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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penman - #38134

November 2nd 2010

Rich - #38122

I’m still unclear what “purposeful” means here.

From a classical theist standpoint, wouldn’t we say that even a single unitary particle was “designed”, though it had no complex relation to any other particle, but just buzzed around? I suppose it was designed in the sense that the mind of God conceived it to be just what it is & to do just what it does. Don’t know if I’ve lost the plot here…


Rich - #38136

November 2nd 2010

Ray:

The sum of the probabilities of all chance and non-chance ways of producing 1,000 sevens must be 1.  If we can calculate the probability of producing 1,000 sevens in a row by chance, and it is extremely low, then the complementary, collective probability of all non-chance explanations must be very close to 1, by simple subtraction.  “Non-chance” would thus be the logical thing to conclude, even if there were several non-chance explanations out there (loaded dice, psychokinesis, etc.).  The *best* that could be said for the chance explanation is that there might be so many non-chance possibilities out there, each with very small probability, that the chance explanation would be, though wildly improbable, less improbable than any of the others.  If that’s what you are talking about, I grant it.  But (a) that still means that non-chance is more likely than chance; and (b) such a situation hardly applies to evolutionary theory.  Basically, you have three options, chance, blind necessity (self-organization), and design (which could be combined with self-organization in some schemes).  If chance explanations are very unlikely, the “best explanation” must be one of the other two, or a combination.


Ray - #38140

November 2nd 2010

@penman

on 1)If you pressed me, I’d guess you were theologically closer to Miller than Behe. I could imagine a theist would give a different answer though. My feeling is that whether evolution is “peppered with miracles” is more likely to be empirically testable in principle (although defining a miracle is itself somewhat problematic.) Hence, it’s kind of hard to tell whether your difference with Miller (or my caricature of him) is real or merely semantic.

on 2) I won’t say much here, except to mention that people like Miller, Ayala, Giberson etc seem to me more driven by this point (and 3 to a lesser extent) than by 1.

on 3) (the big tent’s purpose) If you believe the decision in Kitzmiller v Dover, the entire ID movement was basically invented to circumvent first amendment prohibitions on teaching creationism in schools. From what I know of the case, the evidence is pretty damning. If you want to impute a more benign motive to Behe et al, I suppose they think that if God can’t be proved scientifically, the only option left is atheism, and apparently they think that’s a bad thing.


Ray - #38142

November 2nd 2010

Rich

The sum of the probabilities of all chance and non-chance ways of producing 1,000 sevens must be 1

Sure. If you mean the probabilities, GIVEN you got all those 7s.

If we can calculate the probability of producing 1,000 sevens in a row by chance

That calculation does NOT include the assumption that you already got all those 7s.

You still are confusing p(b|a) with p(a|b), and you didn’t address my second point. Here’s a concrete example to demonstrate why this matters:

What’s the probability I would roll 20 7s in a row with fair dice?

What’s the probability I would roll 6,5,7,8,8,8,8,6,8,10,11,7,3,6,8,6,10, 7,4,5 in a row with fair dice?

Which is higher?

How likely is it that either was produced by http://www.random.org/dice/?

For your answer to the previous question: How do you know?


Rich - #38145

November 2nd 2010

Ray:

“the dubious assumption is the first thing mentioned in the summary below the video. His source is Behe—incestuous lot these ID theorists.”

You’re being careless.  The “summary” was probably not even put there by Sternberg (it’s not his web site the video is on).  The “summary” is in fact not a summary but a list of references to articles that are mostly not on whale evolution and play no role in Sternberg’s lecture; and it’s clearly not a reference list for the lecture, since neither the original Durett and Schmidt article, nor an article by C. Zeyl, from both of which Sternberg took important figures, are listed.

The Durett and Schmidt article criticizes Behe, not Sternberg.  And you conveniently ignore these words from the Abstract:

“In particular, we examine the waiting time for a pair of mutations ... Consistent with recent experimental observations for Drosophila, we find that a few million years is sufficient, but for humans with a much smaller effective population size, this type of change would take > 100 million years.”

Sternberg adjusts this figure for whales.  So either disprove Durett and Schmidt’s figure, or disprove Sternberg’s adjustment; if you can’t do either, yield the point.


