Sunday, June 15, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 13

Deism. In December of 2004, Anthony Flew, who for most of his career had championed atheism, announced his "conversion" to theism. Most theists were delighted by the news. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and a devout Christian, called Flew's book There is a God, in which Flew explicates his reasons for his change of mind, as "Towering and courageous." Atheists, as to be expected, were less pleased. Dawkins described Flew's embrace of deism as an "over-publicized tergiversation" and made reference to Flew's advanced age. To characterize Flew's abandonment of atheism as a "tergiversation," as well as to bring up his age (Flew was eighty when the "tergiversation" happened) suggests a strong degree of petulance on Dawkin's part. But in examining Flew's book, one wonders what the fuss is all about. Having read the slender tome, I find little in it that would offend the non-militant, fair-minded atheist; nor do I find much in it that would give comfort to the devoutly religious. The theism that Flew "converted" to is of an entirely non-religious nature. Flew accepts no specific religious creed. He continues to be a mortalist (that is, he doesn't believe in life after death). He has made it clear that he is deist who now believes that the argument of design provides a more convincing hypothesis for the universe than any of the rival theories put forth by atheists.

Not surprising, most of the arguments Flew presents for his deistic theism run along the typical "argument from design" paradigm. He notes, for example, the gross improbability of the universe, which has led to some rather fanciful attempts by atheistical scientists to assume the existence of multiple universes (i.e., the theory of multiverse). To what extent such design-probability arguments support theism is, of course, debatable. Flew doesn't discuss, for example, the classic arguments advanced by Hume against design theology. Yet, to be fair, Flew does manage to present one argument that, if not entirely convincing, nevertheless constitutes an immense challenge to the scientific pretensions of the new atheists. This involves the perplexing question of abiogenesis:
Most studies on the origin of life are carried out by scientists who rarely attend the philosophical dimension of their findings [writes Flew]. Philosophers, on the other hand, have said little on the nature and origin of life. The philosophical question that has not been answered in origin-of-life studies is this: How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends, self-replication capabilities, and "coded chemistry"?

Paul Davies "observes that most theories of biogenesis have concentrated on the chemistry of life, but "life is more than just complex chemical reactions. The cell is also an information storing, processing and replicating system. We need to explain the origin of information, and the way in which the information processing machinery came to exist." [Davies] emphasizes the fact that the gene is nothing but a set of coded instructions with a precise recipe for manufacturing proteins. Most important, these genetic instructions are not the kind of information you find in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; rather, they constitute semantic information. These instructions can be effective only in a molecular environment capable of interpreting the meaning in the genetic code. The origin question rises to the top at this point. "The problem of how meaningful or semantic information can emerge spontaneously from a collection of mindless molecules subject to blind and purposeless forces presents a deep conceptual challenge."

It is true that protobiologists do have theories of the evolution of the first living matter, but they are dealing with a different category of problem. They are dealing with the interaction of chemicals, whereas our questions have to do with how something can be intrinsically purpose-driven and how matter can be managed by symbol processing.


Whether this argument advances the case for theism, even of the minimal, deist sort, is open to question. But even if it doesn't advance the cause of theism, it does manage to provide a strong case against any version of militant atheism. Confronted with arguments such as this one, I cannot see how any Objectivist can continue to regard belief in God as patently irrational. Indeed, if you compare the claims of atheism with those of rational theism, it's not easy to determine which view is more rational. The rational theist argues that, because it's grossly implausible to assume that a coded chemistry could have emerged spontaneously from inorganic matter (see this article for greater explication of the point), it is not unreasonable to assume that life has its origin in some sort of intelligence or understanding that is beyond human comprehension. The atheist, on the other hand, argues that life emerges out of matter spontaneously, by "chance," as it were—that in other words, we all evolved from rocks. Is this really the more plausible view?

I'm not aware that any prominent Objectivist has said anything about abiogenesis. Perhaps it's too empirical subject for the typical orthodox Objectivist, given his unfortunate penchant for trying to determine matters of fact through logical, moral, and rhetorical constructions. Objectivists have, however, commented on deism and not with complete disfavor, either. It's not that they advocate the position; but they are not inclined to criticize it. Peikoff recognizes that it is not a religious position. Yet his view that deism is merely "the step between Christianity and outright atheism" is a bit of an exaggeration. That may have been true in the eighteenth century, but it isn't true any longer. Now the traffic tends to move in the opposite direction. Nor is it necessary to regard deism as way station between atheism and Christianity. Deism seems an entirely rational position in and of itself—perhaps the most plausible outside of agnosticism. In any case, there doesn't seem any strong reasons to object to it.

If, however, deism is not a religious doctrine (as even Peikoff admits), this raises questions as to the point of atheism, particularly of the uncompromising or militant type. What is objectionable in specific religions is not the belief in God per se, but the belief that God wants everyone to act in certain ways. If so, then the real point of issue is the morality put forth by the religious, not their belief in God. Why, then, bring up the issue of God at all?

39 comments:

Wells said...

Unfortunately for the theists, arguments from the improbability of the universe are not very good.

Two reasons why.
First; Probability is a forward looking mathematical discipline, and as such it is good at telling us what outcomes should be expected in the future. It is also good at quantifying our ignorance of what will actually occur. It is less good at looking back into the past. or into stuff that people are knowledgeable about.
Consider first a roll of the dice, the probability of the dice being snake eyes before you have rolled them is 1/36, However if you roll some dice, and you get snake eyes, the probability of those dice being snake eyes is no longer 1/36. It is now 1*.
The same holds with the universe. Perhaps the universe as it is today is an improbable event (probability = 0); However given the universe exists, the probability of it existing is 1. whether the universe is the product of God, or random dice rolls, mathematics cannot say. I'd put my money on dice rolls, I've seen random dice rolls, I haven't seen god.

