So, you want to include Intelligent design, creationism, or some other moniker for questioning the overwhelmingly established science of evolution into our classrooms. You also, likely, equate evolution with the origin of the universe, so you want to talk about how something must have created the universe too. Like, for example, god. Well, OK. In that case, lets also include creation myths from Hindus, various Native American tribes, and (why not, it’s 2012) the Mayans? Let’s have as many challenges to evolution and cosmology as possible, if we are going there.
Or perhaps you are more concerned with the state of medical science. Perhaps you want to have your medical school include spirituality in their training, so that future doctors will be more spiritually attuned, or something. Well, OK. In that case let’s not forget faith healing, acupuncture, and homeopathy. Hell, let’s throw in some goat sacrificing as well. If we are going to include alternative medicines, why not throw in everything, just in case someone thinks they are worthwhile, eh?
Have I gone down a slippery slope? Have I taken what should be seen as a legitimate addition of alternative points of view, in comparison with established science and skepticism, and equated them with obviously erroneous methods? Am I not taking things like spirituality, real “scientific” challenges to the Darwinian conspiracy, etc seriously? Am I merely being flippant and disrespectful?
Quantities of complexity and simplicity
What is the difference between the more sophisticated and complex challenges to the scientific consensus and those which are, how should I say, less sophisticated? What is the difference between the Discovery Institute and the creationist screaming on the street corner (or next to the reason rally)?
There are real differences between these two types of challenge to science. One is better articulated, more gpolished, and appears more professional. The other has not been dressed up in such finery, and is obviously naked to everyone (OK, most of us). From where I stand, all of these sophists look naked, adorned in transcendent Imperial attire, even if to many out there the transparency of such cloth takes on a denseness and opacity to them. Such observations become quite illuminating to complex eyes, but not so complex to need an intelligence to evolve them, such as mine.
That is, the difference between these sophisticated attempts at “skepticism” and creationist buffoonery is one of methodological degree, and certainly not a difference of quality.
For someone to show a distinction between these two, they would need to show some empirical or methodological difference between the two claims. They cannot do this. Because there isn’t any.
No matter how well the Discovery Institute, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), or any other disingenuous attempts to undermine science dresses up their creationism, that’s all it is. So no matter how slick the presentation, elevated the vocabulary (to make it sound sciency), or how many “credentialed” contributors they parade out (or pay large sums of money) there will only be a difference of degree between them and the whack-jobs on the street-corner yelling about the time being “nigh,” or someshit.
The reason for this is simple. The methodologies of science, based in logic, empiricism, and skepticism generally, are unique and powerful. Religion, faith, superstition are all powerful motivators of human behavior, but they lack that method and so they fail to predict or explain reality. There is a fundamental methodological difference between what real science does and what is done by such think tanks as referred to above. Places like the Discovery Institute and the ICR are not using the best methodologies, but are in fact using the same type of methodology used by the creationist you will meet on the street, in a church, or proposing legislation to allow discussion of creationism in schools.
They arenot using skepticism.
So when we respond to such trite sophistry with what may appear hyperbolic, the fact is that it is not hyperbole at all. It is, in fact, appropriate commentary on the ridiculousness of people’s beliefs about the world; beliefs which are not warranted by the facts or the reason that binds those facts into theories which teach us about reality.
Unhooking the bra of reality
One person’s idiocy is another’s profundity. And one person’s profundity is another’s idiocy. The difference between the two, however, is not mere subjective opinion or preference; reality can inform the difference, and reality gives up her lovely secrets only to skeptics (when she gives them up at all). Faith and superstition—ever the prompts of religion—being so obsessed with what lays beneath nature’s bodice, frees itself to imaginings and unverified declarations. But it is all rhetoric and no real experience.
Real experience requires knowing how to unhook the bra of reality, a secret revealed only by the reaching of the adolescence of our species during our philosophical and scientific development and matured in the fires of the Enlightenment with the advent of the scientific method. Many an embarrassed and inexperienced person claims to have breached such depths, claiming to have seen this or that, done that or this, and have really only masturbated such things while those of us truly entered into mysteries of the plain world in our face, seen with skeptical eyes, know the beauty of reality’s bosom.
Or, to put the analogy more succinctly; pics or it didn’t happen, you keepers of faith and superstition!
It struck me today that one of the reasons that so many theologically-minded writers are so enamored by teleological thinking when it comes to evolutionary theory—whether it be Intelligent Design, theistic evolution, etc—is that they are so accustomed to thinking teleologically. What I mean is that because theologians seem to simply make stuff up*, they have the freedom and malleability to fit whatever environment they find themselves in, so they are always thinking about designing their ideology to fit the world. This, on the surface, might seem like what one should do, except they also hold onto the core nonsensical propositions while doing so—while reinterpreting them!
