed that a research program be undertaken to determine just how imperfect it is. This led to the field of science called taphonomy.

But imperfection of the fossil record was not Darwin's only proposed explanation ... ironically something that Middleton picks up on but does not understand. He quotes Darwin to the effect:

[A]lthough each species must have passed through numerous transitional stages, it is probable that the periods, during which each underwent modification, though many and long as measured by years, have been short in comparison with the periods during which each remained in an unchanged condition.

... and asks:

But let me understand something because I am troubled. You write that the transition periods are significantly shorter than the in situ periods. That suggests that evolution, um, stops for elongated periods, or that evolution that would be evident in fossil (as opposed to soft tissue) stops. I don't remember reading that. I thought you wrote that evolution is continuous. I'm confused. Little help, Charles?

John Wilkins has explained this well as a confusion over what "gradualism" means. Commenting on that passage, Wilkins notes:

It is hard to find a better summary of punctuated equilibrium [not an uncontroversial view on Wilkins' part - JP] ... Certainly, Darwin was changing his emphases over time in response to criticism and suggestions - which any decent thinker ought to do. But in no way did he ever rely on a steady rate of change view.

The important point here is that, if Middleton is really confused, why would he assume that Darwin (and scientists who have had 150 years to contemplate it since) are wrong and he, a layman, has seen something they have not considered? A rational person in that situation would seek to end his confusion rather than basing his acceptance or rejection of an idea on it.

If he had investigated, Middleton would have found out that taphonomy, along with plate tectonics, the clarification of what evolutionary change would look like in the fossil record and the tremendous increase in discovered transitional forms since Darwin's day (that Middleton, no doubt under the influence of Morton's Demon, simply denies, even while referring to another, though over-hyped, example) has convinced scientists that the fossil record is a positive support of common descent instead of a liability.

All that goes to explain why Middleton is spectacularly wrong about the science but, to me, this is the interesting bit:

But I have been fascinated over the years by the MSM trumpeting of fossils as proof that God does not exist - for that is the ultimate measure of their focus. "See that foot bone on that fossil? NOW try to say we didn't evolve from that monkey!"

Um, laughing. Assume that I build engines from scratch in my spare time. Does every single engine have to be a completely new design? You mean I can't go with a general concept here? I can't have ANY similarity between engines? That seems like a rather high and needless standard. What's your logic? What proof can you offer that I must use completely different parts? Don't chipmunks have stomachs and eyes? Why didn't we evolve from them? They got a face. We've got a face. Help me here.

A quick answer is that a clock has a "face" too but even Middleton should agree that there is something unique about living organisms that suggest a closer relationship to humans than a piece of machinery. It is a whole suite of traits unique to particular taxa that make "monkeys" more likely ancestors of humans than chipmunks, with a foot bone perhaps distinguishing which "monkey" is closer still to the line that lead to humans.

But what I find fascinating is that Middleton, here, is doing exactly what he mocks Darwin for: proposing an explanation (common design) of empiric evidence that does not, on its face, support his "theory" of the origin of species (creationism). There is one difference, naturally: Darwin's proposal can be scientifically examined, while Middleton's cannot. But why should Darwin be mocked for doing the same thing Middleton himself does?

Now, we are all heir to inconsistency in our thinking. But it is rare, I think, to find such blatant self-contradiction so cheek by jowl ... except perhaps in the case of creationists.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Here We Go Again!


Are they just dumb or are they duplicitous?

That's always the question with quote miners.

Of course, they throw these quotes around with the pretense of understanding what they mean when, in fact, most of the miners have never read the source of the quote and few would understand it if they had. In that sense they are being dishonest. That is particularly the case when, by virtue of a person's job, an air of authority is leant to any pronouncement he or she might make.

That's the situation with Gailon Totheroh, Health Editor for the Christian Broadcasting Network News, even though nothing in his résumé would recommend him for any such expertise. The closest thing to any scientific education is an associate degree in chemistry from a community college. He has a B.A. in German from a real university and an advanced degree from a phony one: an M.A. in Public Affairs Journalism from Regent University. His work history before his CBN gig was in public relations, human resources, property management, and "publication research."

Anyway, he's trying to cast doubt on the overwhelming evidence for common descent, and, in particular, on poor Ida, who we already know is being shamelessly over-hyped, by dragging out a quote mine of David Raup, that already is in the Quote Mine Project and, typically, involves Punctuated Equilibria, a common target of quote miners everywhere. The perpetrator of the most recent example I dealt with actually came back to "defend" himself ... by doing more quote mining!

I wonder if really they think such tactics reflect well on their beliefs?


Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Still Crazy After All These Years

Our old friend, Yomin Postelnik, who said he had simple proofs of the existence of God that no atheist has ever been able to counter effectively, is back boasting that he, a business planner, is "far more familiar with evolutionary theory ... [and] the intricacies and rationale behind the theory ... that falls apart upon proper dissection and analysis" than the people who support it ... you know, like scientists.

It's another wonderfully lunatic performance of delusion-art that is best seen in its original habitat.

But one point should be made about the recent over-hyping of Darwinius masillae. It might actually lend some credence to "arguments" like this of Postelnik's:

In the latest act of media hyped pseudo-science, aka liberal/conventional science, the discovery of the crushed and flattened fossil of a lemur monkey, that while alive had a shattered left wrist, is being touted as the needed "proof" of Darwinian theory.

For the first time, all scientists interviewed freely admit that the theory of evolution had gaping holes in it. They just claim that all of the answers lie in the packaged, crush fossil that spent the last 20 years hanging on someone's wall. In other words, they admit that until yesterday, anyone who claimed that there was anything close to conclusive proof of evolutionary was wrong, despite having sold that line for decades.

True, it will only persuade those who are woefully ignorant of science. Unfortunately, that pretty well describes most Americans.


A Family Affair

A down and dirty bit of quote-mineontology:

A certain John Herbst, in a Letter to the Editor in the Glenwood Spings (Colorado) Post Independent offers the usual "evidence" for Intelligent Design Creationism, amounting to "Golly gee, the world sure looks designed to me!" capped by this:

All I can summarize with is, how much more evidence for intelligent design does one need? There is indeed more, for those honestly seeking truth. And here's one more quote to brood on for Darwinists:

"The theory of evolution by gradual mutation is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy."

— Steven J. Gould, evolutionist
Having some little experience with quote mining, particularly of Gould, I already knew that the "gradual mutation" in the purported quote signaled some discussion of "Punctuated Equilibria," the proposition by Gould and Niles Eldredge that evolution evinces a "jerky, or episodic, rather than a smoothly gradual, pace of change," as Gould himself put it. This in no way challenges the fact of evolution, the overwhelming evidence for common descent or even that natural selection is a major mechanism bringing about evolution (as discussed in response to another quote mine from the same article by Gould).

By searching on fragments of the quote, I quickly found a more complete version from Stephen E. Jones, a creationist, but one who generally provides more honestly complete quotes:

"I well remember how the synthetic theory beguiled me with its unifying power when I was a graduate student in the mid-1960's. Since then I have been watching it slowly unravel as a universal description of evolution. The molecular assault came first, followed quickly by renewed attention to unorthodox theories of speciation and by challenges at the level of macroevolution itself. I have been reluctant to admit it - since beguiling is often forever - but if Mayr's characterization of the synthetic theory is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy." (Gould, Stephen Jay [Professor of Zoology and Geology, Harvard University, USA], "Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?," Paleobiology, Vol. 6, No. 1, January 1980, pp.119-130, p.120).
You can see why I had to search on fragments: someone has substituted that "theory of evolution by gradual mutation" for Gould's much more specific "Mayr's characterization of the synthetic theory ... as a general proposition." So Gould was not challenging evolution by mutation and natural selection, but a particular "received view" of it. This is, of course, the normal way that science proceeds. Theories are proposed and expounded on; other scientists propose modifications, large and small; and the theory changes over time to more closely reflect our knowledge as we learn more. Science is an ever changing field ... and that's a good thing! It's not even important whether Gould and Eldredge were right in this instance, it is only important that you understand the process.

So who made the substitution in the alleged quote? Well, here we can apply a little of the technique that has led scientists to so firmly accept evolution in the first place and see if we can find a characteristic of the quote mine that shows its descent from the original. Searching on the nearly complete quote mine ("gradual mutation is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy") discovers only one source on the web: a certain Nate Herbst, also from Colorado, who contributes to a site called "Sermon Central," "dedicated to equipping pastors worldwide in excellence in preaching," apparently by sharing things of (sometimes dubious) value for use in sermons. In turn, Nate Herbst, lays the likely blame on "Winkie Pratney, Ravi Zacharius, Josh McDowell and others."

That's all the dishonesty I have the time or stomach for at this point. But, John Herbst, assuming you are related to Nate, don't forget that "let the buyer beware" applies to family members too.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Fish Out Of Water

Stanley Fish is not beloved of the science-oriented blogosphere.

He may not be all that beloved of the readers of his own blog in the New York Times if, as he reports, 95 percent of the reaction to his article on Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revolution was negative. Or maybe it was just those militant, boring atheists up to their old tricks.

In any event Fish is trying to mount a defense of religion against the assaults of rationalists by treading the well-worn path of arguing that it takes faith to believe in evidence, just as it does to believe in religion.

Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn't) in the light of assumptions - there are authors or there aren't - that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

... [T]here is no such thing as "common observation" or simply reporting the facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is) that cannot be observation's objects because it is within them that observation and reasoning occur.

To be sure, there is a certain justice to this position and no less a personage than a certain 19th Century naturalist of some little repute agreed with the general proposition:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

The basic view of science, which has been called by the lovely, but not necessarily accurate, appellation, "The Ionian Enchantment," is that the world is intelligible to human beings. The foundational requirement of this view is that the universe is consistent. If all is chaos, we cannot hope to understand what goes on around us. Both the Greek philosophers and the Israelite goatherds knew that the first act of creation had to be to end chaos and to bring form and regularity to the void.

In our daily lives, each of us constantly applies what is called "methodological naturalism." The only exceptions are a few mystics (who have a lot of help from their families and friends) or people who we call "insane." A quick example should suffice: If strolling across a country lane we should see a car approaching from a quarter mile away, most of us will continue strolling, unconcerned that the car will be suddenly upon us before we can complete our crossing. If, while navigating a busy street, we spy a bus 25 feet away heading at us at a good clip, few will stop to contemplate if past experience is a reliable guide of the bus' future behavior. Instead, the common response is to run like hell (suggesting one possible interpretation of the biblical phrase "the quick and the dead").

It's true that this all-but-universally-shared induction about the consistent regularity of the universe does suffer from Hume's Problem of Induction. But its very ubiquity -- seemingly instinctive and subconscious -- argues for its value to us in negotiating our lives. On the other hand, the view of theists (here meaning those believing in a God actively intervening in the workings of the world) has to justify the purported exceptions to this strongest of our inductions.

If the world is mostly consistent, then the view that the world is intelligible to us is more likely true than not; the Ionian Enchantment is the better bet; and the onus is on those who would urge us to place our money on the long shot.

Fish will have to do better than to simply remind us that there may be another horse running.


Update: There is a much more knowledgeable and erudite discussion of Fish's piece going on at Brian Leiter's place.

Update II: Russell Blackford and Massimo Pigliucci have joined in.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Vestigial Minds, Junk Arguments

You don't have to agree with Jerry Coyne's take on "accommodationism" to wonder about this:

To the illuminati, a believer lumbers to the edge of every frontier of knowledge, poised to retire his investigations with "God did it!" contentment. Meanwhile, dead ends caused by their own faith in scientific materialism remain unexamined—the premature designation of "vestigial" organs and "junk" DNA being two examples.

Contrary to modern criticism, the scientist who approaches the world as a product of intelligence, rather than of matter and motion, is less likely to stop short of discovery. Instead of dismissing a feature that, at first glance, appears inert, unnecessary or just plain mystifying, he is more inclined to push the envelope of investigation to unravel its function and purpose.

Ah, of course!

Now, let's assume for the sake of argument that any organ maintaining any function at all, no matter how different from its apparent progenitors, no longer qualifies as "vestigial" or that evidence that some small percentage of junk DNA has a function demonstrates that it all does. Let's even assume that vestigial organs and junk DNA are actually across-the-board predictions of evolutionary theory, rather than merely empiric discoveries that, along with a myriad of other facts about the world, are well explained by common descent.

The evidence of this inclination on the part of anti-materialist scientists to push the envelope of investigation into the function and purpose of nature would be the inordinate number of such discoveries by Intelligent Design-favoring scientists like those who signed the Dissent from Darwinism list and the associates of the Discovery Institute's Biologic Institute.

Oh, wait a minute! The discovery of minimal functions in some vestigial organs and function in some DNA previously thought to be "junk" has come from the regular scientific community, hasn't it? It seems that supposed inclination hasn't stopped naturalism-assuming scientists from looking for function in nature nor helped creationists to make any new discoveries.

Dang, another beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Turtles All the Way

The Billings, Montana Gazette has a write-up of David Quammen and, given this "Year of Darwin" and his self-described stint as "a tinpot Darwin expert," a nice thumbnail sketch of Darwin and his work.

I particularly liked Quammen's take on Intelligent Design Creationism:

We should teach it where it belongs ... in comparative religion, alongside Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, and the old Hindu belief that earth rests in space supported on four really big elephants that stand on the back of Chukwa the giant turtle.

I'm not sure that's a fair description of ID, though. Instead of an example of sincere religious belief, ID might be better taught in social studies as an example of a movement more interested in achieving political goals than in truth.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Thomist Talk

Thomas Jackson, author of Darwin's Error: The Poet Who Died and who apparently thinks that Darwin was a better poet than scientist, has an interesting article in the Guardian, entitled "Thomas Aquinas would have loved genetics," about why Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, was wrong about Aquinas.