Second; arguments from design assume that design matters. If the universe was constructed by a god who had to obey natural laws in order for his project to function as intended, this assumption might even be useful**.
However, that is not what anyone in Western culture is talking about when they talk about God. They're talking about a God who can speak stuff into existence and it will exist regardless of any natural laws, or even despite any natural laws.
If you have omnipotence, and are speaking stuff into existence, you can throw down any design you want and make it work. If God, on a whim, decided to double all the physical constants and then said "Let it still work" the universe would still work. If he said "pi and e, switch places." pi and e would switch places. and everything would still work. In order for the argument from design to be useful there must be physical laws of the universe that are not subject to change by god, therefore god cannot be omnipotent, and therefore you get into Euryphro like arguments. Except they're about the nature of reality, instead of the nature of ethics.

*Using a probabilistic argument against the dice being snake eyes with a casino guy as he takes your money would not be a productive use of time.
**The argument that would break out of course is why call such an architect god, he's not behaving very godlike. after all he's doing something that anybody could theoretically do.

JayCross said...

it is not unreasonable to assume that life has its origin in some sort of intelligence or understanding that is beyond human comprehension.

Is it reasonable to ask who created the intelligent creator?

Do scientists deny the possibility of life beginning in ways we can't understand?

The problem with ID is that it's not science. It's impossible to test, which i precisely why it maintains an allure of plausibility. Beyond that, it doesn't try to explain anything. It offers no original insights.

The whole thing just seems like an undignified pant to fill in the blanks that evolutionary biology hasn't filled yet.

Dragonfly said...

Berlinski is a Fellow of the creationist Center of Science and Culture of the Discovery Institute, the same institute that for example claims that the eye could not have evolved without an "intelligent designer". See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Berlinski. That "coded chemistry" could not have evolved spontaneously from inorganic matter is nonsense. That we still don't know how it evolved exactly (as the data we have are very incomplete) does not imply that it could not have happened.

The same argument has been used against the notion that for example the eye could not have evolved by an algorithmic process. In this case we do have overwhelming evidence that it did evolve by random variation and natural selection, not once, but many times in the course of evolution. The process also has been succesfully emulated on a computer.

These are typical examples of the "God of the gaps" argument. If there are gaps in our knowledge that still must be filled in, the creationist proclaims that these can only be explained by a God (for political reasons disguised as "an intelligent designer").

Of course this isn't an explanation at all. It's an unfalsifiable hypothesis and therefore doesn't belong to science. Moreover, the next question would of course be: "if we need an intelligent creator to explain life, what then explains that creator? If anything has to be explained it is the existence of such an sophisticated intelligence", which leads to an infinite regression. The usual cop-out is that "God always has existed", which of course isn't an explanation at all.

Henry Scuoteguazza said...

Greg, I’m glad someone has finally raised the issue of Flew’s “defection” and broached the subject of intelligent design. It’s something I want to write about on my blog one of these days. (Actually, I did post something a while ago comparing Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution to Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful.) I’ve read several books by Dembski, Behe and others. I don’t find them to be whim-worshipping mystics who refuse to face the facts. If anything it’s the supposed defenders of reason (Dawkins, Carroll and others) who resort to sarcasm, sneering and ad hominem arguments to defend their position and to deride the opposition. Dembski makes an interesting case for his position in The Design Inference while Behe is famous for his coining “irreducible complexity.” Yes, their agenda is to build a case a designer (i.e., God). Flew claims he followed where the evidence lead him.

Dembski and others also claims that Darwinists have not addressed how the incredible complexity of life all the way down to the cellular level can be explained by chemicals bumping into one another.

I believe they make good points even if you ultimately might not accept their solution hook line and sinker. I also believe we need to face the facts without prejudice. If the facts seem to indicate the possibility of some kind of intelligence so be it. It still is a big jump from saying there are signs of intelligence in the structure of life or in the conditions that exist in the universe that make life possible to the traditional religious concept of God as an omniscient, omnipotent designer and creator of everything. At the very least Dembski and crew have pointed out chinks in the Darwinian armor that should be acknowledged and addressed instead of using faulty arguments to spackle the holes in their arguments.

john said...

Mr. Nyquist:

No indication if you are done or not, I guess.

Dragonfly, jaycross and wells have already shot down your points dead as dead, no need for any of my bullets. I admire their responses.

I wish to circle back to the point I brought up in the comments to "Part 1."

You took forever to get around to leaking out your agenda on this blog: apologist for religion on the grounds that most people need the illusion of God and afterlife. You posit that need as "human nature" and Ayn Rand's proud position of man as a rational animal -- with reason as an absolute -- as "contra human nature."

"Man needs God for comfort" is a sadly common and pitifully thin justification for religion. So disappointing. It is right up there on the Wall of Infamy with "We have to have God and fear of hell, or else people would have no restraints and would go around sining and killing each other for no reason," which is explicitly argued by Evangelicals and militant Moslems.

In this 'Rand and Religion' essay you keep insisting Rand is "militant." Why?

The burden of proof for the existence of God is on those making the claim. Meanwhile "an atheist" is simply someone who holds his convictions by reason and oh by the way does not mention "god" at all. Such is the case with Ayn Rand. Her philosophy is A-Theistic, "without God". You will find no mention of god in her philosophic works.

I contend you are trying to foist the label "militant" atheist on Rand, with the intent to switch the responsibility for proof, as if Rand were angrily running around proactively starting fights with theists and making denial of God as the center of her philosophy. This was never the case; she was way too busy supporting and extending her own system. The only reason Rand even deals with the term God -- and only outside the exposition of her philosophy -- is that her enemies keep bringing the subject up. She never needed to say "there is no God." Why should she? Those claiming God exists have the burden to prove the positive.

As I said in the comments of part 1:

To Rand, the existence of God was too trivial to get militant about.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA

Michael Prescott said...

