The Case for a Creator: Redefining Science

The Case for a Creator, Closing Thoughts

The theory of evolution not only explains and unifies a vast range of scientific observations, it's given rise to an enormous, fruitful research program by predicting where we should look in order to find all kinds of phenomena of interest. One of the most famous examples is how Charles Darwin predicted that the earliest human ancestors would be found in Africa, which turned out to be 100% correct. Based on observing flowers from Madagascar, Darwin also predicted the existence of a moth species with a startlingly long proboscis, and a moth matching his specifications was discovered. Evolutionary theory led paleontologists to inspect rocks of a certain age in a certain location to find tetrapod ancestors, and lo and behold, we dug up Tiktaalik roseae. Evolutionary theory enabled us to predict the likely characteristics of an ant ancestor, and we found a species preserved in amber that matched our expectations almost perfectly. Evolutionary theory illuminated the similarities between birds and dinosaurs, and feathered theropods continue to turn up at a dizzying rate.

Even today, evolution continues to guide researchers who are expanding our knowledge of the human genome. Because of evolution, we looked in yeast to find genes that build bodies, and we looked in sea cucumbers to find blood-clotting genes. Because of evolution, we found viruses with similarities to crucial genes in our immune system, and bacteria with family ties to the mitochondria that power the metabolism of each and every cell in our bodies, and apes and monkeys whose vitamin C synthesis gene is broken in exactly the same way as ours. Based on evolutionary reasoning, the first scientists to crack the genetic code worked under the assumption that it would be universal among life, and this too was correct.

These are bold, surprising predictions, which expand our knowledge of humanity even as they reveal our deep and intricate ties to the natural world. And without the overarching assumption of evolution, there was no reason to suspect any of them to be true. Yet they are true, and no other theory or hypothesis accounts for them so consistently and so well. By letting the principles of evolution and the scientific method guide us, we've enjoyed enormous success, and reaped the bounty of a rich harvest of knowledge about nature. We've also found no evidence whatsoever which confirms the existence of a supernatural creator. And when some people are losing, it's little surprise that they want to change the rules of the game.

In chapter 9, Stephen Meyer sums up his argument as follows:

"Well, I say it's time to redefine science. We should not be looking for only the best naturalistic explanation, but the best explanation, period. And intelligent design is the explanation that's most in conformity with how the world works." [p.243]

Please note the major concession: Strobel and his fellow-travelers aren't doing science. They're doing something else, and they want to "redefine" science so that the new definition can encompass whatever it is they are doing.

What's curious about this statement is that although Meyer calls for redefining science, he never says what he wants the new definition to be. If they want to redefine science, how should the new definition differ from the old one? What activities will count as science that didn't before? And once you conclude that "design happened", then what? What predictions does the design hypothesis make about the structure of the world? Is there research that we can do to figure out the mindset, the abilities, the intentions of the designer? Can we know anything about him other than, perhaps, an inordinate fondness for beetles? If so, how?

Neither Meyer nor any other advocate of ID has ever attempted to answer these questions. If they're so eager to establish a new, non-natural kind of science, why don't they explain how it would work? More to the point, why don't they just go ahead and do it? They don't need anyone's permission. If they could use their method to make verifiable predictions, they wouldn't have to sit around trying to convince the rest of us. There would be incontrovertible evidence of their success.

The proof is in the pudding, but Meyer, Strobel and the rest are offering us nothing but thin gruel. They want us to discard the well-tested and massively successful framework of evolutionary theory and adopt their method instead, and promise vague but marvelous results at some unspecified future time. They come to us empty-handed, having done none of the necessary work, and expect us to take their claims on faith - even though the Discovery Institute's sizable budget could easily support a well-equipped research division, and groups like the Templeton Foundation are openly seeking pro-ID research to fund. Clearly, the only reason they're not doing science is because there's no science in their ideas to be done. Like all creationists, they are intellectually bankrupt, and the "redefinition" they seek is to redefine scientific failure as scientific success.

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July 12, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink20 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup: Net Drama Edition

The intertubes are exploding with drama this week! I'm still catching up on a backlog of reading material myself, but I thought I'd post about the more notable news items.

• First off, I just have to mention this because it's such delicious schadenfreude: Chris Mooney, atheist-basher extraordinaire, had a commenter earlier this year named Tom Johnson who claimed to be a scientist and wrote about how rudely and viciously he'd seen atheist professors treat their Christian colleagues. Mooney was much taken with these claims and devoted at least one entire post to promoting them. One little problem: Turns out "Tom Johnson" was an impostor who made this story up.

Mooney, allegedly a journalist, accepted this story uncritically because it fit his prejudices. And lest you accuse me of Monday-morning quarterbacking, quite a few of his commenters pointed out that "Tom Johnson"'s story seemed implausible when it was first posted. But Mooney waved those concerns aside, claiming he had personally verified the author's identity. Clearly, either this was a lie or his fact-checking was other than rigorous.

This episode is emblematic of what drives the accommodationists in general: sloppy handling of the facts, a lack of interest in understanding people's real motivations, and a refusal to engage with valid criticism. Note that, so far, Mooney has not apologized for slandering the reputation of the New Atheists based on lies.

• On a more depressing note: ScienceBlogs, a site that aggregates some of my favorite science bloggers, has blatantly violated one of the most basic rules of journalism: keep a strict separation between editorial content and advertising. The breach comes in the form of their appalling decision to publish a blog on food nutrition... by PepsiCo. Judging by its initial post, this blog will be straight-up corporate propaganda from Pepsi's PR department:

As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

I'm guessing what we won't be seeing is any reason why artificially colored and flavored corn-syrup water needs to be part of anyone's diet.

