Sunday, May 14, 2006

EvolutionBlog is Dead. Long Live EvolutionBlog!

This will be my last post at this site. The new site can be found at the link below. This site will remain active indefinitely, but it will no longer be updated. This seems like a good time to thank the folks at Blogger for hosting and housing this blog, free of charge, for the last two years. Thanks!


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

EvolutionBlog is Moving!

As some of the commenters have previously surmised, EvolutionBlog will be joining the gang over at Science Blogs! I'm rather excited about this, and am currently working on getting the new site up and running. Regular blogging will resume shortly. I thank you for your patience.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Brief Blog Break

I will be taking a blog vacation for the next two weeks. End of the semester and all that. That's the bad news. The good news is that when I return I expect to have big things to report about the future of EvolutionBlog. Stay tuned!

Let me take this opportunity to thank everyone who stops by to read my ramblings, and to the commenters, who usually manage to say something thought-provoking (even when they have the nerve to disagree with me). As I've said before, it is only lack of time that keeps me from replying to more of the comments.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Heddle on ID

Here's something I never thought I'd write: I agree completely with David Heddle's latest post. Well, almost completely. But the few nit picks I have pale in comparison to the points where I agree with hin. He is expressing his disagreement with various strategies used by ID proponents in promoting his views. He writes:

The first strategy I disagree with is proclaiming ID as science. Philosophical discussions aside, I will accept ID as science when I read something like this:

A scientist at (some respected research university) has been awarded a grant to do experiment X. ID predicts the result of the experiment will be Y. Non-ID predicts the result will be Z.

And don't tell me this cannot happen because the secular scientific community would never allow it. I was a practicing scientist before I was a believer, and we never had any secret meetings where we discussed our true agenda of destroying Christianity in the guise of science.

And later:

The second strategy I disagree with is attempting to get ID placed in the science curriculum.

And later still:

The third strategy I disagree with, and this is the most germane to this post, is to deny that ID is religiously motivated. I don't personally know any ID advocate who is not religiously motivated—and I don't know one (personally) who is a strong ID proponent based solely on the physical evidence, although I am told such people exist.

Couldn't have said it any better myself. Expect the ID folks to whip out David Berlinski or Antony Flew in response to that last statement, but Heddle's point remains valid.

Heddle goes on to discuss what he thinks ID is, since he evidently does not consider it to be science:

[ID] is a scientifically-based apologetic. It is part of God’s general revelation. That’s what I think ID is, and that is where I think it is most effective: bringing glory to God, and showing men how they are without excuse. It can be an effective form of witnessing—it worked for me, and I have seen it work for others. Not because it proves God, but because it suggests God.

This is admirably forthright, but it also contradicts the the following statement, from elsewhere in the same post:

Also, anecdotally, when I look at fine tuning I see design because I believe God designed the universe, while someone else sees multiverses because they don't share that belief. (Emphasis in religion).

As far as I know, the fine-tuning argument is the only ID argument Heddle endorses. He describes this as an effective apologetic, one that leaves people without excuse for atheism. But he also asserts that fine-tuning suggests design to him only because he already accepts God's existence. If that is the case, then fine-tuning is not a reason for an atheist to change his views. Moreover, it makes it hard to understand the sense in which fine-tuning was an apologetic that “worked for him.”

I would also reject the idea that an atheist “sees multiverses”. Speaking personally, what I see is an interesting question about why the fundamental constants of the universe have just the properties they ought to have to make life possible. I note that one possible explanation is based on the idea that we are just one small part of a larger multiverse, in which case the apparent fine-tuning is explained via simple principles of probability. I note that physicists have been talking seriously about multiverses for decades, and that such ideas have a pedigree going back well beyond anyone's use of fine-tuning as a religious argument. Finally, I observe that multiverses can claim some support from currently popular theories in physics. That is evidentially slim, but it is an improvement over the nothing at all that God belief can claim. For these reasons, I believe that multiverses are a better explanation than God belief for fine-tuning.