I like Greg's post and Henry's comment very much. As a former atheist, I've come around to the view that materialism is simply wrong in viewing mind as an epiphenomenon of matter. Instead, I think mind is primary; a super-intelligent awareness underlies physical reality, giving it form, structure, and meaning. There is, in my opinion, a stronger philosophical and empirical case to be made for this position than for its opposite. Of course YMMV. This is one of those knotty questions that everyone has to decide for himself.

john said...

Michael Prescott "...I think mind is primary..."

More than any thinker I know, Ayn Rand explicitly held and enunciated the line in the sand between those who 'think mind is primary' and those who 'think existence is primary'. She always proudly declared her position in the open.

The former (Platonists) and the latter (Aristotleans)are horrified by each other.

Never the twain shall meet.

And never a shred of respect for those who withhold their purposes in this battle.

John Donohue

meg said...

Hi Greg,
Besides write this blog, what do you do "in real life"?
- Meg

Jay said...

Here's an interesting page that debunks the "irreducible complexity" argument.

http://udel.edu/~mcdonald/mousetrap.html

gregnyquist said...

John: "I contend you are trying to foist the label 'militant' atheist on Rand, with the intent to switch the responsibility for proof, as if Rand were angrily running around proactively starting fights with theists and making denial of God as the center of her philosophy."

I'm not going to get into a semantic argument about the word "militant." I'm simply trying to describe what I see, which is a passionate dislike of the idea of God. I see it in the comments not only of John, but of Jay and Dragonfly. I believe that this passion is getting in the way of their judgment, so that they are unfair not only to religious people, but to non-religious theists like Flew and critics of atheism like Berlinski. My basic credo is that realism demands that we be willing to accept truths that go against our personal preferences. Now it's quite obvious that most (perhaps all) religious theists fall short of this goal. But that's to be expected. Yet one higher hopes for the other side—hopes, which, however, are being squashed by this disturbing development where we have individuals who, in the name of science, are turning atheism and Darwinism into dogmatic, intolerant faiths. A similar criticism could be leveled at orthodox Objecitivsts, who talk so impressively about rationality yet who take their opposition to the idea of God to irrational lengths.

As for this contention that I am trying to switch responsibility for the proofs about God, I have no idea where that comes from. The fact is, I could care less about any "proofs" for or against God. My only contention on this post is that Flew's "coded chemistry" argument for God is not any less implausible than the atheist belief that life evolves from rocks. Since I wasn't around when life began, I can't say where life actually came from. If I show more sympathy for Flew than for the atheists, it's only because I find that Flew argues for his position with more civility and rationality than Dawkins, Peikoff, and the rest of these overly passionate, agenda-driven atheists. Flew is the superior philosopher—and this is true whether his conjecture about a deistic God has anything going for it or not. Those of you who really want to discover cosmological truth (or, for that matter, any truths relating to questions concerning the utility of religion) have to get over your hang-ups about God. Too many people on both sides of this question are allowing their allegiences either to theism or atheism to distort their judgment.

gregnyquist said...

John: "Dragonfly, jaycross and wells have already shot down your points dead as dead, no need for any of my bullets. I admire their responses."

I'm actually somewhat disappointed with Dragonfly's, Jay's, and Wells' arguments. The most detailed is Wells; unfortunately, it's the most fallacious. It amounts to a denial that there is any chance at all—a preposterous theory. The fact that a probabalistic event happens doesn't alter the probability of it happening. If I win the lottery, I didn't have a chance of 1 of winning, nor did the milions who lost have a chance of 0. There is still and 1/2 chance of flipping heads on a coin whether heads comes out or not.

Jay points out that ID is not science, which is true but irrevelant. The belief that we all descended from rocks is no less unscientific. They are both cosmological conjectures. If we wish to be rigorously scientific, we should be agnostics on this question.

John Donahue insists that "The burden of proof for the existence of God is on those making the claim." I can't agree with some of the anti-realist implications of this statement. What does it mean to say that the burden of proof rests on someone making the assertion? Does it mean he can't be right unless he has proof? That's what an idealist would say. A realist can't say that. It's entirely possible for someone to say something that's true without having proved it. Proving something does not make it true. Corresponding to something in reality is what makes something true.

Dragonfly claims that Berlinski's "coded chemistry" argument is nonsense." But why is it nonsense? Again, I will repeat what I said earlier: why is the view that some kind of intelligent force created life any less implausible (any less "nonsense," if you will) then the view that we spontaneously developed from inorganic matter? Do atheists have any appreciation what an amazing feat it would be for organtic matter to spontaneously develop into a living cell? Keep in mind, we're not talking here about just any kind of coded chemistry or any random code. It has to be a very specific code right from the start, or else evolution could not have happened at all. The code has to contain within it the ability for just those sort of mutations that evolution needs for progress. Scientists have actually found just that type of code in the genome. It is extraordinary that physics could generate that code—at least as amazing, in my mind, as Flew's deism conjecture.

What is a little disappointing about these anti-design arguments is that they don't even make the best case for their position; and the reason, I suspect, why this is so is that their proponents are too caught up on this issue of God's existence. (I know that John insists this isn't true, that for Rand God's existence is a non-issue; but I am not convinced. If Rand and her orthodox followers really didn't care about the question of God's existence, they wouldn't be so irrational in their opposition to theism.)

Hume made better arguments against the design thesis than any I have read in the comments above; but Hume's arguments aren't aggressively atheistic: they don't slam the door shut on theism. But they do—and this, from an anti-relgious perspective, is far more important—demolish all systems of religious theology. And to repeat what I wrote in the post: isn't that what the focus should be for those who want to present a rational case against the theological claims of religion?

gregnyquist said...

