Thursday, August 26, 2004

But They're Not Making a Habit of It

Sadly, Fischer's column is a lonely exception to the unceasing deluge of stupidity that provides Breakpoint's normal fare. In this column, devoted to the question of how we can be certain the Gospel is true, T.M. Moore uncorks one of the daffiest paragraphs I've read in a long time:

But why should we accept logical compulsion or experimental repeatability as criteria for truth? After all, are these not the very criteria for truth that postmodern critics are eager to throw overboard? Such criteria for proof of truth, having had nearly three centuries to make their case for a better world, have failed to meet this most important qualification. The modernist worldview, with its truth criteria of logic and demonstration, reason and science, has not made the world better, except, perhaps, in the grossest of material terms. Rather, it has given birth to more immorality, inhumanity, and savaging of the environment than any previous era. Why should we, who proclaim a Gospel of peace and newness, be any more willing to embrace such criteria as validaters of truth than our skeptical postmodern neighbors are?

Let's break this down:

  • But why should we accept logical compulsion or experimental repeatability as criteria for truth? In other words, why should we go through the bother of gathering evidence and drawing sound inferences from that evidence when it is so much easier to just believe whatver the hell we want? I mean, is Moore seriously suggesting that assertions provable in the mathematical or scientific sense should not be regarded as true?

  • After all, are these not the very criteria for truth that postmodern critics are eager to throw overboard? When did postmodern critics become so respectable in Christian circles? Or any circles for that matter.

  • Such criteria for proof of truth, having had nearly three centuries to make their case for a better world, have failed to meet this most important qualification. Is this English? The most important qualification for criteria for proof of truth is that they make a case for a better world? How do criteria for proof of truth go about making a case for anything?

  • The modernist worldview, with its truth criteria of logic and demonstration, reason and science, has not made the world better, except, perhaps, in the grossest of material terms. Making the world better in gross material terms is nothing to sneeze at. Somehow I don't think Moore would be willing to give up a single one of the technological contrivances that make our day-to-day lives far more pleasant today than they were for any prescientific people. I think Moore's point here is that science and reason do little to improve humanity's spiritual condition or collecitve sense of morality. Since science addresses “is” and not “ought”, this is rather like criticizing a hammer for doing a bad job of sawing wood.

  • Rather, it has given birth to more immorality, inhumanity, and savaging of the environment than any previous era. Pure nonsense. There is no more immorality or inhumanity in the modern world than in previous eras. With more people living in relatively free soceities than in any previous era there is probably less. Rather, modern technology has made it possible for small groups of people to commit acts of immorality and inhumanity on a greater scale than ever before. But is Moore actually arguing that if prescientific people had access to the ame weapons that exist today, they would have hesitated to use them? The purveyors of the Inquisition and the crusades managed to be fantastically cruel and inhumane with the primitive weapons they had at their disposal. Would they have hesitated to use nuclear weapons if they had access to them?

  • Why should we, who proclaim a Gospel of peace and newness, be any more willing to embrace such criteria as validaters of truth than our skeptical postmodern neighbors are? Because you're perfectly willing to benefit from the fruits of those criteria, most notably the technological improvements and medical progress. Because no other set of criteria has ever proven themselves trustworthy for distinguishing between hard reality and comforting fairy tales.

So what criteria for proof of truth does Moore prefer?

Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ reaches the heart of people with power to renew them in love for God and one another. The truth of the Gospel, abiding deep within our souls, must prove its validity in the ways we show the love of Christ to a watching world. Let our highest priority as the followers of Christ be to grow in love for God, for one another, and for our neighbors as ourselves. Let the motivating force of all our labors in developing a Biblical worldview be love for God and others.

Personally, I feel cheated. I think Moore is saying that non-Christians should become convinced of the truth of the Gospel by observing the behavior of Christians and seeing something they want. That might provide an argument for why non-Christians would want to live like their Christian neighbors, but what has that to do with whether the truth claims of the Bible are actually true? And if this is really the standard by which the validity of Biblical claims should be assessed, then why do Christians spent so much time writing books about defending the faith? The entire field of Christian apologetics is dominated by arguments based on precisely the criteria for proof of truth that Moore sneers at. Is he saying that all of this work is on the worng track?