As far as I can tell, Heddle has no reason beyond his prior faith commitments for finding the God hypothesis more reasonable than the multiverse hypothesis for explaining fine-tuning.

In the past, Heddle has been linked to favorably by other ID bloggers. I predict that this post will not be treated so kindly.

Is Evolution a Problem for Jews?

David Klinghoffer, writing in The Jerusalem Post, says that it is. Of course, he comes to ths conclusion only by completely distorting what evolution is all about:

Maimonides was saying that though parts of the Bible's text may indeed be interpreted in other than a literal fashion, there are philosophical reasons that make an eternal universe incompatible with the God of the Torah. Simply put, Aristotle makes God's role in the world, as a creator and guide, superfluous and impossible.

AND DARWINISM does the very same thing, ascribing all creation to blind material processes, as Darwin himself wrote: “I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of natural selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.”

All creation? Please. Darwin is explicit in The Origin of Species that he is not even interested in the origin of life, much less all creation. And the Darwin quote Klinghoffer provides is perfectly explicit that the issue is miraculous interventions in the course of descent. In other words, natural selection would not be a plausible mechanism of evolution if it required divine intervention to explain specific trajectories through the tree of life. It says nothing about divine intervention in other aspects of natural history (like, say, how the universe got itself created in the first place).

Later Klinghoffer writes:

In practice, however, there is simply no way to reconcile an idea with its precise negation. The premise of Judaism is that God commands us on the basis of his having created us. The question before us, therefore, is not a simple-minded one of whether the universe was made in six calendar days, but rather of whether the universe has a need for a God, period.

In the philosophical system elaborated by Darwin and his disciples, there is no room for a creator in any sense. To explain the existence of life without reference to a deity was Darwin's entire purpose.

Since Klinghoffer has chosen to repeat himself, we conclude that his sole argument for the irreconcilability of Judaism with evolution is the latter's completely eliminaion of any reasonable possibility of God's existence. That point is ridiculous, as I have already shown. But we shouldn't let slide the casual reference to the “philosophical system elaborated by Darwin and his disciples.”

There was no philosophical system elaborated by Darwin in his scientific work. There is only a large collection of biological facts coupled with a theory for explaining them. That theory has passed countless furhter experimental tests undreamed of by Darwin, so that today it is accepted by all reasonable people. And Darwin does not have “disciples.” There are only scientists who find his ideas useful in their professional work.

Klinghoffer includes some of the usual blather about cellular complexity and the Discovery Institute's list, but rather than addressing those cliches let me close with a brief consideration of whether evolution and Judaism are compatible.

I see three potential points of conflict between the two:

  1. Evolution deals a severe, perhaps fatal, blow to the argument from design.
  2. Evolution contradicts the creation story in Genesis.
  3. The idea that God's chosen mechanism of creation is the violent, bloody, wasteful process of natural selection runs counter to our intuitions about how an all-loving, all-powerful God would behave.

If your faith in God is not based on natural theology, and if you do not believe that every word of the Bible should be taken literally, then I don't see why the first two items should trouble you. Both of these viewpoints (rejecting natural theology and biblical literalism) certainly have a long history in Jewish thought. Item three is just a variant on the problem of evil. If you had previously managed to resolve that problem to your satisfaction, then it should pose no difficulty either.

Therefore, I do not see how evolution poses any particular challenge to Judaism (or Christianity for that matter).

Klinghoffer can only defend his views by baldly distorting what evolution actually is. For some reason, evolution deniers find it almost impossible to be truthful about scientific issues.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Simplest Explanation?

Let me suggest that Lerner advise his atheist-fearing congregants that they spend more time worrying about people like the Reverend Mark Creech. The last time we saw Mr. Creech he was calmly explaining that only someone who was insane could be a liberal.