The very process of doing theology is exactly backwards to how science works, which is part of why the conversation between theologians and scientists often goes so wrong; their methods are in opposition. The idea of theistic evolution (that god created the world and subsequently guides evolution) is at odds with scientific ideas about how evolution works. There is no need for guidance for it to work, so (for example) the official Catholic Church’s acceptance of evolution as a fact, though guided by god (an idea shared by many people as well) is not the scientific concept accepted by evolutionary biologists. Similarly, Intelligent Design, the cultural political attempt to sneak creationism into us with the guise of “science,” has similar themes underneath. It all is about keeping the idea of design or purpose in a mechanism which needs none in order to work.
And what this reminds me of, this predilection for shaping oneself into the hole it finds itself sitting in, is Lamarkian evolution. You see, early in the development of evolutionary science, there was some debate about how changes in species occurred. One idea, which is now rejected by the scientific community since we know how genes, mutation, and other forces work, was that some organism would change according to the environmental pressures it finds itself in and passes along those changes to the next generation. A common example used to illustrate this is a giraffe that finds its neck too short gets a longer neck (or at least the idea of one), and passes this change onto its offspring.
If some theological idea does not fit with the world, a newer theologian comes along and proposes a new way to see things; a new way to “interpret” the scriptures or the tradition in order to fit better. And as the progress of science has marched along, theology has followed and changed its spots to fit to not be too egregiously out of style with the current scientific consensus. But it is done in such a way as to just change enough to not be noticeable to most people. It changes slowly, little by little, such that the theological concepts talked about seriously now in universities don’t seem to most people to be absurd or too far from their original tradition (which they define, of course).
But take a sophisticated theologian from 2012 (happy new years, btw) and send him to even a comparatively liberal and open-minded seminary from 1000 years ago, and they would be cast out as heretics, unbelievers, atheists even!
But it isn’t really their fault; they have to change to survive. It’s just a shame that they can’t get rid of the core absurdities of their theologies. You know,m stuff like gods and other supernatural crap.
I’ll say it again; theology is intelligently designed, but not intelligently enough.
*”Some time ago, when Jerry Coyne was preparing for his debate with John Haught, I recommended a book of modern theology in which a number of different theologians explained the very different ways in which Christian theology is done nowadays. The result that I hoped would derive from reading the book is what happened to me when I read it: that it would become obvious that theology in fact makes things up; that there is no basis for agreement between theologians, and that the bases for theological positions are as diverse as the positions themselves. That is, there is no basis for doing theology. Theology is like a mood that people have in the presence of sacred texts and the history of thought about them. It has no rational ground.” –Eric MacDonald (source)
The day has come. We in the atheist and scientific communities have been waiting for it with mild amusement or annoyance. And to our surprise it came a day early. We almost missed it as a result. But I didn’t.
For those of you who were not aware, Ray Comfort, from Living Waters and Way of the Master has recently been talking about passing out free copies of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. This pivotal book has been all the rage since it was first published in 1859, and it’s impact on science, religion, and culture cannot be denied. This is a book that must be read by a person if they are to consider themselves a well-rounded, educated, and informed person in today’s culture. One should at very least be familiar with what Darwin’s essential argument is, what evidence exists to back it up, and what science says about evolution today.
For that, here’s a few good places to start and to keep an eye on:
But Ray Comfort is not a fan of evolution. He rejects it and supports intelligent design, so why is Ray Comfort giving away this special 150th Anniversary Edition, precisely?
Well, first a bit about Ray Comfort. He and his former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron have been doing ministry about Jesus for some time now. You may remember the debate that Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron had with my friend Brian Sapient and the Rational Response Squad. If you have not seen this debate, I’ll supply a link here.
It was this debate where the infamous crocoduck came from. This has supplied many chuckles and full belly-laughs from sciency people ever since. (I want a shirt with the crocoduck on it, btw, so I’ll accept gifts of this sort).
This is an image created by Ray Comfort to try and make the point that transitional fossils do not exist, and that if they did this is the type of thing one would expect to find. The ignorance contained here is astounding. I don’t even feel compelled to respond, because it has been done elsewhere with many more lulz attached.
Now, the banana aside (which Ray Comfort admitted was a bad argument), this is utter tripe. It is clear that Comfort, Cameron, and the others that are on board with this nonsense do not accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution, so why are they giving away copies of The Origin of Species? Well, it has a lot to do with the 50 page introduction that Ray Comfort includes in this ‘special’ edition.
Well, putting aside some obvious problems with the introduction, this is obviously an attempt to appear as if the creationist loons, like Comfort, have actually considered the evidence and are just coming up with another interpretation. They simply see the evidence lacking, having studied the subject, and are confident to actually give people copies of this book.