By selling this space to corporate flacks, ScienceBlogs' management has sullied the reputation of all the legitimate, non-bought-and-paid-for science bloggers whom they recruited to write for them. I have no idea what they were thinking. Actually, scratch that, I do know what they were thinking - they were thinking of the money Pepsi was offering them to do this. What I don't understand is why they let ethical considerations take a back seat. Shame on you, ScienceBlogs.

• On a similar note, although the Huffington Post has always been a haven for pseudoscience and quackery (especially the loathsome anti-vaccine campaigners), they've really outdone themselves now: they've given column space to David Klinghoffer, a creationist affiliated with the Discovery Institute, to publish a screed about how evolution was responsible for Nazism. Worse, they're censoring criticism of this decision from their own writers.

What's to be done with the Huffington Post? Is their credibility and scientific integrity so utterly ruined, at this point, that rational, progressive readers ought to boycott them? Or is it still worth our time to write articles for them promoting science and reason, on the theory that the best use of light is to bring it into dark places? What do you think?

• And lastly, on the topic of cranks - we all know of the crackpots and pseudoscientists who try to silence skeptics by filing nuisance lawsuits, sending frivolous legal threat letters, or otherwise using the legal system for harassment. Now another such outfit has sued Dr. Stephen Barrett, proprietor of the excellent Quackwatch site. Since truth is a defense, I expect this lawsuit to be dismissed in short order. But in the meantime, Dr. Barrett could use some help with his legal bills. The reality-based community ought to defend its own, and if you're as outraged by this news as I am, I hope you'll consider sending a few dollars his way.

July 8, 2010, 12:17 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink13 comments
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The Case for a Creator: The Radical Fringe

The Case for a Creator, Closing Thoughts

It's been said that one of science's greatest virtues is that it's not dictated by a tyranny of the majority or guided by irrational human whims. After all, science is the search for the true nature of reality, and reality isn't decided by our preferences. No matter how many people prefer an experiment to turn out one way, it may in fact turn out another, and the scientific community will just have to accept that result. There's certainly much truth to this.

But of course, in another sense, scientific debates are settled by majority vote, because science is done by humans, and how else can a community of humans conduct business other than by consensus? When the evidence is unclear or lacking, we have no choice but to rely on the judgment of experts. The theory that wins the majority's support, by definition, will attract the most research, the most funding, and the most talent.

There's truth in both these views, but the reality is that they usually converge. Science works - it discovers verifiable truth about the world - and the implication is that, in any given dispute, the theory which attracts the most support from the majority of practicing, credentialed scientists is more likely than its competitors to be true. This is even more true of ideas that have survived decades of rigorous experimental tests. I don't know of a single case where a scientific theory that reigned for so long was utterly falsified and overthrown. Far more often, we just discover that although the old theory holds true in most cases, there are special circumstances where it doesn't; and it then becomes an approximation of its more precise successor.

The reason for this whole digression is that, in The Case for a Creator's appendix, Strobel offers a summary of his apologetics work in The Case for Christ. He summarizes one chapter as follows:

"Gregory Boyd... offered a devastating critique of the Jesus Seminar, a group that questions whether Jesus aid or did most of what's attributed to him. He identified the Seminar as 'an extremely small number of radical-fringe scholars who are on the far, far left wing of New Testament thinking.'" [p.295]

This is extremely perilous ground for Strobel to tread on. If some group's belonging to the "radical fringe" is a reason to reject their ideas, doesn't that apply all the more to the ideas presented in this book?

After all, the theory of evolution has the support of the overwhelming majority of the scientific community: state, national, and international scientific societies and academies; the biology faculties of dozens of accredited colleges and universities; and, of course, over a thousand scientists named Steve. By contrast, the intelligent-design movement is sorely lacking in intellectual firepower. As I've pointed out, the intellectual well of creationism is so shallow that Strobel was forced to pad out a ten-chapter book with theologians, philosophers and professional Christian debaters, and even then, he had to interview one of his subjects twice!

This lack of depth speaks to the true nature of the creationist movement: not a robust academic community doing real scientific research, but a small number of pundits, lawyers and religious evangelists underwritten by right-wing Christian groups for ideological and propaganda reasons. The difference between them is the difference between an ocean and a puddle. Given Strobel's dismissive description of the Jesus Seminar, wouldn't it also be appropriate to identify the Discovery Institute as "an extremely small number of radical-fringe creationists, most of whom are on the far, far right wing of religious thinking, and - to top it off - most of whom lack credentials in any scientific field related to evolution"? (This is in contrast to the the Jesus Seminar, whose members, no matter how bitterly Strobel denigrates them, have legitimate credentials in textual criticism, ancient languages, and biblical studies.) Strobel relies on the argument from authority when it's convenient, but disregards it when it's not convenient.

Granted, a Christian apologist might think to make this argument cut both ways - how can we atheists reject the Bible when so many prominent biblical scholars believe it's true? - but there are obstacles to doing so.

First of all, many of the theologians who express belief in biblical historicity and inerrancy work not for secular universities where the expression of diverse views is protected by tenure, but by religious schools and seminaries which force their members to affirm a statement of faith and cast out those who express unorthodox thoughts. This artificial barrier, which has no equivalent in the scientific community, makes it much more difficult for anyone who dissents in any significant way to express an opinion. (That said, there's a lot more diversity of opinion in the biblical studies community than most lay believers realize, and there's certainly no widespread agreement on the tenets of fundamentalism. The Jesus Seminar is just the most visible expression of methods and conclusions that have been established in the field for decades.)

Second, even disregarding the dogma and doctrinal vows, the mission of a religious college is fundamentally different. Science rewards people whose discoveries bring us closer to the truth of the world, even if those discoveries overturn established wisdom. But the purpose of religious groups is to maintain continuity - to defend orthodoxy, defend the creed, defend the beliefs that have always been held. There's no reward for those who challenge conventional wisdom. In religion, unlike in science, you can build a career on nothing but reiterating the thoughts of your predecessors. The absence of any method of self-correction means that in religion, unlike in science, we'd be well advised to listen to the so-called radical fringe. They're most likely to be the people who are on to something.

