Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

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October 25, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

This is the fifth installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.

The fourth straw man I want to look at in this series is the claim that religion represents a fossilized set of ideas that only reluctantly change in the face of overwhelming pressure from science. This straw man has two faces: 1) the claim that religion does not and indeed cannot change on its own; and 2) the claim that forcing religion to change represents some kind of “triumph” of science over religion.

I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world. Galileo and Darwin showed this only too clearly, even if it is completely lost on Ken Ham and Al Mohler. If it were not for science we would still be living on a globe we thought was flat, stationary, and 6000 years old. Kudos to science for trumping religion on those claims. But the ongoing progress of science doesn’t just trump religious ideas; it also trumps other scientific ideas.

In the first part of the 20th century Einstein dethroned Newton in ways that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier. But discovering that the venerable Newton got a few things wrong was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that a secure and settled science had been in error for more than two centuries. Einstein’s revolution was a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Such unambiguous leaps forward are rarely considered to be damning judgments on the ideas being set aside. And few scientists would say that the overturning of past ideas automatically renders current ideas suspect, since they may meet the same fate.

But is there not a strange double standard here? Theology and biblical studies move forward as well in dramatic and revolutionary ways but New Atheist critics dismiss this progress because it is not acknowledged by lay people on Main Street or in intellectual backwaters like those where Al Mohler and Ken Ham paddle about. This is a gigantic blind spot for people like Richard Dawkins, on par with failing to acknowledge that electricity has changed the world in some important ways just because there are some villages in Tibet go without it.

In The God Delusion Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities. But who believes in this deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God.

Traditional religious views on slavery, women, and divorce have all changed dramatically, and in response to theological, moral and ethical reflection—not scientific advances. The old views still circulate on Main Street, but then so do Newton’s old ideas about motion. Two hundred years ago many, if not most, Christians in America believed that slavery was a part of God’s ordained social order. Now almost none of them believe this. And this revolution in thought was generated largely from within by informed Christian abolitionists.

How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on Main Street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed? To insist that the authentically religious are defined by their inability to move out of the past is to create a straw man.

I am not equating scientific and theological progress. They are very different enterprises. Christianity is rooted in unique historical events that were recorded by the early church as they tried to make sense of their encounters with the risen Christ. This was a unique and mysterious event that will never be “understood” within the explanatory framework of science.

Theologians from the first century into the present have reflected on the meaning of this defining event. Christianity is anchored, in many ways, to this history that constrains change. But Christianity as a religious tradition also involves an ongoing conversation with a changing larger world, an internal dialog constantly being refreshed, and continual reflection on the received wisdom. This conversation is dynamic and, like the scientific conversation, important changes occur from time to time.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Rich - #37880

November 1st 2010

Martin:

Jesus proof-texted every bit as shamelessly as his rabbinic opponents.  And I don’t mean that as a criticism of Jesus.  It was standard controversial practice of the day.  Jesus, according to Trinitarian doctrine, was wholly God and wholly man; the “wholly man” part is generally forgotten or downplayed by fundamentalists.  Being “wholly man” he would have learned the rabbinic way of interpreting and arguing.  It was nothing like the modern, scholarly way.  It was pragmatic, homiletical, ad hoc, and adjusted to particular local controversies.  Jesus, Paul, the Pharisees, and the whole lot of them would flunk any modern program in Hebrew Bible, for proof-texting and in general for employing highly subjective and internally inconsistent principles of exegesis.  So I’m not denying Jesus’s authority by questioning his rhetorical tactics.  His authority, to me, lies in his discussions of the Kingdom of God.  If I had been a Jew in his day, I would have followed him everywhere with the crowds, hungering for his words on that subject.  But my real heresy in your eyes is that I accord second-rate status to the spiritual mediocrities who appear in, or wrote, the rest of the NT, outside of the Gospels.  I plead guilty.


Rich - #37883

November 1st 2010

Ray:

I’m not trying to get you to admit that the designer of life on earth is God, rather than aliens.  I’m trying to determine whether you admit that a design inference from biological nature is in principle possible.  If you admit that, then you’re in my mind much less dogmatic than 90% of the leadership of the TE/EC movement.

