Thursday, April 15, 2004

Second-Hand Misquotation I suspect that the author of the op-ed I discussed in my last post has not actually read any of George Gaylord Simpson's books. More likely is that he borrowed the quotation from some other creationist source, and did not bother to look into the proper context of the statement.

My favorite example of this sort of thing can be found in the book Why Religion Matters by Huston Smith. On page 177 he wrote:


[Physicists] do not laugh when a fellow scientist, Dale Kohler, writes `We have been scraping away at physical reality all these centuries, and now the layer of the remaining little that we don’t understand is so thin that God’s face is staring right out at us.'


Do not feel bad if you have never heard of the great scientist Dale Kohler. He's a fictional character. Go read John Updike's novel Roger's Version if you don't believe me.

Smith's book was truly awful (my review it, published in Free Inquiry is available here), but I doubt that Smith would deliberately present the words of a fictional character as if they had been said by a real person. More likely is that Smith saw Dale Kohler quoted in some other source, and simply assumed that Kohler was a real person.

News From the Home Front Regrettably, the student newspaper here at James Madison University has published this op-ed defending creationism. The title pretty much says it all: “Evidence Supports Creationist Position”. Actually, the headline on the jump page for the article is, in its way, even more amusing: “Evolution: Theory Invalid”. The editor who wrote that one certainly scores points for clarity.

The article is merely a repetition of some of the standard creationist talking points: Basic probability theory shows that life could not have originated by naturalistic means and transitional forms are lacking in the fossil record. I won't bother trying to reply here (I dutifully sent in my letter to the editor earlier today), but there is one part of it I'd like to mention.

To defend the idea that transitional forms are lacking in the fossil record, the article's author misuses quotes from the big three: Colin Patterson, Stephen Jay Gould, and George Gaylord Simpson. All three are presented out of context, but I found his remarks about Simpson especially interesting. Here's what appeared in the editorial:


George Gaylord Simpson, an influential paleontologist, wrote “The earliest and most primitive members of every order already have the basic ordinal characters, and in no case is an approximately continuous series from one order to another known. In most cases the break is so sharp and the gap so large that the origin of the order is speculative and much disputed.”.

Although Simpson penned these words in 1944, the latest fossil-finds fair no better for the evolutionist.


Here's what Simpson actually said:


The earliest and most primitive members of every order already have the basic ordinal characters, and in no case is an approximately continuous series from one order to another known. In most cases the break is so sharp and the gap so large that the origin of the order is speculative and much disputed. Of course the orders all converge backward in time, to different degrees. The earliest known members are much more alike than the latest known members, and there is little doubt, for instance, but that all of the highly diverse ungulates did have a common ancestry; but the line making actual connection with such an ancestry is not known in even one instance.


Simpson's point involved inferring specific lines of descent through the fossil record. It had nothing to do with other transitional forms exist or whether the fossil record is consistent with evolution.

For more examples of creationist misuses of the words of George Gaylord Simpson, follow this link.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Dembski on Disembodied Designers There is something else we know from our collected experience with intelligent designers. Specifically, every instance of intelligence that we know of requires a physical body. In other words, as far as our experience tells us, intelligence is something that happens when you have neural wiring of sufficient complexity concentrated within the confines of an animal's body. For all we know the phrase “unembodied designer” might simply be an oxymoron.

One critic who has made this point is political scientist Larry Arnhart. In this 2000 article from the magazine First Things he writes:


This confusion in intelligent design theory both affirming and denying recourse to the supernatural arises from equivocation in the use of the term “intelligent design.” Both Dembski and Behe speak of “intelligent design” without clearly distinguishing “humanly intelligent design” from “divinely intelligent design.” We have all observed how the human mind can cause effects that are humanly designed, and from such observable effects, we can infer the existence of humanly intelligent designers. But insofar as we have never directly observed a divine intelligence (that is, an omniscient and omnipotent intelligence) causing effects that are divinely designed, we cannot infer a divinely intelligent designer from our common human experience.


Note that Arnhart's objection here is that when, for example, we look at Mt. Rushmore and infer that human intelligence was responsible for it, we have more information to work with than Mt. Rushmore itself. We also know that human intelligence exists and is capable of carving faces into mountains. We know from experience what human design looks like. We have no comparable experience with divine intelligence.