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July 2, 2010, 5:43 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Spiritual Wisdom

The Case for a Creator, Closing Thoughts

After spending over a year on this project, we've come to the end of The Case for a Creator. Before bringing this series to a close, I have some closing thoughts on the overall message and tactics of the book.

First: Although Lee Strobel tries to pass Case off as a dispassionate examination of scientific findings that just happen to support the existence of an intelligent designer, the obvious truth is that it's a Christian apologetics book dressed in a thin gown of pseudoscience. No better evidence of this could be given than how he treats his interviewees differently based on their religious beliefs. Everyone he interviews in the book, save for one person, is a fundamentalist Christian of some kind, and he gives each of these people ample opportunity to preach and to expound on their religious beliefs without challenge or objection. But when he speaks to his sole non-Christian interview subject, he suddenly changes his tune and declares he's only interested in hearing about science, not religion. See for yourself:

J.P. Moreland:

"[Scientists] will come to believe in the reality of the soul and the immaterial nature of consciousness. And this could open them up personally [my emphasis] to something even more important - to a much larger Mind and a much bigger Consciousness, who in the beginning was the Logos, and who made us in his image." [p.271]

Michael Behe:

"Based on the empirical evidence - which is continuing to mount - I'd agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger that 'the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error... [They] point to a creating Reason and show us a creating Intelligence, and they do so more luminously and radiantly than ever before.'" [p.216]

Jay Wesley Richards:

"Christians have always believed that God testifies to his existence through the book of nature and the book of Scripture. In the nineteenth century, science effectively closed the book of nature. But now, new scientific discoveries are reopening it." [p.189]

Robin Collins:

"Romans 1:20 tells us that God's eternal power and divine nature can be seen and understood through things that are made, and that this is the reason humanity is without excuse. I see physics as uncovering the evidence of God's fingerprints at a deeper and more subtle level than the ancients could have dreamed of." [p.149]

William Lane Craig:

"That afternoon Jan and I prepared a little handwritten version of the Four Spiritual Laws, which spell out how a person can become a follower of Jesus. When we sat down with her at the meal that night, we opened the booklet and read the first sentence... We described how she could pray to ask God to forgive her wrongdoing and to receive Jesus as her forgiver and leader." [p.122]

Stephen Meyer:

"I see this not only in cosmology and physics and biology, but also in the historical revelation of the Bible, principally in the revelation of Jesus Christ. He is so compelling!... I remember thinking at one point that if the Jesus of the Bible weren't real, I would need to worship the person who created the character." [p.90-91]

And the only non-Christian interviewed in the entire book, Jonathan Wells:

I hadn't come to Seattle, however, to seek spiritual wisdom from Wells. [p.34]

Strobel's single-minded focus on Christianity is even more apparent in this excerpt from chapter 7:

Astounded by the Earth's fine-tuned physical, chemical, and biological interrelationships, some writers have gone so far as to liken our biosphere to a "superorganism" that is quite literally alive. In fact, James Lovelock's pantheistic Gaia Hypothesis even seeks to deify our planet. However, Gonzalez and Richards said it's unnecessary to go that far.
    "Despite these admittedly incredible interrelationships, there's nothing that requires anyone to see the Earth itself as being an organism, especially a god or goddess," Richards said. [p.166]

This is not scientific evidence being examined to reach a conclusion. Rather, this is a conclusion being chosen in advance and scientific arguments being selected based on whether they support it. What test could you possibly run to decide whether the Earth itself is a deity or whether it was the handiwork of an external creator?

This happens yet again later on in the book. As I mentioned in a previous post, J.P. Moreland raises the possibility that, if human minds emerge from matter, a divine, godlike mind could also emerge from matter - only to have Strobel swiftly point out, "That wouldn't be the God of Christianity" [p.265], which Moreland concedes. Again, this is not just "the case for a creator", in the sense of a generic argument for the world having been created by some kind of intelligent being. Strobel has a very specific creator in mind, and is only interested in investigating science that he feels supports his belief.

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June 26, 2010, 3:39 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink22 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Science by Armchair

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

Science is hard work. Normally, to make any significant contribution to human knowledge, a scientist really has to get their hands dirty - experiments in the lab, research in the field, long days and longer nights, and the meticulous testing of hypotheses. But J.P. Moreland must be an especially brilliant scientist, because he doesn't even need any of those trappings. In this chapter, Strobel interviews him not in a lab or an office, but at his own home:

When I pulled up to J.P. Moreland's house on a cool and foggy morning, he was outside with a cup of coffee in his hand, having just walked home from a chat with some neighbors. His graying hair was close-cropped, his mustache neatly trimmed, and he was looking natty in a red tie, blue shirt, and dark slacks.
    "Good to see you again," he said as we shook hands. "Come on in."
    We walked into his living room, where he settled into a floral-patterned chair and I eased onto an adjacent couch. [p.252]

I quote this passage not just to point out how cringingly bad Strobel's writing is, but to call attention to the setting of this interview. For in this chapter, Moreland claims to prove the existence of the soul - certainly a Nobel-worthy result! - without once doing an experiment, running any sort of test, or even leaving his floral-patterned armchair.

"...if physicalism is true, then consciousness doesn't really exist, because there would be no such thing as conscious states that must be described from a first-person point of view... if everything were matter, then you could capture the entire universe on a graph - you could locate each star, the moon, every mountain, Lee Strobel's brain, Lee Strobel's kidneys, and so forth. That's because if everything is physical, it could be described entirely from a third-person point of view. And yet we know that we have first-person, subjective points of view - so physicalism can't be true." [p.255]

Look, I realize there probably aren't many philosophical materialists on staff at the Talbot School of Theology, where Moreland teaches. I appreciate that this makes it slightly more difficult to do research for this interview. But really, would it have killed him to at least try to find out what we actually think?