However, it now sounds as if, while you would accept aliens, you would go out of your intellectual way (by appealing to highly speculative [and probably forever entirely untestable] multiverse theory) to avoid granting that the designer might be God.  So you are more open-minded than most TE/EC people, who deny design detectability in biology outright, but more narrow-minded than ID people, who keep all options open.

P.S., I’d think Bible verses in outer space were a hoax, too.  I think God wanted us to discover the causes of biological and cosmic order by using our reason (including design inferences).  If he wanted to convince us by a cheap gimmick like Bible verses, he could do it more effectively by having them appear in everyone’s Alpha-Bits (in transliteration, of course—unless there is a Hebrew version of the cereal).


Gregory - #37884

November 1st 2010

“I’ll take members of the NAS over the average American any day of the week and on almost any topic (maybe not NASCAR.)” - Ray

That may be. But I’d take members of the Artist’s Guild instead of members of the NAS, since you refer to the ‘elite class.’

I didn’t say ‘you’d find God.’

Re: my reference to Miller @ not dipping deep enough to find balance & harmony between science, philosophy & religion. You seem to suggest this is not possible because one simply has to start somewhere first - the physical. One cannot start with their feet, body &/or heart in all three spheres at the same time!

Or could they?

If science is defending or promoting atheism, then it is not itself ‘science,’ in self-reference, but rather ideology. It has ‘restricted the space of the person’s exploration.’ They’ve said ‘not going there’ to a particular sub-field, topic or even vast realm of knowledge, such as philosophy, theology &/or religious studies. But do you realise what people would gain in a rel. studies class?

“monotheism only a slight majority” ... in the world - Ray

Monotheism accounts for more than 60%, perhaps more like 65-70%, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, & many Folk religions also.


penman - #37885

November 1st 2010

Rich - #37870

“Ray: I’m glad you’ve admitted that the design inference in that hypothetical case is valid.  I guess it takes an atheist to be honest about it.  On other threads, I haven’t seen a TE/EC person grant it yet.”

I’ll be the first, then, Rich. I can’t see anything wrong with the design inference in the scenario cited. And if other ECs won’t admit it, I’d like to know why.

I have a question. No doubt this is dealt with in ID literature, but time is short, energy is limited, & I have too many other things to do - so I’ll ask the question here. (I have more respect for any response from Rich than ploughing thru material by writers I know nothing of.) In the realm of nature, how would you define design? And what counts as evidence for it?

Succinct response awaited & appreciated…


Rich - #37901

November 1st 2010

penman:

Hope this is succinct: 

I’m not claiming that anyone has “proved” design in living nature.  In fact, I’m told by many here that science can’t “prove” things.  But if science can’t “prove” things, at least it can make the case that one explanation is better than others, i.e., fits more of the facts and leaves out fewer of the facts.

Here’s what I see in living nature: the apparently purposeful arrangment of parts.  Now for Dawkins the stress is on “apparently.”  The parts function well together, but there was no design in their coming together.  They come together by chance, aided by natural selection.  Evolution thus mimics design, and achieves the same results.

I think that we can measure the design-mimicking powers of nature in terms of probability.  What is the probability that configuration X would come together via random mutations aided by natural selection?  If the probability is high, then it will be impossible to distinguish apparent purpose from real purpose.  If the probability is microscopically low, then it’s very likely that the apparent purpose reflects real purpose, i.e., intelligent design.  This is why I keep asking for numbers, but no Darwinian here will provide them.


Ray - #37909

November 1st 2010

Rich

The probability calculation you’re talking about may be possible in principle, but you’re not going to get any useful numbers in practice. But let’s examine the principle.

“What is the probability that configuration X would come together via random mutations aided by natural selection? ... If the probability is microscopically low, then it’s very likely that the apparent purpose reflects real purpose”

This is wrong. You’re leaving out two out of three terms in Bayes’ Law. (I’m rearranging the law somewhat here, but) If the prior probability of a designer or the probability of configuration X given a designer is even more microscopically low, then design is overwhelmingly unlikely. I’ve never seen ID proponents make a more serious attempt at estimating the last two terms than “it’s got to be between zero and one. Let’s guess 1/2” Furthermore, their estimation of the first term is invariably flawed—either relying on the deck of cards fallacy (what’s the probability they were shuffled into exactly that order: 1/52!. That would never happen.) or making a dubious assumption like the assumption that evolution in higher mammals requires mutations that are beneficial together but deleterious individually.