In TDR Dembski replies to this point as follows:


Larry Arnhart is another critic who remains unconvinced that a design inference can validly infer an unembodied intelligence. Arnhart maintains that our knowledge of design arises in the first instance not from any inference but from introspection of our own human intelligence. Though at first blush plausible, this argument quickly collapses when probed. Jean Piaget, for instance, would have rejected it on developmental grounds: babies do not make sense of intelligence by introspecting their own intelligence but by coming to terms with the effect of intelligence in their external environment. For example, they see the ball in front of them and then see it taken away, and they learn that Daddy is moving the ball-thus reasoning from effect to intelligence. Introspection plays at best a secondary role in how we intially make sense of intelligence and design. (P. 193)


You will search Arnhart's writing in vain for any mention of introspection. You will also search in vain for any suggestion that concluding that intelligent agency was responsible for a particular event is not based on an inference (upon what else could it be based?). At issue is what our experience tells us about what intelligence can and can not bring about. The baby who infers that his father is messing around with the ball is aided by the knowledge that his father actually exists and occasionally removes balls from view. An inference to design is always based on more than the features of the event or phenomenon to be explained. They are also based on our experience with what effects can arise from various sorts of causes.

Children might attribute to Santa Claus the presence of their gifts under the tree. Teenagers who persist in doing so despite having been presented with the more reasonable explanation that their parents placed the gifts under the tree ( Santa Claus may exist, after all), are generally regarded as people in need of counselling. ID proponents regard them as scientists.

Dembski goes on to write:


I therefore continue to maintain that intelligence is always inferred, that we infer it through well-established methods and that there is no principled way to argue that the work of embodied designers is detectable whereas the work of unembodied designers isn't. (P. 194)


Except that embodied designers are known to exist while disembodied designers are not known to exist. It is possible that someday we will be confronted with an event so utterly resistant to any naturalistic explanation that we are forced to conclude that disembodied intelligences exist, but the complexity of living organsims is not even close in that regard.

As for intelligence always being inferred, I assume he means that if we are confronted with an event for which we have no direct knowledge of its cause, and we use what facts we are given to conclude that it was the result of intelligent design, then that conclusion is an inference. Has anyone ever suggested that intelligent agency is not inferred? I can't imagine what Dembski is trying to say here.

Alas, the entire book follows this pattern. Dembski offers no satisfying reply to the many cogent criticisms that have been offered of his work. Instead he distorts what others have said and knocks down strawmen that exist solely in his imagination.

The Limits of Intelligence One of the chief arguments offered by ID proponent William Dembski begins with the premise that intelligent agency can cause things to happen that would be effectively impossible via natural causes alone. For example, weathering and erosion are unlikely to turn a mountain into Mt. Rushmore. He then argues that the hallmark of intelligent agency is what he calls “specified complexity” which is a fancy term for events that are highly improbable and conform to some independently describable pattern. He then goes on to argue that certain biological structures exhibit specified complexity, and therefore must have been created by an intelligent agent. This claim is dubious to say the least, since Dembski's definition of specificity is hopelessly vague and he has no credible way of carrying out the probability calculations that are essential to his method.

There is a further problem with his argument, however. Dembski is fond of arguing that natural causes can only bring about certain sorts of effects and that intelligent agency can bring about other sorts of effects not attainable by nature alone. The trouble is that he never thinks to turn this argument around. Sure, intelligent agency can craft Mt. Rushmore, whereas natural causes can not. But all of our experience with intelligent agents tells us that there are certain limitations on what intelligence can achieve. We have no experience of intelligent agents being able to tinker with the fundamental constants of nature, for example. We have no experience with intelligent agents being able to create life from nothing. Intelligent agents can discover the law of gravitation, but they are completely unable to change it suit their whim. Genetic engineering is still in its infancy, but we have no experience of intelligent agents being able to perform the sort of microengineering that the designer in ID theory has apparently performed.

In light of this, we can fairly say that all of our experience with intelligent agents tells us that they are incapable of the feats attributed to them by Dembski and his ilk. Therefore, ID proponents are not simply extrapolating a known sort of explanation to cover a new situation. They are actually positing a fundamentally new sort of creative force in the world, one for which we have no direct evidence.

Against the action of this hypothesized designer evolutionists offer the mechanism of random variation sifted through natural selection. Since even Dembski concedes that such a mechanism can, in principle, lead to great complexity, they offer only a single argument for claiming that there are features of organisms that fundamentally can not be explained by recourse to this mechanism. Specifically, they claim that if a biochemical system is composed of several well-matched, indispensable parts ( if it's “irreducibly complex” (IC)) then it could not have formed gradually. This argument is laughably false, since as a simple matter of logic systems that are IC could evolve gradually, and we have countless artificial life simulations to prove it. On top of that, for many biochemical systems quite a lot is known about how they likely evolved.