Ray - #38146

November 2nd 2010

Of course the rejection of Bayesian statistics isn’t Sternberg’s main problem (although he may suffer from the related confusion of the probability of any old double mutation as opposed to a particular double mutation.) His real problem is that he uses bogus assumptions to figure out how many beneficial double mutations are predicted by neo-darwinian evolution, and uses equally bogus assumptions to figure out how many beneficial double mutations are needed for the whale transition. If he used realistic assumptions that take into account our uncertainty on both beneficial mutation rates (we don’t even know what most genes do, let alone whether they were helpful in nature 40 million years ago), and the number of such mutations involved in the whale transition (We have no genome data for any species alive during the proposed transition. We have some data for modern whales and artiodactyls.) then his 95% confidence intervals for both numbers of mutations (not any easy calculation either) would range over many,many orders of magnitude, and most likely overlap. As I already said, Durrett and Schmidt’s objections cover many more orders of magnitude than Behe or Sternberg is claiming.


Rich - #38147

November 2nd 2010

penman:

It’s not clear to me what you are asking.  You seem to be jumping back and forth between theological and scientific considerations, and I can’t follow the thread of your questioning.  Perhaps you are just trying to think out loud, but I’m not seeing your problem.

The purpose of a structure is not observed, but inferred.  ID does not claim that we can “observe” purpose, but that we can, at least in some circumstances, infer it.  I don’t find this a theoretically abstruse claim.  When you see a bicycle or a movie, you infer that these things were constructed with a purpose, rather than inferring that they came into existence by chance.  The question on the table between ID and Dawkins (with most TEs siding with Dawkins) is whether or not purpose can be inferred in biological systems.  Again, I don’t see that the issue is subtle or esoteric.  We can differ over whether machine analogies are legitimate in biology, but clearly it’s this sort of analogy that ID and atheists/TEs dispute over.

Frankly, I don’t see why theology needs to be brought into the question at all.  Why can’t the adequacy or inadequacy of chance to produce integrated complex systems be discussed as a purely empirical question?


Rich - #38148

November 2nd 2010

Ray:

Since Sternberg hasn’t published his detailed discussion of whale evolution, and you are relying entirely on a 10-minute video, many of the statements you are making about his calculations and his rationale are unfounded.  I suggest you wait until he publishes a full-fledged scholarly argument before saying he’s wrong.

Your discussion of mutations is inadequate.  There have to be hundreds of *combinations* of mutations; “point mutations” very rarely produce new selectable physiological features by themselves.  Thus, the probablistic case is much worse than Sternberg is indicating.  And the “bogus assumptions” he uses come from population genetics literature, not ID theorists, so you’re slicing the throat of your own argument by rejecing them.

If we don’t even know what most genes do, and it’s therefore not possible to calculate the likelihood of whale evolution in the time given.  So why do you accept the ND claim that X is probable, but reject Sternberg’s claim that X is improbable?  By your own argument, you have no basis.

Finally, Durett and Schmidt:  greater than 100 million years.  Adjusted for whales:  43 million.  Time allotted:  9 million.  Live with it.


Ray - #38149

November 2nd 2010

Rich

I have highlighted the key passage you seem to be missing in your quote from the abstract of Durrett and Schmidt’s paper.

for humans with a much smaller effective population size, THIS TYPE OF CHANGE would take > 100 million years.

What’s your evidence “this type of change” is necessary to explain human evolution from our common ancestor with Chimpanzees? Durrett and Schmidt make no such assertion, nor does Behe cite any evidnce to support the premise that “this type of change” would be necessary for the period in question. Put up or shut up.


Ray - #38151

November 2nd 2010

the “bogus assumptions” he uses come from population genetics literature

No they don’t. (Unless you can answer my challenge in 38419.)

So why do you accept the ND claim that X is probable, but reject Sternberg’s claim that X is improbable?

Same reason I think physics beyond the standard model is unimportant in explaining high temperature superconductivity—it’s very hard to envision any scenario, let alone a likely one, that would strongly affect the domain where we can’t calculate, without producing detectable effects in the domain where we can. (pretty much our first act of genetic engineering was to transfer genes between wildly unrelated species —eg tobacco and lightning bugs. If a designer did the same sort of thing with any regularity, we wouldn’t even be able to make phylogenetic trees.)


Rich - #38156

November 2nd 2010

Ray:

No, *you* put up or shut up.  Sternberg has two Ph.D.s in biology, including one in evolutionary biology.  *He* thinks Durett and Schmidt’s numbers can be legitimately used.  You think, because you’ve learned Bayes’ theorem and leafed through the odd biology article in Scientific American and browsed through the polemics on Panda’s Thumb, and because you are so very clever, that you can master evolutionary population genetics without training, and can catch Sternberg out on an elementary error in his own field of specialization.  This arrogance is typical of internet Darwinists, especially the atheist ones.  Well, put your confidence to the test: if you can disprove Sternberg, challenge him to a public debate, or publish a peer-reviewed article demonstrating his errors.