Henry: "I’ve read several books by Dembski, Behe and others. I don’t find them to be whim-worshipping mystics who refuse to face the facts. If anything it’s the supposed defenders of reason (Dawkins, Carroll and others) who resort to sarcasm, sneering and ad hominem arguments to defend their position and to deride the opposition."

This is precisely what I have found, which is one of the reasons why I have become a critic of atheism. It really has become a kind of irrational faith, which affects the judgment of its proponents on all questions dealing religion.

Michael: "As a former atheist, I've come around to the view that materialism is simply wrong in viewing mind as an epiphenomenon of matter."

I think this is probably the strongest point that can be made against the new atheism: if Dawkins and the rest of them are right, then mind is an epiphenomenon of matter. As a psycho-physical interactionist dualist, I think the view is patently wrong. It can't account for human thought and creativity. If true, we would all be protoplasmic automatons—or survival machines for passing on our DNA, as Dawkins says.

Now Rand, to be sure, believed in free will and denied physical determinism over thinking. Yet her primacy of existence argument, in its anti-God version, is pure materialism. Of course, this materialistic argument contradicts the rest of her system (which is mostly anti-materialist). Yet it is there nonetheless.

John Franklin said...

Attempting to ground her philosophy in reality, Rand sought to tie the continued existence of living entities to the choices they made. In the case of humans, she added the moral dimension (an inherently religious position, by the way) - claiming that the choice to continue existing was moral, while the other option was not.

But her position begs a more fundamental question. Namely, why exist at all? Whether consciousness is a by-product of material existence, or coded, or the result any other scientifically quantifiable process, one still has to ask - where does the drive to exist and continue existing come from?

Wells said...

Greg Nyquist

Of course a lottery drawing alters your chance of winning the lottery. That's why they happen. It's not preposterous, it's mathematics. Consider a ticket purchased today for a lottery drawing on July 1st. Before July 1st, nobody knows what the winning numbers are* everyone's probability of getting money is a good 1/3,600,000 or something. After the drawing on July 1st, only one person has winning numbers on their lottery ticket. Their chance of getting money is 1, everyone else's chance of getting money is 0.
Now let's talk about the universe. The probability of getting this universe is zero**. However we don't have to worry about getting this universe, we've already got it. therefore the probability of this universe existing is one. Again, how we got it, I can't really say except we didn't get it by luck (Which is the theory that events will happen in a way that is somehow favorable to you), but I don't see evidence of god or anything else.***

*Dispite the fact that lottery machines really are completely deterministic. Probability usually is used to quantify ignorance. Only sometimes is it used to quantify events that are actually probabilistic.
**I'm helping the theist argument here. Usually when they use this argument they calculate some really small non-zero number based on the probability of getting some organic chemical from its component atoms. A number like0.00000000000000000000000000000397 looks familiar. They expect people to be impressed. I'm not impressed. It is the results of trying hard though, but they need to try harder. I'm saying zero because the probability of picking 3.14159..... as the universe's pi out of a basket of real numbers is zero.
***You should also read the second point (paragraph 3 out of 4 from my first post). I think it's the first time you'll see that line of argument anywhere.

Michael Prescott said...

Wells wrote, "However we don't have to worry about getting this universe, we've already got it."

Consider this analogy (which is not original with me). A man is led before a firing squad consisting of twenty expert marksmen. The order is given to fire. All the guns go off. And every shot misses. The man is unscathed. He says, "It's incredible! How could this happen?"

Now, if someone said to him, "You don't have to worry about how it happened, because it already did," he would probably not accept this response. He would want to know what accounted for this apparent miracle. If he investigated, he might well find that it was no accident. Maybe the marksmen conspired to miss, or maybe someone tampered with their guns, replacing live ammo with blanks. Either of these explanations would be more plausible than pure chance.

So, to my way of thinking, there is nothing unreasonable about questioning the provenance of highly unlikely outcomes. And the universe (as well as the origin of life) appears to have been a most unlikely outcome indeed.

Dragonfly said...

The probability arguments are bogus. That the probability of a particular event is extremely small doesn't tell us anything in itself. Take a bridge deal: if the deck isn't prepared and the cards are shuffled well, the probability of that particular bridge deal coming up is 1 in 53644737765488792839237440000. And lo and behold, it's a miracle, it really did happen! And in this case only 52 cards were used, with 1000 cards or a million or a billion cards (or any other items with different possible outcomes) the odds are so small that they become unimaginable, and yet countless of such events are realized continuously.

The fallacy in Michael's example is that the probability space is fairly well known, even if we can't assign accurate numbers to the probabilities. But we know from experience that it's more probable that the marksmen deliberately missed or that blanks were used than that they all accidentally missed. In other words: we can compare probabilities.

In the bridge example we are in general not surprised by the result when the cards are dealt, even if that particular deal has an very low probability. But we would be surprised if every player was dealt a complete suit in one color and we would conclude that the cards were rigged. Nevertheless the probability is exactly the same for that deal as for any other deal. The point is, that for that peculiar deal (4 separate suits) the probability that someone is cheating or that the cards are rigged is much larger than the probability that it was a pure chance deal, as this deal has a very specific meaning to human players. In fact even if the a priori probability of tampering with the cards is estimated as one in a trillion then it's still trillions of times more probable than that this specific deal was the result of pure chance. This illustrates the fact that small probabilities in themselves don't have any meaning, that the only meaning we can get is by comparing probabilities. Now in the origin of the universe we have no such comparisons, so assigning some very small number to its probability may impress the layman, but it doesn't tell us anything if we have no further information about the origin of universes.

Wells said...

Michael Prescott

Yes, The twenty riflemen can conspire to miss. However they do not have to conspire with each other in order to miss, If it is possible for a rifleman to miss, it is possible for all of them to miss at the same time. See Math at the bottom, last two paragraphs.