I don't know where Moreland got the odd fantasy that materialists are committed to denying anything that can't be found on a map. Materialists believe in many things that have no physical location. I can name a few: justice, music, erosion, mathematics. What we really assert is not that there are no such things as abstract concepts, but that there are no abstract concepts that are not ultimately reducible to patterns of matter and energy. We deny that these concepts exist in their own right, independently of whatever arrangements of matter and energy happen to instantiate them at particular times and places. Just so with consciousness: it exists, but only as the product of brains. (This is the same thing I said in my Statement of Principles.)

"Nothing in my brain is about anything. You can't open up my head and say, 'You see this electrical pattern in the left hemisphere of J.P. Moreland's brain? That's about the Bears.' Your brain states aren't about anything, but some of my mental states are. So they're different." [p.259]

This argument, which Moreland apparently makes in all seriousness, betrays such an elementary confusion of terms that I scarcely even know where to begin. The whole point of science is that it's about reductionism: explaining the properties of a complex phenomenon in terms of simpler components, which come together to create that property but don't possess it themselves. A cloud of gas has the property of temperature, but the individual atoms that make up that cloud do not. That doesn't mean that the gas and the atoms aren't the same.

Or, for an example that hits even closer to home: a book. A book is about something, it contains thoughts, ideas; but the ink and paper that make up a book aren't about anything. (This is true even if no human being ever reads the book, so it can't be said that the meaning of the book exists only in the reader's mind.) Does that mean that books have souls, to contain the ideas that inhabit them?

This simple concept is one that Moreland apparently doesn't grasp. It should be obvious that, if we materialists are correct, the electrical pattern in your brain is the thought. The two are one and the same, just described at different levels of organization. Moreland is trying to turn a basic confusion of definitions into a sweeping conclusion about the nature of ultimate reality. A philosopher as renowned as Strobel describes him to be has no excuse for not understanding why this is fallacious.

"[If scientists believe that mind emerges from material processes] they are no longer treating matter as atheists and naturalists treat matter - namely, as brute stuff that can be completely described by the laws of chemistry and physics. Now they're attributing spooky, soulish, or mental potentials to matter... They're saying that prior to this level of complexity, matter contained the potential for mind to emerge... That is no longer naturalism," he said. "It's panpsychism.... the view that matter is not just inert physical stuff, but that it also contains proto-mental states in it. Suddenly, they've abandoned a strict scientific view of matter and adopted a view that's closer to theism than atheism." [p.264-5]

Again, Moreland has some bizarre notions about what materialists believe (and if I were feeling unkind, I'd say that he's the only one here for whom "proto-mental states" are in evidence).

Atheists believe that the mind emerges from the functioning of the brain. This isn't panpsychism - it simply means that matter arranged in certain ways has causal powers that matter arranged in other ways doesn't have. You can build a car out of metal, but that doesn't mean that metal had an ethereal notion of "transportation" inherent in it from the beginning. It just means that a set of atoms arranged car-wise produces an object which has certain causal powers that other arrangements of atoms don't have. Similarly, the mind arises from an arrangement of matter arranged so as to possess a sufficient degree of information-processing power.

"If a finite mind can emerge when matter reaches a certain level of complexity, why couldn't a far greater mind - God - emerge when millions of brain states reach a greater level of consciousness? You see, they want to stop the process where they want it to stop - at themselves - but you can't logically draw that line. How can they know that a very large God hasn't emerged from matter...?" [p.265]

Okay, and what's the evidence that this has happened?

As with the other sections of this chapter, Moreland mistakes armchair speculation for argument backed by evidence. The mere hypothetical possibility of a god emerging from matter is held to be "a problem for atheists". (Lest you think this represents a daring flirtation with unorthodoxy, Strobel immediately emphasizes that this "wouldn't be the God of Christianity", once again making it clear who his intended audience is.)

In fact, at no point in this chapter does Moreland get out of that armchair. Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a book about science, he acts as if philosophical arguments and thought experiments are all the proof he needs. Given that this is Strobel's last interview, you'd think he'd want to go out with a bang - but whimpers are all he has to offer.

UPDATE: As Siamang points out in the comments, Strobel declared in an earlier chapter that:

"I wasn't interested in unsupported conjecture or armchair musings by pipe-puffing theorists. I wanted the hard facts of mathematics, the cold data of cosmology, and only the most reasonable inferences that could be drawn from them." [p.95]

Yet this entire chapter consists solely of "unsupported conjecture" and "armchair musings". Did Strobel think no one would notice, or is it just that his "interests" have changed now that he's reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel to find Christian fundamentalists with scientific credentials?

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May 28, 2010, 7:55 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink18 comments
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Could Creationism Be Rational After All?

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I thought I'd kick off the guest posts with a little philosophical thought experiment (hark, is that the sound of you all clapping your hands in glee?). When I wrote the following, I mean it fairly light-heartedly, but with an eye to the fact that we should perhaps remember we have less reason to be sure of ourselves than we may think.

Despite the insistence of many who champion it, Creationism does not qualify as a scientific theory under any reasonable definition of the term. It makes no testable predictions, invokes a supernatural agent and is supported by no observations of the natural world. But does that really matter? Could the theory of evolution, with all its mountains of empirical evidence, still be as irrational as Creationism?

Perhaps so. To see why, it is necessary to understand the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Both are ways of constructing an argument. The conclusions of a deductive argument however, are logically entailed by their premises. The conclusions of an inductive argument are merely supported by them.