Wow! Something Sensible from Breakpoint!

Charles Colson's website Breakpoint comes in for a lot of abuse at this blog. But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, even the religious right finds itself unable to be wrong all the time. Here's Breakpoint columnist John Fischer reminding everyone that “Christian” should not be considered synonymous with “Republican”

On one level, it would appear to be a no-brainer. With an incumbent born-again President who has devotions every morning, is fighting evil on foreign soil, is against abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research . . . is there even a discussion? To many Christians, it would be nothing short of heresy not vote for the Republican ticket.

And yet there are Christians in this country who think differently about the war in Iraq—who wonder if the best way to defeat Islamic militants is to wage jihad, who care about the poor and about increasing programs to help the disenfranchised who care about the environment because of a mandate as old as Adam, and who wonder, as the other candidate has questioned, “Is God on our side, or are we on His?”

Yes, we are polarized as a nation, but I don’t think you can group all the Christians together on one pole, and hopefully this will teach us all something about politics. You can never draw a straight line from biblical truth to one political party’s platform. Political parties do not align themselves biblically. Politics is all about compromise, and compromise and the truth mix about as well as oil and water.

Preach it, brother.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Hunter, Part 3

I will now continue my analysis of Cornelius Hunter's essay from William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent.

In the first two installments of this series (available here and here), I analyzed Hunter's arguments concerning the fossil record and the genetic code. In this, final, essay, I will discuss some of his comments about homology.

Before getting to that, let's first consider Hunter's discussion of vestigial organs:

Regarding the so-called vestigial organs, the rule-of-thumb is that sooner or later a function will be found. Robert Wiedersheim listed 86 organs in the human body that he supposed to be useless leftovers of evolution. Today, we have found functions for virtually all of them. And what about those whale bones that are thought to be vestigial? It may well be that they support the whale's reproductive organs. (P. 200)

One could hardly ask for a clearer example of the “vestigial means nonfunctional” fallacy. I addressed this point in this earlier post. Vestigial and nonfunctional are two different things. A vestigial organ is one that does not perform the function we expect it to perform from observing the same structure in other organisms, or an organ that performs a function out of all proportion to its complexity. The sightless eyes of cave-dwellling rodents may perform the function of plugging holes in the animal's head, but they are no less vestigial for that. The non-flying ostrich uses its wings to maintain balance when it is running, but the fact remains that a far less complex structure could perform the same function.

Of greater importance are Hunter's thoughts on homology:

First, there are many striking similarities shared by distinct species. In these cases, the similarities could not have evolved independently. The marsupial-placental convergence is a popular example. Over millions of years and in different corners of the earth, the marsupial and placental lineages, supposedly evolving from a mouse-like species, produced a host of similar designs. Everything from saber-toothed carnivores and wolves to flying squirrels and anteaters were produced independently. From salamanders to cacti we find striking similarites that must have arisen independently. If biology is ruled by contingency rather than necesity, then why do we find duplicated designs? When similarities are found among distant species, they are noted as cases of convergent evolution. Evolution can explain either case, but the explanations presuppose evolution. This is not powerful evidence for the theory. (P. 199-200)

Hunter is fond of the phrase “striking similarities” but it is not clear to me what it actually means. Biologists usually make a distinction between homologous characters and analogous characters; the former are the ones that are most plausibly explained via common descent. Hunter is suggesting that biologists are being arbitrary in their determinations about which characters are homologous and which are analogous.

But that is not the case. The determination that a given character is homologous in two different species is not based on some vague description of the two features as similar. Rather, it rests on a host of considerations. Mark Ridley describes many of these in his textbook on evolution. For example, homologous characteristics must have the same fundamental structure. The bone structure of the forelimbs of humans, whales and cats are a good example of this. By contrast, the wings of birds and bats are superficially similar, but their internal structure is quite different. Consequently, these wings are almost certainly analogous. Second, homologies should have the same relations to surrounding characters in both organisms. Finally, homologous features should arise via the same pathway of embryonic development.