Deepak Shetty - #37917

November 1st 2010

@Ray
“This is granting too much if you ask me. “
Well sure , hence the asterisk in prove. The problem is that science is no good in verifying a once only event after the fact. Suppose that Jesus was indeed born of a virgin - How would we ever be able to prove it ? You can’t - not now anyway - if the tools had existed then we could have atleast verified some things. Yes obviously you can assign probabilities(Hitchens comment comes to mind) and yes I dont believe in any of the virginity stuff but I cant prove it


Deepak Shetty - #37919

November 1st 2010

@Sy
Travel has meant I couldnt respond to your comments. However since one of the questions you frame is symptomatic I hope you are still reading.

“I neither oppose it, nor strongly support it, I dont feel it is a moral issue”
Then your morals haven’t really developed. People are being harmed due to other people’s religious beliefs. Do you not see this as a moral issue.? You can take any form of discrimination and apply your response to it and see why its morally wrong.
The fact that your parents might have been dogmatic in their teachings does not mean it was right or that other religions are justified in the same behavior. The question is simply whether you condone indoctrinating your kids (which i define as suppressing alternatives or unfairly biasing views against other religions). I chose two simple examples because these are common. if I knew you I might have chosen differently.
And since Im reaching the limit Ill address your question in the next message


Deepak Shetty - #37921

November 1st 2010

@sy
“If a believing Christian…what is your problem with him if he believes in the virgin birth and the resurrection? “
So assuming all of your other statements about this Christian , and also assuming that the Christian is on the right side (as defined by me) on social issues (e.g. how would said christian react if his son/daughter wanted to marry a muslim/hindu/atheist or whether religion is a factor in how he votes) - then yes I have absolutely no problem in what else he believes (And I can prove it) and I would usually not initiate a your beliefs are crazy statement.
I might not go and tell this Christian he’s wrong . But what if he tells me that i havent seen the light? That I havent seen the redeeming power of Christ’s love? I will argue of course. And there’s also this thing called truth - Its one of the chief differences between a non believer and a believer - A non believer wants to know , a believer is content in his belief. For e.g. How would you find out if prayer worked (Have you already started framing your answer as why science can’t ever answer this question?). Also the inconsistency. Jesus Virgin Birth no problem. Krishna virgin birth? Ah these polytheists - they go to hell anyway


Deepak Shetty - #37923

November 1st 2010

@Sy
“What I am asking you is what is your real agenda? To defend science and evolution from the attacks of creationists, or to attack Christianity?”
Im not a scientist and the acceptance of evolution is a symptom of the problem, it isn’t the only problem. For me (and my views are colored having stayed in india for awhile) the problem is really two fold
a. Superstition and strongly held irrational beliefs causing havoc, not just in science but also socially. this is why even a harmless belief that Jesus was born of a virgin is still contested. If I let this pass without comment I have to let other equally silly beliefs pass without comment.

b. That religion , just like race,gender,nationality is something humans use to divide themselves into groups. reducing the influence of religion then seems to reduce this just a little bit. And satire, sarcasm and demonstrating the silliness of religion is then a worthy cause.

And yes a couple of questions and some sarcastic remarks is attacking Christianity. Isnt 2000 years enough to get out of this victim complex?


Rich - #37945

November 1st 2010

Ray:

You should be careful before saying without qualification that someone is wrong.

Your objection misfires.  I don’t need to calculate the prior probability of the existence of God, because I’m not trying to calculate the probability that life arose, or that a particular species evolved, due to the action of some unknown designer.  I’m trying to calculate (or, to be more precise, asking for data which would enable someone to calculate) the probability that life would arise via unguided “chemical evolution” or that a particular species would arise via neo-Darwinian processes (which are by definition unguided, if you accept the original intention of Darwin and the classic neo-Darwinians, rather than the muddy version of Darwinism offered by current TE).