This time he's lecturing us about the simplest explanation for the Biblical account of Jesus walking on water:

Nevertheless, not to be outdone among the skeptics, Professor Doron Nof of Florida State University claims it may have been ice Jesus stood on and not water. According to a recent article by Reuters, “Nof used records of the Mediterranean Sea's surface temperatures and statistical models to examine the dynamics of the Sea of Galilee, which Israelis know now as Lake Kinneret. Nof's study found that a period of cooler temperatures in the area between 1,500 and 2,600 years ago could have included the decades in which Jesus lived. A drop in temperature below freezing could have caused ice -- thick enough to support a human -- to form on the surface of the freshwater lake near the western shore ... it might have been nearly impossible for distant observers to see a piece of floating ice surrounded by water.”

It's hard to believe any such theories are ever taken seriously. Yet they often are. Why? Why is it so incredibly hard for some to believe the obvious -- a miracle took place?

As a graduate student I once attended a debate hosted by a Christian student group on the subject of whether God existed. During the debate, the theist made much of the assertion that Jesus' tomb was empty. This, he claimed, was a strong piece of evidence in favor of the resurrection.

The atheist, who was a philosophy professor at Dartmouth (where I went to grad school), replied roughly as follows: “But let's suppose my opponent is right. Suppose that Jesus' body was placed in the tomb and then three days later the tomb as empty. Then we have two choices. We can either believe that roughly two thousand years ago one particular dead body behaved in ways no dead body before or since has ever behaved. Or we can believe that somebody moved the body.”

I don't understand a person who could seriously say that a two thousand year old account of a man walking on water is best explained by the assumption that a man really did walk on water.

Creech isn't finished:

Moreover, apologist Josh McDowell writes: “[W]e must remember that scientific laws neither dictate events nor do they explain them. They are merely a generalization about observable causes and effects .... The proper way of determining if something happened is not whether we can explain it. The first question to be asked is not can it happen, but rather did it happen .... If an event can be determined as having happened, yet it defies explanation, we still have to admit that it happened, explanation or not. The evidence for biblical miracles is as powerful historically as other historical events (such as the fall of Rome and the conquests of Alexander the Great). Just because miracles are outside our normal daily experience does not mean they have not occurred and do not occur.”

Still another reason why some people have a hard time accepting the miracles described in the Bible is because they compare them to Greek and Roman mythology -- tales of pagan miracle accounts that are clearly superstition. The difference, however, between the miraculous events recorded in the Bible and those in pagan religions are the firsthand accounts. In the Bible, miraculous events are always validated by the testimony of eyewitnesses.

But when a person comes to us with a story that stands in stark defiance of all natural laws as we know them, surely we are entitled to think that the person is mistaken about what he witnessed. A person seeing a magic act for the first time might return with fantastic stories of elephants disappearing from the stage, women being sawed in half, and rabbits appearing in hats that were previously shown to be empty. Something more than an alleged eyewitness account is required if we are to accept such stories, especially when we are separated from the events in question by thousands of years.

For that matter, I routinely see magicians perform feats that I can not explain. Is it just my naturalistic bias that leads me to believe there is a non-miraculous explanation for what I saw? I suspect neither Creech nor McDowell believes that it is.

We skeptics have a saying: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Two thousand year old hearsay testimony doesn't count.

Lerner on Scientism

Via P. Z. Myers I came across this essay, from The Nation, by Rabbi Michael Lerner. The good Rabbi makes the familiar argument that the electoral problems faced by liberals and progressives stem from the antics of mean old secular relgion-haters. They scare away religious people who might otherwise care about basic social justice and vote accordingly, you see.

Lerner writes:

In my research on the psychodynamics of American society I discovered that the left's hostility to religion is one of the main reasons people who otherwise might be involved with progressive politics get turned off. So it becomes important to ask why.

I suspect that Lerner's psychodynamical reasearch consists mostly of anecdotal evidence. But more to the point is that Lerner's assertion paints a very dim picture of religious believers.

To see how ridiculous his claim is, simply turn it around. If an atheist in the nineteen sixties argued that he would like to be involved in the civil rights movement, but he's turned off by the role that churches are playing within it, no one would be sympathetic to him. Likewise for Lerner's religious believers. He's effectively saying that it's the fault of atheists and secularists that more religious people can't be moved to fight for basic social justice. It is possible that this claim is true (though I'd like to see some evidence for it). But if it is true it reflects very badly on religious believrs.