Premise 1 – All horses are mammals.
Premise 2 – Mr Kips is a horse.
Conclusion 1 – Mr Kips is a mammal.

This is a deductive argument. The conclusion is logically entailed by the premises. It would be a contradiction to assert that the premises were true, and yet the conclusion was false.

Premise 1 - Horse no.1 is brown.
Premise 2 - Horse no.2 is brown.
Premise 3 - Horse no.3 is brown.
Conclusion 1 – All horses are brown.

This is an inductive argument. Here each premise acts as a single observation which supports the conclusion. Yet it is no contradiction to assert that while the premises are true, the conclusion may be false. Even if we had observed 100,000 horses and all of them were brown, this would still only act as inductive evidence.

Science is based on inductive reasoning. Observations are made, hypotheses are drawn up and tested, then critically challenged and re-tested, all under the assumption that the observations and results of the experiments are the result of static natural laws.

Indeed, it may be argued that inductive reasoning is the foundation for learned behaviour. If we put our hand on an open fire, the sensation will be extremely painful. Even from only one such experience, we will assume that coming into physical contact with fire will always feel the same and will avoid doing it again. Natural selection would punish those who did not learn from earlier mistakes. So it would seem that inductive reasoning is both reasonable and extremely useful for survival.

Yet there is a fundamental problem with inductive reasoning which David Hume outlined in his 1748 book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In a nutshell his argument states that induction rests on the assumption that natural laws are constant and uniform - and that this assumption is wholly irrational.

Stephen Law, in his book The Philosophy Gym, compares this to an ant sitting on a bedspread:

“The ant can see that its bit of the bedspread is paisley-patterned, So the ant assumes the rest of the bedspread – the bits it can’t see – are paisley-patterned too. But why assume this? The bedspread could just as easily be a patchwork quilt… We are in a similar position to the ant. The universe could also be a huge patchwork with local regularities, such as the ones we have observed – the sun rising every morning, trees growing leaves in the spring, objects falling when released, and so on – but no overall regularity.” (p156)

Such local regularities could have boundaries in time as well as space. Perhaps the natural laws of the universe change suddenly every 100,000 years – and the next change is due tomorrow! What is to say that we will not wake up tomorrow to find the sky is red, or that dropped objects remain suspended in mid air? Note that it is no defense to say, ‘the laws of nature have always stayed constant in the past’, since that is itself a piece of inductive reasoning.

The classic mistake is to misinterpret Hume’s argument. He is not saying that we merely cannot be certain of our inductive conclusions: he is saying that we have no reason at all to believe them. We have no justification for expecting the sky to appear blue rather than red tomorrow. Either is just as rational. And the theory of evolution, based as it is on inductive reasoning, is no more or less rational than Creationism.

In conclusion it seems – according to Hume, at least – that we are always unjustified in drawing conclusions via inductive reasoning. It is as rational to expect a dropped ball to float in mid air as it is to expect it to fall. If you think the first proposition sounds ridiculous compared to the second , then this may tell you far more about human reasoning than it does about logical induction.

But it would be a mistake for Creationists to see Hume’s argument as supporting their ideas. Creationism may be as rational an explanation for the existence of the Earth and life on it as any theory science has yet put forward. But, if so, then so is every other explanation you could possibly make up. To reach a point where Creationism is a rational alternative to the theory of evolution, we have reached a point where the whole of science is meaningless and all certainty we have in any knowledge has been cut loose. We really are as justified in believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster as we are in believing in God.

May 16, 2010, 5:08 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink43 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Belief and Decision

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

The essence of science isn't test tubes or lab coats, but a special kind of scrupulous intellectual honesty. It's the willingness to try to prove yourself wrong, to subject your own ideas to the most rigorous, make-or-break tests you can conceive of. Equally as important, it's the willingness to consider every plausible alternative and weigh them all fairly - and if a competing hypothesis explains the data better than your own, to acknowledge that and respond accordingly.

This is a standard that this book doesn't meet, and chapter 10 shows why. A recurring theme of this chapter is that Strobel and Moreland consider only the simplest possible hypotheses of how the brain causes consciousness - and when they identify a weakness, they conclude that not just that hypothesis, but all the more complex alternatives as well, are false.

In this section, Strobel has asked, "What positive evidence is there that consciousness and the self are not merely a physical product of the brain?" Here's how Moreland responds:

"For example, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated the brains of epilepsy patients and found he could cause them to move their arms or legs, turn their heads or eyes, talk, or swallow. Invariably the patient would respond by saying, 'I didn't do that. You did.'....
No matter how much Penfield probed the cerebral cortex, he said, 'There is no place... where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to believe or to decide.' That's because those functions originate in the conscious self, not the brain." [p.258]

This argument only works if you assume an extremely simplistic model of consciousness: that beliefs and decisions originate from one single spot in the brain, and by poking that spot, you can activate the processes that produce them. But this is unlikely in any plausible materialistic view of consciousness. It's much more likely that these higher-order functions involve the coordinated activity of many brain regions, since after all, forming a belief or making a decision necessarily requires integrating many different sources of input. In fact, Moreland's view that simple electrical stimulation should produce beliefs and decisions would make more sense under a Christian view of the brain - like that of Descartes, who believed there was a single anatomical region (the pineal gland) where the brain interfaced with the soul and received its marching orders.

But you'll notice that Moreland, unintentionally I'm sure, has committed himself to a completely testable claim: if we have a soul, our beliefs and decisions originate there and not in the brain. Therefore, it's a necessary consequence of his view that no physical alteration of the brain, whether caused by accident, disease or anything else, should cause a person to believe or decide in a particular way.