By contrast, analogies result from convergent evolution, which is the result of natural selection. Thus, characters that are adaptations to particular environments are more plausibly explained as the result of convergence than characters that are not obviously adaptations. The streamlined shape of whales and fish is an obvious adaptation to a life spent propelling oneself through water. Consequently, convergence is a plausible explanation. On the other hand, the identical bone structure of mammalian forelimbs does not appear to be the result of natural selection crafting similar solutions to similar problems.

Picking up where the last paragraph left off, Hunter discusses the point about embryonic development:

Even the similarities claimed by evolutionists are often ambiguous, for they do not share the same developmental pattern. For example, two closely related species of frog, Rana fusca and Rana esculents, have eye lenses that are similar but they form very differently in embryological development. Did these two similar species evolve their eye lenses independently? There are many such similarites that develop differently or arise from different genes, and they seriosly challenge the claim that they could have arisen through common descent. (P. 200)

I'm afraid frog embryology is a bit far removed from my fields of expertise, but Hunter's argument here is far too vague to be replied to in any case. He points to two different species of frogs and asserts (without providing a reference) that their eye lenses are “similar” despite forming “differently” in embryological development. Sorry, but how similar and how different? Do the lenses of these frogs satisfy the other tests for homology that I described above? How different are their patterns of embryological development. Without this sort of information, it's hard to respond to this assertion.

Hunter also gives some brief consideration to molecular homologies:

Molecular comparisons, in spite of what evolutionists report, are equally ambiguous. It is not surprising that molecular comparisons are generally consistent with morphological comparisons. After all, molecular and morphological features are all part of the same organism. Only the extreme view, that there is no necessity in biology and that contingency is utterly dominant, would so divorce molecules from morphology. Yes, nature does reveal different solutions to similar design problems, but this does not mean that designs are random. If two automobiles are similar in appearance and function, are we surprised when their gears are also similar? Of course not. (P. 200)

Again, this is too vague to be responded to. Consider the structure of hemoglobin in different animal species. Hemoglobin is the molecule responsible for transporting oxygen to the various tissues of the body. That is it's function wherever it is found. It's precise structure varies from species to species, and the pattern of these differences is entirely consistent with the patterns of descent inferred from morphology and paleontology. Thus, human hemoglobin is far more similar to chimpanzee and gorilla hemoglobin than it is to dog hemoglobin, for example. Is Hunter suggetsing that the differences between human and dog hemoglobin are the necessary consequences of the differences in the morphology of humans and dogs? If that is his suggestion, then I'd appreciate it if he'd tell us what that functional necessity is.

I'm also not sure about the point of Hunter's analogy. Presumably the automobiles that are similar in design and function are the different species of animals while the gears are the underlying genes and molecules. But what we're interested in when we speak of molecular evidence for evolution is the pattern of differences in the molecules of multiple species. We are not simply considering the similarities in the molecules between two species.

It is conceivable that there is some deeply concealed functional reason for explaining this pattern of differences. But it is safe to say that no one has a plausible suggestion for what that functional reason might be. It is also safe to say that had these patterns not confirmed the phylogenies arrived at independently of them, it would have been a blow for evolution.

And Hunter doesn't even consider what to my mind is the most compelling sort of molecular evidence for common descent: patterns of similarities in the noncoding portions of the genome. Since these genes do not code for proteins their similarities can not be explained functionally (unless, of course, the noncoding DNA also serves some deeply concealed function that demands very specific sequences of nucleotides). And the sheer quanitity of these similarities makes it implausible to attribute them to chance alone. I can't imagine how you explain these similarities except via common descent.

Ed Brayton provides some additional thoughts on this subject here.