I don't know enough about Aquinas, despite having been raised Catholic, to know whether Jackson is right that he was not arguing for the existence of God from design but, rather, was an early "accommodationist," seeking to show that you could accept Aristotle and Aristotle's science and still believe in God. I do know, to the limits of my memory of my unwilling studies in Catholic theology, that there is in it a strong strain of thought that Jackson attributes to Aquinas. Jackson probably knows better than I.

Jackson tasks Dawkins and the other "New Atheists" with their use of purposeful language to describe the workings of "Mother Nature."

How right Dawkins and Dennett are to reject pseudo-religious explanations in favour of the real thing But they do not penetrate into reality far enough. Either you have to think that unintelligent genes behave in the way that they do because they are expressions of a profounder intelligence, or you have to think that they unintelligibly and mechanically just do what they do, but we, committed to intelligence, can only talk about them as if they were intelligent. They do not build survival machines for themselves but 'build survival machines for themselves". Personally, I find the idea that intelligent means unintelligent or that purposeful means purposeless less than intellectually compelling. How Aquinas would have adored genetic biology. ...

Natural selection explains the origin of species most satisfyingly. But it doesn't explain why they are so beautiful. And what about those uncountable millions thoughout the ages who have claimed an intensely meaningful personal relationship with the ground of existence? This experience has been corroborated so many times, you would have thought that people who swear by peer review would have paid heed. If, as seems to be the case, it is impossible to talk about mother nature except in terms of a personal creative force, then perhaps, if language is to mean anything at all, the difference between Dawkins and Aquinas is not really very great.

This is a version of the argument made by a contemporary of Darwin's, George Douglas Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll. I think it fails because it does not consider that language is a human construct and we, as purposeful creatures, will reflect that in our language. In short, we find it easiest to speak as if the universe is purposeful because our language is a mirror of what we ourselves are. Nor is it, I think, impossible to talk about mother nature except in terms of a personal creative force, it is just cumbersome, as we have to leave behind the metaphors, familiar constructions and other shortcuts we use to streamline our communications.

Jackson's is a linguist's argument. If only the world was made of words.


Addendum: I am fully aware that this is a two edged sword. The nature of our language, itself a consequence, at least in part, of our evolutionary history and needs, may have also mislead us as to our ability to rationally untangle the world. Christopher Schoen of u n d e r v e r s e (recommended by antipodian philosophers everywhere) discusses this at length. Russell Blackford of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, however, disagrees.

Friday, May 15, 2009


The Words "Ray Comfort" Mean ...

... nothing more than "moron."

The evidence:

One in four professors in U.S. colleges and universities is either atheist or agnostic, and they are corrupting our youth. When Richard Dawkins visited an Oklahoma University earlier this year, he told adoring students, 'Evolution is a scientific fact, as secularly established as any fact known in science.' But that's just not true. Evolution is a theory and the word 'theory' means nothing more than 'speculation' or 'conjecture.'

It's clearly only a "theory," in Comfort's sense, that he has a brain at all.


Political Scholars

Cambridge University dons are in a snit.

The university recently amended its equal opportunities policy to stress respectfor religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds and its opposition to discrimination. The policy now reads:

The university's core values are freedom of thought and expression and freedom from discrimination.

It therefore respects religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds, including the lack of religion or belief.

It also respects the right of all members of its community to discuss and debate freely issues of religion, belief, and philosophy. So far as is practicable, the university will attempt to accommodate requests for adjustments to accommodate religious observance.

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering, thinks this a bad idea:

The university has no duty under this legislation to 'promote religion and belief equality', merely a duty not to discriminate when hiring staff or admitting students – which we stopped doing in 1877.

The unfortunate wording of this policy might be interpreted to suggest that Cambridge is to promote the equality of evolution with creationism, or of cosmology with shepherds' tales.

We must never accept any duty to promote the equality of truth and falsehood.

Prof Anderson earlier said that iconic figures such as Newton and Darwin were part of a long tradition at Cambridge of "theicide" – the killing of gods – which was threatened by the policy amendments.

This is very much an environment where people can challenge established belief and express thoughts which will challenge the faithful.

We should not allow ideas to be snuffed out in fear of causing offence.

Prof Geth Evans issued a statement slamming as "half-baked." "misconceived and confused and . . . likely to do more harm than good".

Meanwhile, David Goode, president of the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union, criticized the university for failing to carry out an "equality impact assessment" (!) and for not involving the Union in discussions. However, Goode added:

Cambridge UCU is nonetheless pleased that the policy has been produced, and that the university has made a clear and concise commitment to freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination in respect of religious or philosophical beliefs or lack thereof.

Frankly, I think Prof. Anderson is committing the same error that so many conservative Christians here in America do: conflating criticism -- even harsh criticism -- with discrimination.

But perhaps he knows better how the university will interpret the policy.

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