As for the probability theory debate, it’s a waste of time.  You’re focusing on little alleged technical errors in my exposition, but won’t provide probability calculations of your own.  Much easier to attack flawed calculations than to provide good ones, isn’t it?  And what do physicists think of scientific theories that can’t be quantified to the point of testability?


Ray - #38159

November 2nd 2010

Much easier to attack flawed calculations than to provide good ones, isn’t it?

I think this is as close as I’m going to get you to admitting that your calculations, Behe’s, and Sternberg’s are fatally flawed. Oh well, better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

I’ll let David E Levin (PhD—since they’re worth so much more than SBs) do the talking on just how bad Behe’s reasoning is

http://ncse.com/rncse/27/1-2/review-edge-evolution

money line: “Behe’s thesis of evolutionary limits hangs on the assumption that important evolutionary steps require multiple simultaneous mutations without the benefit of cumulative selection. However, there is no evidence to support this claim.”

If it’s not already obvious, the same criticism applies to Sternberg.

Here’s another review which found some bonus errors:
http://www.sunclipse.org/?p=133

Here’s some more of the same if peer review is your thing.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1110/ps.041171805/abstract

“the conclusions of this prior work are an artifact of unwarranted biological assumptions, inappropriate mathematical modeling, and faulty logic.”—great line.


penman - #38171

November 3rd 2010

Rich #38147

=It’s not clear to me what you are asking.=

I apologize for my inability to communicate. Let’s try again!

On “purpose”, I still don’t think I’ve quite grasped how the word is being used in this context. If we “infer purpose” from a biological system, analogous to inferring it from a bicycle, as you say, is “purpose” here equivalent to “produced by an intelligent agent”? If that’s what it means, bingo - I’ve understood.

And then, presumably, “purposeful arrangement of parts” means “arrangement of parts by an intelligent agent”.


penman - #38173

November 3rd 2010

Ray #38140

=If you pressed me, I’d guess you were theologically closer to Miller than Behe. I could imagine a theist would give a different answer though. My feeling is that whether evolution is “peppered with miracles” is more likely to be empirically testable in principle (although defining a miracle is itself somewhat problematic.) Hence, it’s kind of hard to tell whether your difference with Miller (or my caricature of him) is real or merely semantic=

By “miracle” I meant God acting in a way that has no credible natural/scientific explanation. His action is normally veiled within or behind secondary causes (natural causes open to scientific analysis). But if for example He raises the dead by a direct exertion of divine power, He’s acted above & beyond nature, supernaturally. In that case, I suppose all science can do is confirm that the event did in fact happen but is inexplicable by secondary causes.

I don’t think my non-miracle understanding of God’s sovereignty at work in evolution is empirically testable, any more than we can empirically test whether God’s sovereignty was involved in the fall of a sparrow or the numbers rolled by the dice - the bible affirms both (Matthew 10:29, Proverbs 16:33).


Papalinton - #38174

November 3rd 2010

Hi Ray
From Rich:  “You think, because you’ve learned Bayes’ theorem and leafed through the odd biology article in Scientific American and browsed through the polemics on Panda’s Thumb, and because you are so very clever, that you can master evolutionary population genetics without training, and can catch Sternberg out on an elementary error in his own field of specialization.  This arrogance is typical of internet Darwinists, especially the atheist ones. “

Don’t you just love it and get a little excited when Rich talks dirty to you?
I do a little, and that’s only vicariously.

You should read all the comments under David E Levin’s critique [Scientific evidence for the biblical story of creation??]  on Dr Jonathon Safarti’s book,  ‘The Greatest Hoax on Earth?  Refuting Richard Dawkins on Evolution”  at:

http://www.amazon.com/review/R2YDNZOVN3YU1J/ref=cm_cd_notf_message?ie=UTF8&cdForum=Fx3AXYUX3VFR58C&cdPage=29&cdThread=Tx2GE28DX95P1TH#Mx75OUY97VXG28

No Holds are barred.  It is a humorous read and it demonstrates that a turkey with a PhD is still a turkey   at the CMI website.

Cheers


Ray - #38196

November 3rd 2010

penman

“By ‘miracle’ I meant God acting in a way that has no credible natural/scientific explanation.”