So that is our choice: Explain the complexity of organisms via a mechanism with the proven ability to craft complex structures or conjure out of whole cloth an intelligent agent with powers fundamentally different from any other intelligent agent we have ever encountered. Which is more reasonable?

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Blessed Sense from Ohio Don't miss this fine editorial from The Marion Star. It is authored by mathematician Brian McEnnis and addresses the recent controversy about a proposed science lesson plan in Ohio. The plan would introduce criticisms of evolution drawn from ID sources. As ID proponents tell it, this is evidence that evolutionists are censoring for fear that it will damage their favorite theory.

In reality, of course, the only thing being censored is a lot of false information. All of the objections raised by ID advocates are based on distortions, misunderstandings, and blatant falsehoods. This is obvious to knowledgable scientists in the relevant fields, but not obvious to non-scientists.

Here's an excerpt:


On March 11, The Star published a column by Lowell Hedges under the headline "Let's teach honest science." I agree with the headline, but not with Mr. Hedges' interpretation of honest science. He advocates the inclusion of non-scientific material in a science curriculum, teaching students to abandon scientific method by explaining natural phenomena with supernatural forces. The lesson is dishonest in that it masquerades as science while including misrepresentations and factual errors. It has been rejected by (amongst others) The Ohio Academy of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and major research universities in the state.

It is disturbing that the Ohio Board of Education would ignore overwhelming scientific opinion in developing a science lesson plan, harming the students whom they should be serving. Students hoping to gain admission to elite universities, or hoping to avoid remedial biology courses in college, should ask why the Board of Education is acting against their best interests. And science-based companies, which rely on well-educated employees, will think twice before locating in a state whose Board of Education is in open conflict with the scientific community.

What is it about the disputed lesson plan that has scientists concerned? Despite Mr. Hedges' claims, there is nothing that we're hiding. We just have this conviction that science courses should teach science! If competing theories are to be taught in a science classroom, they should at least be valid scientific theories. We are implored to "teach both sides of the issue," as if valid science and fraudulent science had equal merit. If that were the case, there are many sides, not two. We would need to teach creation myths of various cultures, flat-earth theories, and any other crackpot theories that claimed classroom time. This might make for a fun course, but it wouldn't be science!


As this excerpt makes clear, McEnnis is replying to an earlier editorial published in the newspaper. To see the sort of brazen dishonesty used by ID advocates in making their case, consider the following excerpt:


Mr. Hedges refers to the support of Sen. Edward Kennedy, echoing a claim made by Sen. Santorum in the Washington Times of March 14, 2002. Kennedy responded in a letter to the editor, published in the same newspaper on March 21, 2002:

"The March 14 Commentary piece, 'Illiberal education in Ohio schools,' written by my colleague Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, erroneously suggested that I support the teaching of 'Intelligent Design' as an alternative to biological evolution. That simply is not true. Rather, I believe that public school science classes should focus on teaching students how to understand and critically analyze genuine scientific theories. Unlike biological evolution, 'Intelligent Design' is not a genuine scientific theory and, therefore, has no place in the curriculum of our nation's public school science classes."

So much for the claim of Kennedy's support! This type of misrepresentation and shading of the truth is typical of the way that Intelligent Design proponents present their case. The lesson plan that they wrote is similarly riddled with deceit and error.

If it is honest science you want, this lesson plan is not it. It is scientific fraud, and has no place in the classroom.


The argument here revolves around something called “The Santorum Amendment”, introduced by Senator Snatorum as an addition to Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. The amendment talked about critically analyzing scientific theories, and as such seemed unobjectionable. Of course, the amendment was really nothing more than a front for introducing creationism into the classroom. Once that was pointed out to Kennedy, he withdrew his support from the amendment.

Yet the lie that Kennedy supported this amendment is repeated over and over agin in creationist circles. Go figure.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Stop the Presses! No sooner do I finish my last post than I discover that Agape Press has upadated their lead story. The headline reads:



CNN Accused of Fabricating Controversy in Missouri Evolution Story



Here's an excerpt:


CNN is being asked to recant a story about a bill in the Missouri legislature that would allow teachers to be fired for not teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution, such as the Intelligent Design theory.

Recently on the program CNN Sunday Morning, correspondent Denise Belgrave stated that nine states were grappling with the debate over how evolution should or should not be taught in public schools. In the story, Belgrave encouraged viewers to "imagine a law that would fire teachers who refused to teach alternatives to evolution theory, alternatives that have not yet been widely accepted by the scientific community. That's what Missouri's considering, but Missouri isn't alone."