Well, if that's his challenge, I'm happy to take him up on it. It may be that Penfield's crude electrical stimulation didn't cause his patients to form beliefs or make decisions, but there are many types of brain disorders that do exactly this. I'll list a few, all of which are described in greater detail in my essay "A Ghost in the Machine":

Capgras' syndrome: Sometimes occurs in people suffering from schizophrenia, dementia, or head injury. The patient suddenly begins to insist that a friend or loved one has been replaced by an impostor who looks and acts exactly like the missing individual. This meets Moreland's criterion of brain injury causing a person to believe.

Frontotemporal dementia: A disease similar to Alzheimer's that causes degeneration in the frontal lobes of the brain. Individuals suffering from the early stages of FTD have been known to show dramatic changes in their personal likes and dislikes, political preferences, and even their religion. This meets Moreland's criterion of brain injury causing a person to decide.

Environmental dependency syndrome: Often caused by tumors pressing on the frontal lobes or other types of frontal lobe dysfunction. Patients with this disorder act as if their behavior is governed by external cues rather than internal decisions. They also show dramatically reduced impulse control, often choosing to act in ways they previously never would have done. One famous case is Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman who survived a freak accident that destroyed part of the frontal loes of his brain, but in the aftermath, baffled his friends and family by transforming from a diligent, well-respected worker to a lazy, shiftless drifter.

Akinesia: Unlike paralysis, the inability to move, akinesia is the unwillingness to move. Akinesia sufferers lose the motivation to do anything except respond to the most immediate needs. Again, this condition is often caused by tumors or brain damage. One case I detail in my essay is of a Baptist preacher who quit his church because he no longer felt like going to work. When a surgeon removed a tumor pressing on his frontal lobes, he soon regained his motivation and returned to work.

All these disorders, and others like them, are totally inexplicable on Moreland's view. If the soul is the source of belief and decision and is not dependent on the brain, as he insists, then we should never find cases like this. On the dualist view, we might expect to find cases where the soul's "lines of communication" to the body were cut by brain damage, but that should only produce effects like paralysis or coma, not actual alterations to a person's desires and personality. But the dualist view clashes with reality. In cases like the ones I've described, people can still do exactly what they want; the problem is that what they want has changed.

Strobel and Moreland never address evidence like this, so it's hard to tell how they would respond to it. The thoroughly mechanistic nature of consciousness, and the fact that it can be changed by changing the brain, as surely as a computer can be reprogrammed, is evidence that Christian apologists in general haven't acknowledged or come to terms with. But to anyone who's familiar with the discoveries of modern neuroscience, the idea that beliefs and decisions originate somewhere other than the brain, in some separate and supernatural "conscious self", is as laughable as the idea that mental illness is caused by demonic possession.

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April 30, 2010, 10:55 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink14 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Credential Inflation

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 of Case, which concerns human consciousness and the brain, is an interview with J.P. Moreland, a Christian philosopher and theologian. Like many of Strobel's other interview subjects, Moreland is not a scientist and has no scientific credentials to speak of - this despite Strobel's initial boast that he'll be interviewing "authorities" [p.28] in the relevant fields.

I've already pointed out how Strobel tries to put a positive gloss on his interviewees' backgrounds to make them seem more like scientists, but his attempt to inflate Moreland's academic credentials is particularly hilarious:

Moreland's science training came at the University of Missouri, where he received a degree in chemistry. He was subsequently awarded the top fellowship for a doctorate in nuclear chemistry at the University of Colorado but declined the honor to pursue a different path. He then earned a master's degree in theology at Dallas Theological Seminary and a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Southern California. [p.253]

Amazing! So now everyone who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry is a scientific authority. Who knew?

This is the final interview of the book, which is fortunate for Strobel, since he's really scraping the bottom of the barrel at this point. If the book had gone on any longer, he'd probably be reduced to claiming that some Bible-thumping Christian theologian is a scientific authority because he learned Newton's laws in high school. And please note, even if Moreland had been a master chemist, that field is still completely irrelevant to the subject of this chapter! Why is it that Strobel couldn't find even one actual neuroscientist who was willing to speak to him?

This credential inflation is a direct and necessary consequence of the ideological straitjacket that Strobel has forced the text into. Throughout this book, it's clearly demonstrated that he doesn't conduct adversarial interviews; he only seeks out people who already have the same opinions as him, so the "interview" is just a matter of asking the right questions to give them an opportunity to regurgitate those opinions. This approach rules out interviewing more qualified people who genuinely do dissent from the orthodoxy in significant ways, such as the philosopher John Searle, who's quoted in the beginning of the chapter as follows:

"You can expand the [computing] power all you want, hooking up as many computers as you think you need, and they still won't be conscious, because all they'll ever do is shuffle symbols." [p.248]

The problem, in Strobel's eyes, is that even though Searle dissents from the mainstream view of consciousness, he's not an evangelical Christian. (He's actually an atheist.) Therefore, he can be quote-mined, but no more than that; he must be kept at arm's length and can't be given the opportunity to express his actual views. This restricts Strobel's potential interview subjects to the very small set of people who are not only orthodox evangelical Christians, but are willing to put that belief ahead of their scientific research. It seems that there's no one at all in the field of neuroscience who fits that description, which is why Strobel is reduced to interviewing a Christian theologian with no scientific credentials and trying to pass him off as an authority on the brain.

Lastly, I want to point out the curious fact that, according to Strobel, Moreland was offered a fellowship to get his Ph.D, but turned it down in order to attend seminary. Why is that, I wonder? Is it remotely possible that he realized succeeding in the field of chemistry requires actual, concrete results... while being a theologian tends to be a cushy job which makes few demands on its practitioners and has no objective measure of success? Such is the intellectual waste produced by the non-subject of theology, a field of inquiry possessing not a single piece of verifiable data. Countless minds, many of them quite brilliant and perfectly capable of producing something of benefit to humanity, have been squandered in the idle and futile speculations of religion.