Even if the riflemen suck, the chances of survival are not good. (e.g. P(rifleman miss) = 0.75 -> P(not being shot) = 0.00317121194). They can however still miss, and the probability is still above zero for good marksmen. (e.g. yet again P(riflemam miss) = 0.005 -> P(not being shot) ~ 9.5 * 10^-47). If you investigate and find noone who can manipulate the firing squad who cares about you, you would have to conclude that the twenty just missed.

You can get the universe by chance, there doesn't seem to be anything stopping that. Even probability zero outcomes can't prevent it. For instance, if you throw a dart at a dart board the place the dart hits was a probability zero outcome, before the dart hit. However the dart was going to hit somewhere. This universe is no less likely than any other universe, and one universe or another was going to get picked.

Math
First, recall that
1 = P(rifleman hit) + P(rifleman miss)
Or P(rifleman hit) = 1 - P(rifleman miss)
Or P(rifleman miss) = 1 - P(rifleman hit).
Feel free to plug in your own numbers.

Now also assume that the riflemen shoot one after the other (this is to make math easier, this assumption shouldn't add anything nor subtract anything). The first rifleman can either hit you or miss you. The probability of a hit is P(rifleman hit) whereas the probability of a miss is P(rifleman miss). If the first guy hits you, then he hits you, game over. If he misses, then the second guy shoots at you. Since you have to be missed by the first guy to be missed by the second guy the probability of being missed by the second guy is P(rifleman miss) * P(rifleman miss). This goes on. You can draw a tree to see it. Hits end the tree, misses split into hits and misses. You should eventually get something like
P(not being shot) = P(rifleman miss)^20

Jay said...

The belief that we all descended from rocks is no less unscientific.

Haven't there been experiments where proteins and cells were created from controlled lightning?

It's not that I can't/wont accept truths that go against my personal beliefs. It's that ID proponents have given me no reason to. You're older than me, so you'll no doubt remember when creationists used the human eye to "refute" evolution by natural selection. They just jump from one unexplained phenomenon to the next, using no specific line of reasoning other than "we don't know how this happened yet, therefore God did it."

Also, if there is an intelligent designer, he has some explaining to do. The book "Intelligent Thought" devotes an entire essay to examples of imperfect and even detrimental "design" of our bodies. For example, the fact that our corneas are inside out gives us all blind spots.

This poses no problem to those who accept that we evolved by chance and natural processes over time. It poses a great problem to those who insist we were divinely created by an infallible, all-knowing intelligence.

Neil Parille said...

Jay,

"They [IDers] just jump from one unexplained phenomenon to the next, using no specific line of reasoning other than 'we don't know how this happened yet, therefore God did it.'"

I'm not completely up on the evolution/ID controversy, but is this really what the IDers say?

It seems to me that one argument is that we do know enough about the laws of nature to conclude that some characteristics of organisms cannot be the product of chance. Whether the eye is a good example of this line of argument, I don't know, but conceptually one could show that evolution is unable to explain everything.

For example, there is a worm the male of which deposits a "sperm pack" on the female's body which then secretes a chemical which dissolves the pack, sending the sperm through the blood to the ovaries, beginning the reproductive process. All sorts of evolutionary changes would have to happen at the same time to accomplish this. I assume the probability of these changes could be determined mathematically.

These types of example suggest to me some sort of "intelligent design."

Dragonfly said...

Neil: "It seems to me that one argument is that we do know enough about the laws of nature to conclude that some characteristics of organisms cannot be the product of chance. Whether the eye is a good example of this line of argument, I don't know, but conceptually one could show that evolution is unable to explain everything."

This is completely wrong. All those arguments that are based on the notion of "irreducible complexity" have been thoroughly debunked. See for example Mark Perakh, Unintelligent Design, Prometheus Books 2004, and Matt Young and Taner Edis, Why Intelligent Design Fails, A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism, Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Jay said...

To that list I would also recommend "Intelligent Thought." It's a collection of essays from prominent scientists including Dawkins and Steven Pinker.

Michael Prescott said...

Haven't there been experiments where proteins and cells were created from controlled lightning?

No. What were created were amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. It is a long, long way from amino acids to proteins, much less to cells, which are phenomenally complex. Imagine an automated factory that performs thousands of operations every second, repairs itself, disposes of waste, imports raw materials while keeping out toxins, and can create an exact working replica of itself. That's a cell.

This universe is no less likely than any other universe, and one universe or another was going to get picked.

This is really the crux of our little disagreement. The question is whether a stable, orderly, complex, habitable universe is as likely as any other. (By "habitable," I mean capable of supporting some conceivable life form, not necessarily human life. For instance, a universe consisting solely of hydrogen, with no heavier elements, would not be habitable.) From what I understand, a universe of this type is so extraordinarily unlikely - such a ridiculous number of things have to go just right in order for it to come about - that there are basically two possibilities: a) there is a conscious purpose and plan behind the universe, or b) there is a multitude of universes, each of which has different conditions, and by the law of averages at least one of them would have the right conditions for life.

Which of these options you choose is a matter of philosophy, temperament, and personal preference. Or so it seems to me.

Wells said...

On irreducible complexity;

These arguments tend to be constructed like this.

(1) Biological structure A exists in organism B doing important function C. (From observing organism B)
(2) Biological structure A consists of substructures a, b, c, d, ... , x, y, z. (From observing structure A)
(3) A's can only exist if substructures a, b, c, d, ... , x, y, z exist. (From assuming the description of structure A in step 2 is the only way to do it)
(4a - 4z) Substructure a is useless without substructures b, c, d, ... x, y, z. This can be repeated without loss of generality for every other substructure*. (From step three)
(5) Natural selection works slowly, so that at most one substructure appears at a time. (Usually from Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin. One day, someone will tell these kats that someone has written about evolution since Darwin)
(6) The substructure is useless, (Step 4whatever)
(7) So it eventually disappears. (Charles Darwin and Step 6)
(8) A cannot exist because all of the necessary substructures cannot arise at the same time. (Step 3 and Step 7)
(9) However A exists (Step 1)
(10) Natural selection is false. (Step 8 and Step 9)
(11) Intelligent Design is true**. (From step 10)

And tend to be debunked like this

Debunk (1) Steps 4 are incorrect. substructure q for example is not useless, it can do function C which is a scaled down version of function C all by itself.
Debunk 1 tends to make creationists skip around god of the gaps style from biological structure to biological structure. The more is known about something, the more likely someone is to find ammo to use this line of argument.