This is good as far as it goes, but in order for this definition to be fully unproblematic you have to figure out what you mean by a credible natural/scientific explanation. What constitutes a credible natural/scientific explanation has changed several times over the past few centuries without acquiring any elements that a physicist would consider supernatural.

Of course, one would assume the same would happen if the ID strategy ever bore fruit (making an unspecified designer a major explanatory mechanism in nature.) Once you’ve gotten the designer into the domain of science, you have to play fair and admit the possibility that the fact of that designer’s existence can be explained in terms of simpler basic principles. This I suppose is at the root of my earlier disagreement with Rich (aliens vs God.) Most definitions of God exclude the possibility of further explanation a priori, which is not playing fair in my book, at least if you want to call it science. I guess this was a bit of a digression. Hopefully it was an interesting one.


Rich - #38223

November 3rd 2010

penman:

I note your discussion with Ray.  I think he is misleading you on what ID is about.  It isn’t about miracles or interventions.  It’s about detecting design. 

Part of the problem in understanding ID comes from the “big tent” nature of ID.  There are ID proponents who firmly believe in direct divine intervention as a *mechanical* explanation of how things arose.  There are others who don’t believe in any such intervention.  For example, I believe that Paul Nelson thinks that direct divine action was necessary (and happened); Michael Denton believes that it was unnecessary (and didn’t happen); MIchael Behe is in the middle, acknowledging that direct divine action is possible, but not required by design inferences.  So what unites them all?  Not miracles or interventions, but design detection, which at least in part involves the ruling out of chance as an explanation for certain phenomena.  Thus, the opposite of ID is not TE; the opposite of ID is Dawkins and Coyne and Dennett.  ID is trying to convince the world, not that God personally made the Cambrian explosion or personally stitched together the first cell, but that these events did not happen by chance.


Rich - #38225

November 3rd 2010

penman (continued):

If I set in motion a process which has a guaranteed outcome, even though that process may proceed entirely by natural causes, without any intervening miracles, the result is still designed.  Have you ever knocked down a row of dominoes?  It’s thus at least logically possible that one could set up a universe in which life would irresistibly arise, or even that higher intelligent life would arise, by carefully establishing the right initial conditions—and never involving oneself in the outcome.  This is Denton’s view.  Whether it’s empirically possible I won’t debate here, but it’s logically possible, and it’s compatible with design detection.

To answer your earlier question: we infer purpose when we think chance or chance plus necessity is an inadequate explanation, and when we infer purpose we infer some intelligent agent.  But as I said above, “intelligent agent” *doesn’t* imply “miraculous intervention.”  ID foes make that equation to throw sand in people’s eyes; they don’t want people making sound design inferences, so they raise the bogeyman of “God of the gaps.”  Oddly enough, while atheists have a more obvious motivation for this dishonest ploy, it is TEs who use it the most often.


Papalinton - #38241

November 3rd 2010

Hi Rich

” ... we infer purpose when we think chance or chance plus necessity is an inadequate explanation, and when we infer purpose we infer some intelligent agent. “

This it the argument from personal incredulity.  To infer purpose simply because you choose not to acknowledge natural selection by random mutation as a workable mechanism, simply does not lead to intelligent design.  The bogeyman is not ‘god of the gaps’, rather,  that ‘god did it’.

Barbara Forrest and Paul R Gross, in their book,  “Creationism’s Trojan Horse:  The Wedge of Intelligent Design”,  lays out in stark and unambiguous words the history of the Intelligent Design movement in the US, it’s theological and religious beginnings and underpinnings, its polemic and political perspective, and its apparent scientific and research strategy, together with its supposed scientific bona fides as a genuine field of scientific investigation and its day in court.

The book traces its remarkable success at the political, school board and public opinion level.  And in all that time, a global search of all databases for its contribution to science knowledge and understanding has been:  zero.  It has all the credibility of the flying pink unicorn.


Papalinton - #38242

November 3rd 2010

To add:

No scientist worth his salt, whether a believer or otherwise, would touch Intelligent Design with a 20’ barge pole.

Giberson knows that such musings are toxic to the workings of science investigation because such a declaration is a total conversation and research stopper.  There is no further need to investigate or opportunities for identifying other avenues of research once something is deemed to be of ‘irreducible complexity’ and thereby the ‘end of the line’ for continuing study.

The notion of ID, at its very core, its very fundament, is anathema to science investigation. 

Cheers


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