But that's just a warm-up. Lerner's real point is to wag his finger and yell J'accuse! You secularists think your soooooo rational and unemotional. Well, take this:

Science, however, is not the same as scientism--the belief that the only things that are real or can be known are those that can be empirically observed and measured. As a religious person, I don't rely on science to tell me what is right and wrong or what love means or why my life is important. I understand that such questions cannot be answered through empirical observations. Claims about God, ethics, beauty and any other face of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification--all these spiritual dimensions of life--are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence meaningless.

Scientism thus extends far beyond an understanding and appreciation of the role of science in society. It has become the religion of the secular consciousness. Why do I say it's a religion? Because it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other belief system. The view that that which is real and knowable is that which can be empirically verified or measured is a view that itself cannot be empirically measured or verified and thus by its own criterion is unreal or unknowable. It is a religious belief system with powerful adherents. Spiritual progressives therefore insist on the importance of distinguishing between our strong support for science and our opposition to scientism.

If Lerner scoured the Earth I suspect he'd be unable to find even one person who accepts scientism the way he describes it. Absolutely no one believes that only things that can be empirically observed (as opposed to unemprically observed?) and measured are real. In fact, scientists seem pretty solidly united behind the idea that science has little directly to tell us about morality and ethics (thought it can bring to light facts that might be relevant in answering moral questions.)

Om the other hand, truth claims have to be defended on some basis, and if Lerner can't provide any actual evidence for his relgious beliefs that surely it is unreasonable for him to expect the rest of us to take them seriously. And if he further agures that his religious beliefs are in some way relevant to setting the publi policy of the country, then we have the right to actively oppose him.

Now let's see if we can help Lerner out. He's trying real hard, but doggone it, he just can't seem to figure out why secularists are so hostile to religion. The best explanation he can come up with is that they are in thrall to an absurd worldview that no one actually believes. I mean, what else can it be?

Let me suggest that secular hostility to religion comes from exactly one cause: The various truth claims made by Lerner and his fellow theists have no rational foundation at all. The assertions they make about God and His will have no more basis in fact than a child's beliefs about the monster in his closet.

That's it! That's the reason. Nothing more complicated than that. Lerner even tacitly concedes this, by lumping God's existence in with other areas he believes are not open to empirical investigation. Doing so allows him to sidestep the unoleasnt fact that there is ample reason for rejecting the idea that the world is superintended by an all-powerful, all-loving God (the problem of evil).

Lerner blathers on at great length about people's spiritual needs, even preposterously arguing that it is the Democrats and the left that have become too enamored of the view that all concerns are economic. Democrats understand perfectly well that people have spiritual needs, they simply reject the idea that the political system is the proper venue for satisfying them. It is not the job of government to attend to whatever religious needs people are said to have. Rather, the government should be providing the environment in which people are free to attrend to their own needs in whatever way they see fit.

Near the end of his essay lerner offers this:

I don't mean that the secular left ought to give up its secularism. I am not suggesting that a secularist should convert to some particular religion in order to garner popularity and win votes. What I do mean is that a leftist secularist ought to approach other belief systems with a greater spirit of humility, recognizing that secularism is one possible answer among many to the question of how to understand the universe and how to live one's life. Secularism is not “the rational approach” but “a rational approach” among other rational approaches. To be effective, a social change movement will need to make a place for everyone who shares the same political values, even though they may belong to different religious traditions or hold different philosophical positions. Speaking from a religious perspective should be normal in political meetings or at public events sponsored by the left--and the left should work as hard to create an inclusive feel for this as it does to include any other constituency.

For some reason I'm reminded of Stephen Colbert's line: I know the Pope's infallible, but that doesn't mean he can't make mistakes.

First of all, Lerner is unfairly conflating secularism with atheism. In a political context, secularism is effectively equivalent to the separation of church and state. That is a principle all religious people should be able to get behind. Secularism is not a statement about how to understand the universe.