Debunk (2) Natural selection being false does not imply intelligent design is true. The options are not exhaustive. Both positions can be false.
People defending natural selection don't use this one, but it's there in case you want to pull someone's chain.

khomus said...

Let me tackle one of the arguments given above, the infinite regression. Well, I'm sort of going to tackle it, but not in its most general form.

So the basic thing is this, if X created us, what created X? Atheists like Dawkins etc. insist that this isn't an answer because it tells us nothing. But I don't get the argument. Let's see why I think it's nonsensical.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we were created by an intelligent alien species. We've got proof, whatever that is. So when we ask, how did life start on earth, the answer is, an alien species started it up. OK, now you want to go, wait, who created the alien species? And you think, ah, now I've got them, I've shown them how their argument explains nothing!

Now let's use the tried and true example. You have a watch. You ask, who created this watch? And we find out that I own a jewelry company, and I created the watch. The argument that says that this answers nothing because who created me? is basically saying that I can't possibly exist until we prove who created me, who created the creator that created me, and so on.

But do you see how this is stupid? Saying, wait, who created the aliens? That's meaingless. Because yes it's a perfectly reasonable question to ask, but it changes nothing. Regardless of how the aliens got here, we know, remember I said we have proof?, that *we* got here because the aliens started life on earth. The question of who created the aliens or how they came about is entirely separate from the question of how we came about.

This si what bothers me about a lot ofthe new atheists like Dawkins. They trot out the fact that they're "a scientist" and thus amazingly rational, they only look at the evidence, etc., and then you find them making idiotic arguments like, saying God did it doesn't say a thing because it doesn't explain anything! Because then where'd God come from? Again, these are two separate questions, linked perhaps, butnot having the answerto the second in no way requires that the first is false or nonsensical, as shown in the aliens example above.

Let's have one final example, just to put the argument in perspective. I wonder how the universe was created. Well the big bang. Oh. Huh. OK, well that had to come from something, what was it? Umm .. well we don't know because back then all the laws of physics we have now were not there. So wait, you're telling me that as far as we know, and as far as we probably ever will know for certain, the universe just sort of occurred? Yeah. Well I don't buy your big bang theory, that doesn't explain anything!

Why does science get to say, well unless something amazing happens, that's probably a mystery, but the theologian gets castigated for the very same response? I find it pretty arrogant to assume we'll know everything or can in fact come to know it. Personally I'm hoping that if we ever discover an universal equation, as it were, it's something like x == y, where x and y are completely unknowable variables. Yes, I do realize we'd haveto know something of them to assume the equation works. But you get the point I trust.

Daniel Barnes said...

Khomus:
>But do you see how this is stupid? Saying, wait, who created the aliens? That's meaningless.

Ah, but no, it's not stupid. AFAICS it's actually the single most deadly argument against ID.

Recall that the ID argument is that evolution cannot possibly account for the design of complex biological structures - that a hidden "designer" is necessary.

Thus there is a problem of infinite regress with the ID argument that the evolutionary argument doesn't have. For the evolutionist argument is that such structures, and even life itself, are the result of blind chance; of the natural selection of chance mutations. (And indeed life itself is formidably improbable - look at the vastness of the universe, with as many galaxies as grains of sand in all the beaches of the world. Most of these vast areas are too hot or too freezing, or too saturated with deadly radiation for what we call life to exist. The conditions of a planet like Earth could certainly be close to zero probability looked at within the whole of the universe. We may well be the only ones.)

The ID advocate, however, cannot appeal to chance to create and evolve his aliens; he has denied this very possibility. So his argument is a logical fallacy of infinite regress, and inexorably must become a deistic argument to overcome it.

Neil Parille said...

Dan,

I don't see how it is an argument against ID. At most it's a claim that ID has to embrace some sort of non material force. Whatever caused species to be intelligently designed doesn't even have to be deistic as we understand it in the West. ID is compatible with process theology and various eastern religions.

Michael Prescott said...

Can't the "infinite regress" argument be addressed by pointing out the distinction between contingency and necessity?

As best we can tell, the whole physical cosmos is contingent; every entity or event is dependent on some prior (or simultaneous) entity or event. Oak trees depend on acorns. The acorns, in turn, depended on earlier oak trees. There is a chain of contingencies.

If everything in the universe is contingent, then it is hard to escape the conclusion that the universe as a whole is contingent. How, then, do we avoid an infinite regress? Only by positing a starting point that is necessary, not contingent.

This starting point would have to be outside of, or distinct from, the universe itself. Otherwise it would just be another contingency, like everything else in the universe. For want of a better word, we can call this necessary starting point "God" (without having to imbue this term with any anthropomorphic qualities).

Daniel Barnes said...

Neil:
>I don't see how it is an argument against ID. At most it's a claim that ID has to embrace some sort of non material force.

Well, it has to be an intelligent non-material force, something that has a conscious goal. Otherwise it's indistinguishable from accident, and accident is the equivalent of the evolutionary argument.

Further, any non-material force that has no origin and is able to create life at will and consciously design its attributes is deistic in pretty much any culture, I think.

Bill Tingley said...

Dan,

You wrote: "The ID advocate, however, cannot appeal to chance to create and evolve his aliens; he has denied this very possibility. So his argument is a logical fallacy of infinite regress, and inexorably must become a deistic argument to overcome it."