It seems that Hunter's main rhetorical trick is to consider each piece of evidence for evolution independently of the others, and then offer some other non-evolutionary, non-logically-impossible explanation for each piece. Those of his arguments that are not flatly wrong sound more like the wishful thinking of someone who desperately wants evolution to be false than the reasoned arguments of a dedicated truth-seeker.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Plain Truth, Clearly Stated

Back to Kerry and his Vietnam service. You should read this fine article from The American Prospect. It was written by Michael Tomasky. The whole article is excellent (and not terribly long), but I particularly appreciated this fine piece of telling it like it is:

And the larger story here is clear: John Kerry volunteered for the Navy, volunteered to go to Vietnam, and then, when he was sitting around Cam Ranh Bay bored with nothing to do, requested the most dangerous duty a Naval officer could be given. He saved a man's life. He risked his own every time he went up into the Mekong Delta. He did more than his country asked. In fact he didn't even wait for his country to ask.

George W. Bush spent those same years in a state of dissolution at Yale, and would go on, as we know, to plot how to get out of going to Southeast Asia. On that subject, here's a choice quote. “I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment,” Bush told the Dallas Morning News in 1990. “Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.”

Parlor Tricks and Fatal Accidents

Actually, the comment in my previous post about there being a fine line between a parlor trick and a fatal accident reminded me of the time Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer confronted a gentlemen, let's call him Smith, who was claiming that it is some metaphysical power of the mind that makes it possible to walk across fiery hot coals. Smith was charging people a lot of money to go through his course, as a result of which they would be able to fire walk.

Shermer pointed out that, actually, the ability to walk across hot coals is a consequence of some very simple principles of physics (basically, though the coals are themselves very hot, they are very inefficient at transmitting the heat to your feet. As long as you keep moving you'll be okay. Just don't try walking across a comparably hot piece of sheet metal!). To demonstrate his point, Shermer, with no prior training, walked across the coals.

But Smith had an answer. It was still the power of the mind that enabled Shermer to walk across the coals. It was just that instead of having the confidence in his own supernatural ability to withstand the heat of the coals (confidence Smith's training course was supposed to impart), he had confidence in the soundness of his understanding of physics.

To which Shermer replied that, actually, he was scared to death of taking the walk. Basic prinicples of thermodynamics are convincing in a classroom. They are considerably less so when you are actually standing in front of the flaming hot coals in your bare feet.

On the Perils of Swallowing Liquid Nitrogen

On the subject of swallowing toxic items, have a look at this unnerving account of what happens when you swallow liquid nitrogen:

That may have been the point of no return. I, as is traditionally my role, answered that the nitrogen evaporates at the surface of the table, which provides a cushion of air for the drop to sit on, and thermally insulates the drop to minimize further evaporation. So you see a drop dance around without boiling away, and without interacting with the table and getting slowed down or smeared out. Then, I continued... I mentioned that the same principle makes it possible to dip a wet hand into molten lead, or to drink liquid nitrogen without injury.

I had done the latter several years earlier in a cryogenics lab, and remembered the physics behind how it worked. Naturally, people around me were skeptical. “You can't drink the stuff... it'll freeze your whole body... Remember 'Terminator 2?' ” But I was sure of myself. I had done it before, and I believed in the physics behind it. So, naturally, I poured myself a glass and took a shot.

Simple. Swallow. Blow smoke out nose and mouth and impress everyone at the party. Within about two seconds, I had collapsed to the floor, unable to breathe or feel anything other than intense pain. Ambulance arrives. Police arrive. Trip to hospital. Admission. Try to explain to ER staff exactly how something like this happens. Then I pass out. Wake up next morning connected to many machines, some beeping, others performing more important functions like digesting my food and breathing for me.

Later on he explains what went wrong:

Turns out that, in accordance with popular belief, you really should not drink the stuff. I eventually learned a few things about liquid nitrogen. Like... while you can safely put it in your mouth, and blow neat smoke patterns, you should never ever ever swallow. First off, the closing of the epiglottis prevents the nitrogen gas from escaping, so it is forced into your body instead. Second, your esophagus naturally constricts around anything inside it, so, even if there is a thin protective gas layer, the esophagus will find a way to make contact with the liquid nitrogen.