CNN's viewers were then shown a U.S. map highlighting nine states as places where measures similar to that described in Missouri were under consideration. The CNN reporter identified "intelligent design" as the main alternative to evolution theory. Intelligent design, which some say reflects aspects of the biblical account of creation, proposes than some features of the world were created as the result of an intelligent cause instead of natural selection, a component of the evolution theory.


Actually, news outlets generally retract stories. Recanting is what you do when you have given testimony in court, and then decide that you didn't really mean it.

More to the point, they give the game away in the next paragraph:


The problem is that even though a bill was introduced in January in Missouri that would have penalized teachers for not teaching an evolution alternative, the measure was later revised and the teacher penalty was eliminated. In addition, the revised bill is no longer under active consideration by the Missouri Legislature, according to the bill's sponsor.


Taking this to be accurate, it sounds to me like the only error CNN made was in using the present tense instead of the past tense. That hardly constitutes fabricating a controversy. The fact remains that if the ID folks have their way, then teachers will be penalized for not teaching creationism.

So far I have been unable to find any response from CNN at their website.

Agape Press Gives Lectures on Skepticism Mark Creech is a columnist for the fundamentalist website Agape Press. In his most recent column he presumes to lecture the rest of us on the difference between an honest skeptic and a dishonest skeptic. He writes:


An honest skeptic is someone who may have doubts about certain religious truths or doctrines, but when confronted with the evidence will face up to it and alter his life accordingly. A dishonest skeptic, however, is a person who has doubts and will never face up to the evidence. When blasted out of one foxhole of unbelief, he only takes refuge in a second. If blasted out of that foxhole, he'll just start looking for another.


It's always amusing to hear a fundamentalist talk about evidence. After all, there is no world-view more evidence-proof than the sort of Christianity preached by Creech. Apparently it is his view of things that the only honest non-believers are people who have not been exposed to the Gospel. People familiar with Christianity who reject it nonetheless are, according to Creech's dichotomy, dishonest.

In reading Creech it is important to keep in mind that he is writing for an audience composed primarily of other fundamentalists. To them, skeptics are mostly an abstraction. In parts of the country where fundametalism is strong, skeptics are a tiny minority. As such, they are easily demonized. Creech is not trying to convert the lost, here. Instead, he is giving a pep talk to his readers, trying to persuade them of their own moral and intellectual spueriority over the godless infidels who run the country.

Creech goes on to say:


Perhaps you are a skeptic. You say there is much in the Christian Gospel you can't understand. I agree; there is much I don't understand. You say most everything you comprehend seems contradictory to everything you previously thought. That's not surprising. For God's thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are his ways our ways (Isa.55:8). You say you can't be sure of the Bible's credibility. This is not uncommon of persons who have never been exposed to the overwhelming evidence of the Bible's inspiration and total reliability. These may be partially valid and seemingly reasonable excuses for one's hesitation to embrace the Christian faith. But have you ever faced the evidence of the power of Christ to transform the lives of those who see His love revealed in his wounds?


Of course, the problem is not in understanding what the Gospel says. It's clear enough. The problem is in finding what it says remotely plausible. Dumbass skeptics like me require some evidence for believing that more than 2000 years ago a particular dead body behaved in ways that no dead body before or since has ever behaved.

Creech asserts that he has overwhelming evidence of the Bible's inspiration and total reliability. Trust me, he doesn't. Actually, he knows he has no such evidence, which is why he immediately goes on to play the “religious experience” card:


This is the impetus behind the incredible phenomena of the movie, The Passion of the Christ. Many people who watch this film, which so graphically depicts Christ's sufferings, come away changed. A neo-Nazi confessed to two-decade-old bombings in Norway after watching the death of Jesus in The Passion. After viewing The Passion, an Arizona man walked up to police and confessed to numerous burglaries. In Florida, a fugitive from a bank heist that happened two years earlier turned himself in after watching the movie. A man in Texas confessed to having killed his girlfriend after the death had been ruled a suicide, saying he was moved to the confession because he had seen what Christ had done to forgive him in Mel Gibson's film. In Orlando, Florida, a teenage boy who watched the film and had been bitter for years at his negligent and abusive father, found strength to forgive his father just before the young boy unexpectedly died. There is no greater proof of Gospel truth than its power to radically alter a life; making it to shun sin and want what God wants more than anything else.