Your point fails because you are asking ID to do more than it is intended to do. ID does not fail as an explanation for the apparent design of organisms that arises from their complexity because it does not also explain the agent of that design. It may fail for other reasons, but not for that.

Moreover, ID is unscientific only by the lights of those who have made a prior philosophical commitment to metaphysical naturalism (or worse, scientism). To the extent that the irreducible complexity of an organism, which is posited as evidence of ID, is quantifiable, then ID rests upon principles that are subject to scientific scrutiny.

That ID seems to be consistent only with a supernatural agent, which itself eludes scientific analysis, is no argument against the scientific rigor of ID. After all, if it were so, we would expect that divine interaction with the physical universe would in fact leave traces that can be scientifically examined and constitute indirect evidence of a supernatural ground of all being.

Thus, there is no valid objection to ID as science merely because it strongly favors the philosophical conclusion that the designer is a supernatural agent (which I think it clearly does if only because, as you say, the buck must stop somewhere). It is beyond the ken of science to explain its own foundation. We need philosophy to plumb the truth of that foundation, whether it is natural or supernatural, and science is but a handmaiden to philosophy in that quest.

Daniel Barnes said...

Bill:
>ID does not fail as an explanation for the apparent design of organisms that arises from their complexity because it does not also explain the agent of that design.

Hi Bill,

I think we all accept that the existence or non-existence of God is ultimately not a testable proposition. Believers cannot finally prove it, disbelievers cannot finally disprove it.

But science is not in the business of such "ultimate explanations." It is in the business of testable hypotheses, such as "Water boils at 100 degrees C." It takes no interest as to whether God had some kind of ultimate hand in creating water, or heat, or the law we are in search of. Thus your statement below is not really the case:

>That ID seems to be consistent only with a supernatural agent, which itself eludes scientific analysis, is no argument against the scientific rigor of ID.

You see, if science demands testable hypotheses at at least some level, there is no "scientific rigor" in positing untestable supernatural activity as a scientific theory.

>After all, if it were so, we would expect that divine interaction with the physical universe would in fact leave traces that can be scientifically examined and constitute indirect evidence of a supernatural ground of all being.

Yes. But history has shown supernatural explanations for physical phenomenon - "indirect evidence" - in retreat for centuries now. Gods were thought to have moved the planets, created the world in seven days, made Eve from Adam's rib, be responsible for famines, floods, and plagues among other wonders and horrors. We now have direct scientific explanations for such phenomenon, they are no longer considered evidential "traces" of supernatural activity in the physical world. Thus it is perfectly reasonable, and not at all "scientism" or some other form of prejudice, to expect this trend to continue with the latest so-called "indirect evidence" that ID advocates.

>We need philosophy to plumb the truth of that foundation, whether it is natural or supernatural, and science is but a handmaiden to philosophy in that quest.

Now, here we might almost agree, except that science is not handmaiden, but the vital, equal and balancing partner of imaginative and metaphysical conjecture.

Dragonfly said...

It's only science that can tell us something about the world, philosophy is merely hobbling far behind. The discoveries by science are far more revolutionary and fundamental than anything a philosopher can come up with in his or her armchair. Examples: relativity with its time dilation leading to the twin paradox while time is no longer absolute, black holes, the weird world of quantum mechanics with its superposition states.

A sensible philosopher would revise some of his fundamental ideas about the world when confronted with such new insights from scientific discoveries. But many philosophers are conservative in their views, clinging to outdated ideas, in particular Objectivists, who are babbling about the "corruption of modern physics" when discussing QM and who think that Einstein was guilty of unphysical rationalizations etc., while they're typing on computers that wouldn't exist without QM or use GPS which wouldn't function correctly without general relativity.

The only sensible philosophical contributions come from science-oriented philosophers like Dennett or philosophers who are scientists themselves, like d'Espagnat. Science delivers the goods, philosophy is just a lot of talk if it's divorced from science.

Dragonfly said...

Bill: "That ID seems to be consistent only with a supernatural agent, which itself eludes scientific analysis, is no argument against the scientific rigor of ID. After all, if it were so, we would expect that divine interaction with the physical universe would in fact leave traces that can be scientifically examined and constitute indirect evidence of a supernatural ground of all being."

Well, the claim is in fact that divine interaction with the physical universe does leave traces that can be scientifically examined, that is the whole basis of the ID movement. Interaction just means that there are some physical effects, and such effects are the domain of science and can be examined. If the effects can be explained without supposing that at some moment a miracle occurs, the divine hypothesis is superfluous and meaningless. The ID movement has never succeeded in demonstrating the necessity of a miracle (see for example the references I mentioned in an earlier comment).

khomus said...

Daniel: I'm not talking about ID here. That is, I'm not advocating that ID is some form of valid argument. I'm tackling the infinite regression argument. There are two problems with it.

1. The objection that if we assume God or aliens or whatever, this is no real explanation because then we simply ask, where did the God or aliens or whatever come from? This sort of goes against your idea of science not seeking ultimate explanations, clearly the scientists in question want them. But the real problem is this.

You have a watch. You love this watch. It's your favorite. You come home to find it broken and you ask, what happened to my watch? Somebody tells you, oh, that guy Khomus came in and he smashed it with a hammer. Now you have an explanation for why your watch is smashed. Saying, that's not an explanation because I want to know why Khomus smashed my watch doesn't make any sense. Sure, you might want to know that. But you do know what happened to your watch, I smashed it. The question of why I did it, did you make me angry, do I jsut enjoy smashing people's things, etc., and how I did it, maybe I used a hammer, maybe I used a chair, has no connection whatsoever with whetheror not I actually smashed your watch.