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April 19, 2010, 8:41 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink49 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Anticuriosity

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 9

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'"

—attributed to Isaac Asimov

Although science progresses through reason and experiment, it's fundamentally driven by curiosity. The impulse that motivates science is the same one that motivates explorers to trek into uncharted wildernesses and climb unconquered mountains, the same one that spurred ancient tribes to paddle over to the next island or cross the next river: the human desire to know, to grasp the totality of the natural world and understand the patterns and connections that flow within it. This sense of curiosity, the urge to explore for exploration's sake, inspires a range of human activities from children digging in the dirt to astrophysicists sending probes to the outer reaches of the solar system.

This is a trait that's noticeably lacking in the creationist movement. Rather than form hypotheses and run experiments, rather than do research and discover new evidence, the dominant attitude among creationists seems to be: it's too hard, you'll never be able to figure it out, don't even bother. I earlier called this attitude "strategic pessimism", but I think it runs deeper than that. In chapter 9, Stephen Meyer shows why.

In this part of the chapter, Meyer is talking with Lee Strobel about the Cambrian explosion. He insists on describing it as a sudden appearance of radically new, fully formed body plans, and asserts, with zero evidence or even a footnote, that the period of the Cambrian explosion was "far too short to have allowed for the kind of large-scale changes that the fossils reflect" [p.240]. I've already discussed Jonathan Wells' similar confusion about the Cambrian explosion, so I won't repeat those remarks. Instead, I want to focus on one remark in particular that Meyer makes.

"The big issue is where did the information come from to build all these new proteins, cells, and body plans? For instance, Cambrian animals would have needed complex proteins, such as lysyl oxidase. In animals today, lysyl oxidase molecules require four hundred amino acids. Where did the genetic information come from to build these complicated molecules?" [p.240]

Now, if you were a scientist, this is just the kind of question that could spur a research program. You could ask questions like: Does lysyl oxidase show sequence similarities to other proteins from which it plausibly could have evolved? If so, do these similar proteins exist in bacteria or in other species that predated the Cambrian explosion, and what are they used for in those species? You could draw a family tree of all the living species that have genes for lysyl oxidase, and see if there are any commonalities that point to the protein's being inherited from a single common ancestor. Given this family tree, you could see if the genetic sequences that encode the protein are different in related species, and from this, you could use molecular clock methods to estimate how long ago the protein first evolved.

Answering all these questions would be a major feat of scientific legwork. Here's most of what we know about lysyl oxidase - you can see for yourself how much effort it took just to work out the molecular structure of the protein, what types of tissue it's expressed in, and what it does in the cell. Meyer is asking a much more difficult question, one which would require a correspondingly greater amount of effort to answer.

Of course, he isn't volunteering to carry out this research himself. But what's striking about this passage is that he's not encouraging anyone else to do so either. Instead, he's actively discouraging people from trying to find out. His question - where did the genetic information come from? - clearly isn't intended as an honest question in search of an answer, but as a rhetorical query meant to paralyze us with the sheer overwhelming complexity it implies. It's impossible to figure this out, he's saying, so why even try? Just say that God did it in a miracle and then call it a day!

This is the exact opposite of the impulse that gives rise to science - not the enlightening spark of curiosity that drives us to make new discoveries, but the desire to remain in the dark and stay ignorant, to be easily discouraged by anything we don't already understand. I don't think English has a good word for this, so let's call it "anticuriosity".

Anticuriosity is the hallmark of the creationist movement. They believe that they already have a one-size-fits-all answer for any question - God did it, it was a miracle, impossible for us to explain or understand - and naturally, that mindset doesn't encourage scientific exploration. Why would you encourage people to be skeptical and ask questions if you already possess Absolute Truth? Why encourage them to explore if you already have all the important answers that anyone ever needs to know? Why bother doing research or experiments if you already know ahead of time what the conclusion has to be? At best such activity will accomplish nothing, and at worst, it will inspire people to doubt and to undermine the all-important social order.

I'm not saying this is how Meyer consciously thinks, but I am saying that this is the attitude his interview conveys. And he's by no means the first Christian apologist to take this position. John Milton's Paradise Lost expresses the same view several hundred years earlier, as in this section from book 8, where the angel Raphael explains to Adam that it would be hubris for human beings to try to figure out whether the Earth orbits the Sun, or vice versa:

"This to attain, whether Heaven move or Earth
Imports not, if thou reckon right; the rest
From Man or Angel the great Architect
Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
His secrets, to be scanned by them who ought
Rather admire. Or, if they list to try
Conjecture, he his fabric of the Heavens
Hath left to their disputes - perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions...

Heaven is for thee too high
To know what passes there. Be lowly wise;
Think only what concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not to other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition, or degree -
Contented that thus far hath been revealed
Not of Earth only, but of highest Heaven."

You couldn't ask for a more concise description of anticuriosity. In every era, there are religious apologists urging us to stop exploring the natural world, to stop pushing back the borders of our knowledge. Thankfully, in every era there have been freethinkers who ignored this advice and followed their curiosity - and so far, our exploration has been more than repaid every time.

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April 9, 2010, 5:42 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink22 comments
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The Case for a Creator: Information Wars

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 9

How likely is the spontaneous origin of life? In chapter 9, Stephen Meyer likens it to one of those tornado-in-a-junkyard scenarios that creationists love so much:

"Imagine trying to generate even a simple book by throwing Scrabble letters onto the floor. Or imagine closing your eyes and picking Scrabble letters out of a bag. Are you going to produce Hamlet in anything like the time of the known universe?" [p.229]

Obviously, the answer is no. Almost as obviously, however, this is not a question that bears on the origin of life.