If the probability of a whale’s having originated from an artiodactyl by unguided mutations and natural selection within 9 million years is, say, 1 in 10^50, then it would be irrational for a scientist to insist that it must have happened that way.  There would be a strong reason for considering the possibility of design.  Only someone who arbitrarily rules out design explanations—i.e., an atheist—would not at that point consider them.


Rich - #37948

November 1st 2010

Ray:

As for your last two sentences, they pertain to the details of how the probability is calculated, not to the general line of argument I am making.  If you look carefully at the context, my argument is:  “*If* the probability of transition X, granting Darwinian causality alone, falls below level Y, then it is very unlikely that Darwinian causality alone was operating.”  You can argue about the assumptions and numbers involved in any particular calculation, but that does not affect the logical soundness of my overall approach.

Remember, he who advocates a scientific theory is the one who has the obligation to provide testable models with testable numbers.  If the promulgator of the theory makes it so vague and general that it’s impossible to test, it’s ridiculous to put the onus on the skeptic who questions the theory.  If you think an artiodactyl can have become a whale within 9 million years, let’s see your model for the series of changes, and let’s see your proposed numbers (morphological changes, mutations, generations, litter size, etc.).  If you won’t or can’t provide such a model or such numbers, you have no cause to complain when someone expresses less than perfect confidence in your claim.


Ray - #37987

November 1st 2010

Rich

I suspect this is futile, but I’ll give this one more try:

“*If* the probability of transition X, granting Darwinian causality alone, falls below level Y, then it is very unlikely that Darwinian causality alone was operating.” “

Ok. But there’s no way to figure out Y without knowing the prior probabilities of the alternatives to “Darwinian causality alone” and the probability of X given said alternatives. Expect all the probabilities involved to be quite low, though. Darwinian evolution has a nonrandom component, but there’s plenty of randomness. Because of this, if you define your transition narrowly enough you end up in the same situation as the deck of cards. Whatever order you get, the odds of it given a fair shuffle are 1 in 8x10^67. Doesn’t mean the shuffle wasn’t fair.

Anyway, you’re overthinking this. In science we use approximate models all the time, because it’s a lot easier to figure out something is negligible than to calculate just how negligible it is. Given the wealth of features of life on earth explained by evolution, the lack of features explained by anything else, and the total lack of evidence for anything capable of serving as a designer, the possibility of design is negligible.


Ray - #37997

November 1st 2010

Also Rich,

Just so you see how unreasonable your questions are I will give a few equivalents:

How sure are you Julius Caesar existed, was dictator of Rome, and died on the ides of March? (pretty sure I hope)
Can you calculate the probability, given no involvement from the Roman pantheon, that his parents would have named him Gaius Julius and he would have gone on to be dictator of Rome and be assassinated march 15, 44bc given what we know about them? (Pretty hard, huh, and I bet if you do anything plausible, you’ll get a pretty low number.)

Does this prove that Caesar really was Divi Filius as his successors claimed he was?


Rich - #38022

November 1st 2010

Ray:

Your argument in 37997 is irrelevant.

We know from historical records that Julius Caesar existed.  You don’t use probability theory to calculate events that have already happened; they obviously have a probability of 1.  (If it’s raining outside, the probability of precipitation is 1.)

We don’t know that an artiodactyl became a whale by neo-Darwinian processes.  It’s hypothetical, an inference.  And we can’t get into a time machine and watch it happen.  The best we can do is estimate the probability of its happening based on the assumptions the Darwinians themselves provide.  You want to block this enterprise of calculating the probability.  Why, other than that you suspect it would come out very low, much lower than any value we would use as a basis for action in any decision of daily life?  Why don’t you want the world to know how low the probability is?  Wouldn’t have anything to do with your prior commitment to atheism, would it?


Rich - #38024

November 1st 2010

Ray:

Rich: ”*If* the probability of transition X, granting Darwinian causality alone, falls below level Y, then it is very unlikely that Darwinian causality alone was operating.” “

Ray:  “Ok. But there’s no way to figure out Y without knowing the prior probabilities of the alternatives to “Darwinian causality alone” and the probability of X given said alternatives.”