Similarly in my argument, recall that I said we had proof that aliens put life on earth. Now you may indeed want to know, how did the aliens arise? But this has no connection whatsoever as to whether they can put life on earth. In other words, saying that X is no answer because it immediately leads to the question of whence X, isn't an argument against X being an answer. In fact it actually strikes me as the kind of answer we generally want as it generates more inquiry.

Now to the second objection you raised, the infinite regression in general. Aliens or God or such can't be responsible, because whence God or the aliens, then whence that, and so on. Again, how does this not apply to ny cosmological account you care to name? How did life on earth begin? OK, so how did the earth begin? The galaxy? The universe? Oh the big bang. Well, what was before the big bang? Oh, a quantum vacuum we think? OK, where'd that come from? And so on. You see my point. If we're going to object that an infinite regression is logically untenable and thus provides no answer, then all accounts, even those we feel we have a great deal of evidence for, are ruled out, because they're all infinite regressions.

If you say, well the quantum vacuum just exists, or, the universe just exists, or such, then why can't a god just exist? Again I'm not arguing for a god. What I'm attempting to show here is that the infinite regression argument applies equally to things that are not connected with a god at all and are in fact supposed tobe the accounts we're all to accept. The same objections raised against a god, infinite regression etc., can equally be raised against the big bang, multiple universes, etc.

Finally I'd like to apologize for typos and such, unfortunately I can't really go back and edit due to the way my screen reader interacts with blogger. They claim to be working on it, heh.

Daniel Barnes said...

khomus:
>Now you may indeed want to know, how did the aliens arise? But this has no connection whatsoever as to whether they can put life on earth.

Hi khomus,

The issue is that ID advocates in the vast majority seem to argue that life without an intelligent design is impossible, full stop. Sure, if they just argued that life on earth is manufactured by a higher intelligence, yet that intelligence itself may well have evolved by accident, they avoid the regress towards deism. But AFAIK no ID supporter actually argues that, because they are rushing towards deism anyway...;-) And also it leaves them wide open to the obvious objection that if chance evolution is possible elsewhere, then why not on Earth?

>If we're going to object that an infinite regression is logically untenable and thus provides no answer, then all accounts, even those we feel we have a great deal of evidence for, are ruled out, because they're all infinite regressions.

It's not the same thing, I think. The universe may be infinite in duration and or size, so you can go backwards forever, beyond quantum vacuums or whatever. That regression may turn out to be a fact, or it may not. On the other hand, a logically reqressive argument is one which re-introduces the problem it purports to solve its proposed solution. This is not a fact, but merely a badly constructed argument.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: " if there is an intelligent designer, he has some explaining to do. The book "Intelligent Thought" devotes an entire essay to examples of imperfect and even detrimental 'design' of our bodies. For example, the fact that our corneas are inside out gives us all blind spots."

While this argument is valid against those IDers who wish to a specific kind of theology from ID, it doesn't tell against those who are theologically agnostic. For example, we could suppose that it is not just one god that designed the universe, but a whole board of gods, as was once suggested by the great theologian H. L. Mencken. The design problems with the eye could have resulted from having been designed by several gods. We all know that things designed by teams tend to be problematic. The thumb, on the other hand, which is a marvel of engineering, was undoubtedly designed by a single god, as Mencken noted.

On a more serious note, I don't think this criticism affects those who, like Flew, only draw deism from ID. Flew is merely trying to explain abiogenesis. As far as I can tell, he's perfectly open to believing that once a cell coded with built-in mutation capability is "designed," if you will, that evolution takes over and everything afterwards develops spontaneously, as the Darwinists will have it.

gregnyquist said...

Meg: 'Besides write this blog, what do you do "in real life"?'

Hi Meg. In regular life, I don't do anything all that special. I live, by choice, in a rural area (I detest living in cities) where there is not much in the way of job opportunities. Right now I'm working part time at Caltrans and spending the rest of my working hours contributing to the production of my brother's radio show (about to extend to eight stations) and his website, which I designed.

gregnyquist said...

Dragonfly: "It's only science that can tell us something about the world, philosophy is merely hobbling far behind."

Although I'm largely symphathetic with this point, I think that it's not entirely true. Science is our most reliable source of knowledge, but that does not mean it is are only source of knowledge. Right now, science cannot determine whether we evolved from rocks or from "coded chemistry" designed by some kind obscure intelligent force. Perhaps some day science will give us compelling reasons to believe that one of these conjectures is right. Until then, we have to make use of "philosophical" means, which are much less reliable and should be used with a spirit great cognitive humility and doubt.

Now although so-called philosophical belief tend to be overly-speculative and cognitively suspect, it's not true that all philosophical beliefs are inconclusive or cognitively ambivalent. For example, the denial that consciousness is entirely epiphenomenal (i.e., belief in free will) is a philsophical belief that I regard as highly plausible. Like the ID belief God, free will is dependent on gaps in scientific understanding. If science managed to close all those gaps that atheists insist will one day be shut, this would not only close the door on God, it would also close the door on free will and personal autonomy. For what does it mean to say that all the gaps have been closed? Namely this: that everything that happens is explicable on the basis of mechanical, deterministic processes. That is, after all, what science seeks to do; and that is what a complete scientific explanation of the universe would entail. Precisely because I contend that there are compelling reasons to believe in free will and interactionist dualism (both non-scientific beliefs), I don't think that all these gaps will ever be closed entirely. There will always be at least a few that remain open (and probably a lot more than a few). There is more between heaven and earth that is dreamt in an exclusively scientific philosophy! So philosophical arguments over the plausibility of the ID thesis will continue ad infinitum. May they not continue ad nauseum as well!

JayCross said...

Greg,

Is your book "Visions of Reality" due out anytime soon? I liked the teaser essays on your site.

gregnyquist said...

Jay,

I'm hoping to send the manuscript to the publisher in the next few weeks—but whether that hope sees fruition, I can't really say.