Secondly, by his own admission God belief is not rational. Not if by rational you mean, “based on sound lines of evidence equally available to everyone.” By what possible definition of “rational” does it make sense to say that the world is run by an all-powerful, all-loving God who wants us to do certain specific things, and we know this because an ancient holy book tells us so?

Next, elsewhere in the essay Lerner implies that he supports the separation of church and state. If he really believes this, then he should also recognize that people's religious beliefs have no relevance to public policy. Consequently, casting policy discussions in religious terms makes no sense. If I walked into a church meeting and started giving a lecture on mathematics, no one there would take kindly to it. Would that mean that the church is hostile to mathematicians? It is not excluding religious people to say that the minutiae of their beliefs is not relevant to questions of public policy.

There are many liberals who are not fond of religious belief (I am one of them). There are many others, like Lerner, who are not fond of atheism. That really shouldn't be of any relevance in the fight for social justice, or in the fight for people to be free of government intrusion in their daily lives. It's that simple. Instead of trying to blame others for the failure of religious liberals to do their part in supporting liberal and progressive candidates, he should be chastising his own flock for being “turned off” by the thought of having to share space with people who don't share their religious beliefs.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Intercessory Prayer

In Tuesday's post I responded to an op-ed by Episcopal priest Raymond Lawrence on the subject of the recently completed study on intercessory prayer. The study showed that such prayer had no positive impact on the recoveries of recent bypass patients. Lawrence argued that this was welcome news for sincerely religious people, since the whole idea of intercessory prayer was theologically suspect.

One point I made in reply was that Lawrence can talk all he wants about how “credible theologians” (his phrase) think about intercessory prayer, but virtually every religious group of any influence in our society was perfectly happy to promote prior, discredited studies claiming to establish its benefits.

Charles Colson's website Breakpoint has just provided a useful case in point. Consider this commentary, from Breakpoint contirbutor Mark Earley, on the subject:

Naturally, some observers were delighted at the results. They think the study proves conclusively that prayer doesn’t work, and it’s time for men of science to “stop dabbling in the supernatural,” as one academic put it.

But wait a minute. The researchers acknowledged that they could not control for the fact that many “unauthorized” people may have interceded for loved ones in the so-called “unprayed-for” group. And plenty of other studies indicate that intercessory prayer does have an impact. (Emphasis in original)

Lawrence's op-ed argued that the interest in prayer studies seemed to come entirely from scientists, and that this was evidence of their arrogance and lack of recognition of their proper place. But it is not people like Lawrence and his cadre of “credible theologians” who advise the modern Republican party. It is not the moderates who have the ear of the President, or control of numerous Southern and Midwestern state houses. It is people like Colson, and groups like Breakpoint, that set the terms of religious discussion in this country. And they do not share Lawrence's dim view of intercessory prayer.

Incidentally, when I wrote Tuesday's post I was unaware that the funding for this study came from the Templeton Foundation, which devotes itself to projects aimed at reconciling science and religion. It wasn't some arrogant, scientific society that put up the money. You can be sure the Templeton folks were hoping for a different result.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

More Transitional Forms

Thursdays are busy days for me, so I'm afraid I'll have to blog and run. Check out this article from today's New York Times:

In following the fossil tracks of human evolution, scientists have for years searched for links between Australopithecus, the kin of the famous “Lucy” skeleton, and even earlier possible ancestors. Now, they think they have found some connections in Ethiopia.

An international team of paleontologists is reporting the discovery of transitional species superimposed in sediments in the neighborhood of a single site. The findings appear today in the journal Nature.

Tim D. White, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was a team leader, and his colleagues said the 4.1-million-year-old fossils were anatomically intermediate between the earlier species Ardipithecus ramidus and the later species Australopithecus afarensis, the Lucy family. The newfound bones and teeth are the earliest remains of the most primitive Australopithecus, known as anamensis.

I love it. The ID folks boast about their fruitful scientific reasearch program, but spend most of their time desperately trying to prop up the same bad arguments they were making a decade ago. Scientists, meanwhile, seem to make significant discoveries on almost a daily basis.