Let's see how Meyer's facile comparison holds up if we put some actual numbers on it. I downloaded Hamlet from Project Gutenberg and did a character count on the text file. Not counting spaces, punctuation or the copyright notice, I came up with a total of 129,839 characters. Since the alphabet has 26 letters, it takes a minimum of 5 bits to specify any single letter, which means that Hamlet has (129,839 x 5) = 649,195 bits of information.

To contrast to this, consider the smallest known genome: Carsonella ruddii, a bacterium that lives in the guts of leaf-eating insects called psyllids. It has only about 160,000 base pairs of DNA, coding for 182 proteins. But since there are only 4 base pairs in DNA, it takes only 2 bits to specify each one, which means that Carsonella's genome contains (160,000 x 2) = 320,000 bits of information: less than half of Hamlet! And Carsonella is the smallest modern genome. The very first life, which was probably little more than a self-replicating hypercycle of molecules, would have been smaller still.

Obviously, this analogy is still rigged in Meyer's favor: neither evolution nor the laws of chemistry are very much like picking Scrabble tiles out of a bag. The laws of English are such that the vast majority of possible arrangements of letters are meaningless gibberish, but this is not true of proteins and DNA. Because a protein's function is defined by its shape, virtually every possible string of amino acids potentially "means something" in a way that random combinations of English letters don't. In the primordial sea, there would have been billions of different molecules drifting around, bumping up against each other, interacting in countless ways. Until we know the smallest possible interacting set of molecules that could be called alive - and we don't know that, at least not yet - there's no basis for any claim about how likely it would have been for such a thing to arise by chance.

"There's a minimal complexity threshold... There's a certain level of folding that a protein has to have, called tertiary structure, that is necessary for it to perform a function. You don't get tertiary structure in a protein unless you have at least seventy-five amino acids or so. That may be conservative. Now consider what you'd need for a protein molecule to form by chance.

First, you need the right bonds between the amino acids. Second, amino acids come in right-handed and left-handed versions, and you've got to get only left-handed ones.

Creationists are fond of invoking this "handedness" problem (the technical term is "chirality"). It refers to the fact that certain organic molecules like sugars and amino acids naturally come in two stable configurations that are mirror images of each other, like your left and right hand. Most living things use only left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars, and creationists often suggest that no natural force could produce this bias.

But, in fact, there's a wide variety of natural mechanisms that can sort molecules by chirality. Some common crystals, such as calcite, selectively absorb molecules of one handedness on one crystal face and the other handedness on the opposing face. (The chirality of all modern life may simply be because that vital first set of chemical reactions occurred on one side of a rock rather than another.) Circularly polarized ultraviolet light also selectively destroys molecules of one handedness. (The Murchison meteorite, which contains amino acids produced in the early solar system, has an imbalance of left-handed amino acids, and some scientists feel it's for precisely this reason. See also.) There's also a chemistry principle called "majority rule" in which certain reactions that begin with a weakly chiral mixture can produce products that are strongly chiral. Some scientists even believe that the laws of physics are not completely symmetric and one chirality is energetically favored over the other. Any of these mechanisms, or several of them in combination, could plausibly be why life has one chirality and not the other. We don't know the true cause for certain - but it's not that we have no idea how it could have happened; it's that we have too many candidates and can't choose among them!

"Third, the amino acids must link up in a specified sequence, like letters in a sentence.

Run the odds of these things falling into place on their own and you find that the probabilities of forming a rather short functional protein at random would be one chance in a hundred thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. That's a ten with 125 zeroes after it!" [p.229]

There's no explanation of how Meyer got these numbers (again, footnotes are absent just where they'd be most helpful). But I strongly suspect he's committing the poker player's fallacy again: assuming that only one amino acid sequence can provide the function he wants. His mention of "a specified sequence" implies as much. But in any plausible origin-of-life scenario, there wouldn't be one miracle sequence, but a large number of functionally equivalent sequences. We already know this to be true in modern life: a large percentage of mutations are neither positive nor negative but neutral, having no effect on the overall shape or functioning of the protein.

But if Meyer's numbers are right, it should be easy to prove in an experiment: just generate some organic molecules at random and see what happens. If he's correct, nothing interesting or useful will ever emerge. Well, unlike creationists comfortably ensconced in their armchairs, real scientists do run experiments like this. From a Usenet post by the biologist Howard Hershey:

Random syntheses of 50 nucleotide long RNAs generates certain specific selectable functional ribozyme (RNA enzyme) activities relevant to biological functions that would be needed for an ur-organism (RNA ligases, terminal transferases, etc.) in the range of once every 1014-1017 molecules (a mole of molecules is about 1023, so it is a virtual certainty that you will have a number of molecules with the needed activities in a millimole of such randomly generated RNA (you would certainly be able to hold this in a thimble). Moreover, ALL these activities would be present in the SAME millimole of RNA.

For technical details, see this similar paper from the journal Science: "Structurally Complex and Highly Active RNA Ligases Derived from Random RNA Sequences". The authors say, "The fact that such a large and complex ligase emerged from a very limited sampling of sequence space implies the existence of a large number of distinct RNA structures of equivalent complexity and activity."

To put this in layman's terms: a thimbleful of randomly generated RNA sequences contains numerous enzymes with an interesting variety of biologically relevant abilities. This is a far cry from Meyer's "ten with 125 zeroes after it". Either nature is pulling a prank on us by defying the odds every single time, or else the ID advocates' calculations are based on unrealistic assumptions. Note that these RNA enzymes were only 50 nucleotides long - shorter than Meyer's "minimal complexity threshold" of 75 amino acids or more - and yet were still able to perform biologically interesting functions. And for any plausible origin-of-life scenario, we're not talking about a thimbleful of molecules, but a whole planet's worth.

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March 26, 2010, 5:39 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink49 comments
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