A handful of people saw The Passion and were moved to confess to old sins. This is the overwhelming evidence Creech has in mind? Is it evidence against God that a large number of certifiable assholes also went to see the movie and made no subsequent attempt to improve themselves? If Creech is trying to convince me that people who put themselves into a suggestive frame of mind find it easier to believe than those who don't, then mission accomplished.

Incidentally, lest you think I am being unfair to Creech, consider the following:


Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying we should throw away our intellects. What I am saying, however, is that if you are an honest skeptic as Thomas was, our Lord will provide answers for your inquiries. God gave you a mind as well as a heart, and He is willing to address your intellectual needs. But I suggest what will ultimately convince you of the truth of the Gospel will not be the reasoned arguments, though they may be important stepping stones, but an experience with the living Christ and His love demonstrated in His death for you. Such revolutionizes a life and causes one to fall on their knees before Him, saying, "My Lord and my God."

This can happen to you, but only if you are honestly open to it.


To me this seems like an admission that the reasoned arguments for fundamentalism are weak indeed.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Methodological Naturalism Since it's been a slow few days in creationism land, let me call your attention to an interesting dispute over the role of methodological naturalism. ID folks, unable to boast of any actual scientific results they have produced, have made this the centerpoint of their recent arguments. Specifically, they whine that science labors under a metaphysical bias that precludes them from giving fair consideration to supernatural explanations.

This argument is effective when presented to certain religiously-inclined non-scientists. These are people who have little interest in how scientific research actually gets carried out, but already sort of suspect that sceince is biased against religion.

To research scientists, the charge is absurd. They know that their only bias is towards theories that help them solve poblems that arise in the field and the lab. The day a supernatural theory helps them make progress on an actual problem is the day they will abandon methodological naturalism. The consensus in favor of MN among modern scientists is nothing more than a reflection of the fact that in the centuries long history of science it has never once happened that a belief in the supernatural has led to progress. More often, it has retarded progress.

Anyway, Brian Leiter has wieghed in with this characteristically clear-headed post. Go have a look at it, and follow some of the links contained therein. Here's a sample:


Stuart Buck , another Federalist Society lawyer (like the unfortunate Lawrence VanDyke, who is well-known to readers of this blog) is apparently intent on making sure the Federalist Society gets a reputation as a hotbed of dense apologists for Intelligent Design. Mr. Buck is the non-philosopher blogger Mr. VanDyke invoked, whom I alluded to in an earlier posting on Mr. VanDyke's muddle through philosophical naturalism . Mr. Buck's own muddle, as I noted, provoked a reply from a biologist ( they continue their "dialogue" here), and now also a physicist.

Mr. Buck, needless to say, remains quite attached to his “insight” that there are two different senses of “a priori,” one of which he denominates the “Kantian” sense. He explains:

“Scientists often say as follows: Other scientists have seen that methodological naturalism has worked in the past; therefore I will approach any new problem with a strict insistence that only naturalistic solutions will be considered, because I have decided that only naturalistic solutions count as science. Leiter focuses on the first part of that sentence [note: the sentence is Buck's, not Leiter's], and accordingly insists that methodological naturalism was not collectively chosen a priori in the Kantian sense. That's all fine and well, but it says nothing about whether an individual scientist today approaches new problems having ruled out a particular type of solution without regard for its truth. In that sense, the commitment to methodological naturalism is a priori,; because it comes prior to an individual scientist's investigation of any actual new problem or question.”

Where to begin? Let's take “a priori” in the new, “Buckian sense.” Scientists believe something “a priori in the Buckian sense” if “it comes prior to an individual's scientist's investigation of any actual new problem or question.” So, e.g., since most scientists accept the truth of Newtonian mechanics for mid-size physical objects, despite the fact that most of them have never conducted any investigations or experiments to confirm Newtonian mechanics, it follows that they accept it, then, “a priori in the Buckian sense.” Needless to say, natural scientists quite generally accept methodological naturalism “a priori in the Buckian sense.”

Indeed, it goes farther than that: most of us who are educated accept evolutionary biology “a priori in the Buckian sense” (after all, I'm no biologist, what do I know beyond what I've read and been told about it?). Indeed, I accept that FDR was President from 1932 to 1945, and that Hitler was a genocidal maniac in Germany during roughly those same years, and that Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died in 1900, and that Americans fought for independence from the British in the late 18th-century--I accept all of that “a priori in the Buckian sense,” since I've done no empirical investigation to confirm any of it.