Not true.  If the neo-Darwinian model weren’t so scientifically thin, and so devoid of empirically confirmed content, it would be possible to specify how many morphological changes were needed, how many mutations were likely to occur, how many would likely be non-dangerous, how many offspring per generation, how many would die before reaching reproductive age, how many generations, etc.  One should in principle be able to come up with the probability that an artiodactyl would yield a whale via neo-Darwinian processes within 9 million years without dealing with the probability of alternative processes at all.  If this can’t be done, it’s because neo-Darwinism has inadequate knowledge of the processes it alleges, and therefore inadequate data.  In that case it should drop its tones of certainty and assume the more humble air of a speculation.


Ray - #38036

November 1st 2010

Rich

Look. I’m no biologist, so I’m not really the right person to challenge on this.  I do know of a few cases where aspects of evolution have been quantitatively analyzed under reasonable assumptions: the origin of the genetic code, the evolution of the eye, Lenski’s experiments with e coli, and of course measured mutation rates, molecular clocks, selection coefficients etc. All are consistent with a naturalistic understanding of evolution, but I doubt you will accept it as good enough. Frankly, if the fossils don’t already tell you whales evolved from terrestrial Artiodactyls in Pakistan around 40 million years ago, there’s no help for you.

What I do have, however, is degrees in Math and Physics. My physics training helps me appreciate just how little complexity is needed for quantitative calculation to become intractable—it’s amazing the biologists can calculate as much as they do. My math training allows me to spot the elementary errors in probability theory that all the major ID proponents routinely make. My training also tells me you don’t know squat about probability theory.  Sorry, you seem like a nice guy when you aren’t trying to push ID, but please,  learn some math. Seriously.


Ray - #38040

November 2nd 2010

Also. Prior commitment to atheism? I already said I considered aliens mucking with our genome more likely that gods. I think the design arguments presented by Behe et al are so weak that they don’t even make me think that aliens mucking with our genome in the past is remotely plausible. Is that due to my prior commitment to not believing in alien visitation?


Rich - #38043

November 2nd 2010

Ray:

Having studied Math doesn’t make you a probability theorist, unless you have specialized in that area.  Majors in Math (at least at my university) weren’t required to take probability theory beyond second year, if they weren’t going to specialize in it.  In fact I studied probability theory three years in a row.  So don’t make assumptions.

I went to university on a science scholarship.  And I went decades ago, before grade inflation, when high grades were much tougher to get than they are now.  It’s quite possible I was a better high school math student than you were.  I also took 18 semester hours of Math at university.  Again, don’t make assumptions. 

Dembski has two Ph.D.s in probability theory.  It is unlikely that you have anything to teach him about the subject.

I would expect that your apparent lack of knowledge of evolutionary theory is at least as serious a drawback to our discussion as my alleged lack of math.

If the probability calculations for evolutionary change are intractable, then so much the worse for neo-Darwinism.  That’s not my problem; I’m not the one pushing an unquantifiable theory as fact.


Rich - #38046

November 2nd 2010

Ray:

“Frankly, if the fossils don’t already tell you whales evolved from terrestrial Artiodactyls in Pakistan around 40 million years ago, there’s no help for you.”

You may have studied Math and Physics, but, to use your vulgar phrase, you don’t appear to know “squat” about philosophy (your references to Aristotle—whom I’ve read in Greek—notwithstanding).  No one with any serious training in philosophy could possibly commit the *non sequitur* of affirming that a gradation of forms automatically implies a historical relationship.

Lenski’s experiments have shown very little in the way of serious macroevolution.  And molecular clocks are based on the assumption that neo-Darwinism is true, so any reasoning based on them to prove neo-Darwinism is circular.

You’re ducking the question of God.  Yet it’s plain that your aversion to the idea of God is guiding the way you interpret the evidence.  In that you are just like Coyne and Dawkins and P. Z. Myers.  You’d rather entertain the utterly unempirical fantasy of multiverses than contemplate the G-word.  Your claim to objectivity is thus not credible.

I recommend the works of David Klinghoffer.  They might awaken some ancestral memories.


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