Also turns out that my memory was flawed. When I had done it six years ago, I put it into my mouth and didn't swallow. Over time, that fine line between parlor trick and near fatal accident must have blurred.

Thanks to Pharyngula for providing the link.

Mindless Parrots

For a typical example of the willingness of right-wing hacks to parrot the talking-points handed to them by their superiors, have a look at this bit of inanity from Agape Press columnist David Sisler. I've been able to glean that he prefers Bush to Kerry, but behind that there is almost nothing coherent in the entire thing. Here are a few excerpts:

If you are President Bush, because you chose to serve in the National Guard you are “AWOL” (in the words of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe) or a “deserter” (in the words of Democratic propagandist Michael Moore).

Of course, accusations of desertion or being AWOL have nothing to do with Bush's choice to enter the National Guard. They have to do with his inability to account for his time once having entered.

This comes after a paragraph excoriating Kerry for the Christmas-in-Cambodia non-story. It comes just before the following statment:

I mention the above inequities to raise the question that if President Bush was caught lying about his military service as John Kerry has been caught lying about his (and more revelations may be forthcoming when Unfit For Command gets the close scrutiny it deserves), would it have been dismissed as a simple miscalculation, oh say, in longitude and latitude? Or would the hyenas still be howling?

Every piece of documentary evidence, as well as the testimony of the most credible eyewitnesses (the ones who actually served on the same swift boat as Kerry) backs up Kerry's version of events in Vietnam. On the other hand, the various people who provided quotes for Unfit for Command have been caught in numerous contradictions. Based on this evidence, Sisler feels no shame in calling Kerry a liar, or in implying that Bush was the one who behaved honorably in the late sixties.

This tells you everything you need to know about how the extreme right views questions of military service and patriotism. They view patriotism as equivalent to blind loyalty to the Republican party. Military service is something to be respected only when the veteran in question is a hard right-winger. Conversely, the actions of any prominent conservative are honorable by definition.

That is why Max Cleland can leave three limbs in Vietnam yet still have Republican chicken hawks accuse him of being unpatriotic. When John McCain was a loyal Republican accumulating a solidly conservative voting record, he was admirable and praise worthy. But once he challenged Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000, he became just another enemy. And that is why Kerry, who volunteered for service in Vietnem when he could easily have avoided it and earned several medals for his efforts is treated as loathsome and despicable, while Bush, who used family connections to get a cushy spot in the National Guard and even then showed a distinct lack of committment to his responsibilites there, is presented as honorable.

Sisler continues:

President Bush was -- and still is -- pilloried in the press for declaring an end to the major fighting in Iraq too soon. But John Kerry is “sensitive” when he says that six months after he becomes president, American troops will come home from Iraq and be replaced by foreign troops.

Foreign troops? French troops, Mr. Kerry?

This is just batty. First, what exactly is Sisler implying with that last line? And who described Kerry as “sensitive”? The only thing I can think of is that Sisler is referring to the silliness surrounding Kerry's comment that he would wage a more sensitive war on terror than Bush has (and The Daily Howler has everything you need to know about that bit of silliness here and here), but that issue is far removed from anything Sisler is talking about here.

Sisler is just warming up. He goes on to suggest that Osama Bin Laden wants Kerry to be elected (!!), that Kerry has proposed we retreat from Iraq, and on and on. If you recently swallowed something toxic and find yourself without a handy bottle of ipecac syrup, go have a look.

Blog Schedule

The trip to Kentucky went very well (how could it not!), and as an added bonus the 'rents came down for a visit over the weekend. We spent the weekend puttering around Shenandoah National Park and watching the olympics.

Now that the new school year has started let me remind everyone that I update the blog Sunday-Thursday. I generally do my blogging in the evening. The idea is that if you stop by Monday-Friday you won't miss anything (perish the thought).