But the fact is that evolution is not derived from the Origin like gospel. It is derived from Darwin’s arguments, evidence, and observations and then is confirmed by all of the work in biology since. That is, a hundred and fifty years of research, testing, DNA evidence, fossils, and other information supports what Darwin wrote and expands on it in ways Darwin could not have predicted because he did not know about DNA or genetics, let alone the thousands of fossils we have uncovered that speak unequivocally for evolution by natural selection.
So, the deal was Comfort and his cronies were to hand out copies of the book all over the country, on college campuses, on November 19th, 2009. The atheist and science blogosphere was all a-twitter about it and has been anticipating this. Various responses, reactions, and condemnations have surfaced in various places with varying degrees of tone. And so what happened when I got to my daily business today, one day before the planned give-away? That’s right folks, Comfort has tried to minimize the planned reactions by science enthusiasts and atheists by jumping the gun and doing it early.
But I managed to get out of the house and find a couple of friendly gentlemen who were passing out the books today anyway. They were having some conversations with students, proselytizing the Christian message similar to Ray Comfort’s, and I took a copy and talked with them about my concerns for a little while. And what did I find? Ignorance.
In my conversation with these two gentlemen, I found that not only were these two men ignorant of science, it’s methods, and the evidence for evolution, they displayed no interest in learning about science. One of them actually said that he was not interested in science. But he did say that he was interested in the truth. And while he didn’t understand the basics of rational thinking, epistemology, or even what natural selection was, he maintained that he was interested in the truth.
And what is the truth? Jesus is the truth. This was not merely claimed as a belief, but as knowledge, knowledge that was not doubted even a little.
Frustrating. How can a person claim to be interested in the truth and not have any interest in the scientific method–the best method for determining how the world works–and have not even surface understanding of epistemology? his is an indefensible position. It is irrational, illogical, and not worthy of the respect that some faitheists and moderate religionists say that these beliefs deserve. Their certainty in their beliefs is staggering considering they are not interested in evidence. What’s worse is that they accused me of being absolutely certain that god does not exist and that evolution is true. When I told them that neither was true and that I accept evolution only because of the overwhelming evidence for it.
I am a skeptic. These people, Comfort included, are so removed from skepticism that they will not admit that they might be wrong. They cannot even see that they don’t actually have evidence, only personal interpretations of experiences which people of other religions claim with equal authority. I cannot respect Ray Comfort’s beliefs, his certainty, or the certainty of those who believe such absurd things. And for them to try and pull a stunt like this,by trying to look like they are educated in the science behind evolution when they are not, is dishonest at very least.
“All you need is eyes that can see and a brain that works” is what Ray Comfort says quite often. But it is clear, from all I have seen of his work, that he might have poor vision and a brain that works only just enough to sound like he’s saying something sensible to people who don’t see through his idiocy.
I’m glad I have a copy of this fine book to put on my shelf, but from what I have already seen, there is nothing in the introduction that is worth keeping.
All too often I hear from people that there is proof of god everywhere. The trees and the birds, our hands and our feet, the flesh-eating bacteria and the natural disasters that destroy cities. OK, those lasts two are not generally used to argue in favor of a loving god, but they are pretty complex, aren’t they?
And that’s the key here: complexity. How could all of these things with their complex parts, elaborate interactions with the rest of nature, and our intricate brains that can think about it all just get here by chance? They could not have done it on their own, right? So there must have been some intelligence, some designer, to give the world it’s complexity.
It is unfortunate that there is such a deficiency of understanding of science and of critical thinking in our culture. Science education may be partially to blame, but we must be willing to take the responsibility for ourselves as well. And as a result of this there is a severe lack of understanding of the theory of natural selection (as well as the other evolutionary pressures) and thus a misunderstanding of the fact of evolution as they intersect with these questions of complexity.
There are great resources for learning about these things online, and so any person can go and find out what scientists say about evolution. The key here is to understand that the process does not claim chaos or complete randomness. The question about evolution is not a false dichotomy between an intelligent designer or random chance. There are many believers in various gods that accept the fact of evolution (Ken Miller and Francis Collins being two prominent examples). Natural selection is a definite process, is not random, and is well supported by physical evidence.
The major component of randomness in evolution is the mutation of genes. But most of these mutations have no effect at all, and only sometimes do they have a harmful or helpful effect. It takes environmental factors, lots of time, and other factors to make a mutation effect the population at large. And it is the process of natural selection that does the actual work, not the random mutation.
But my point here is not to explain natural selection or to spell out the evidence for evolution. That is the responsibility of each person to do on their own in conjunction with schools and museums. Start with the link above, a trip to the museum, or even a recent biology textbook (and not one produced by the Discovery Institute such as Of Pandas and People, as they have been shown to be untrustworthy during the Kitzmiller case).
And so what about this claim that complexity requires intelligent design? Well, even if we didn’t have a good scientific answer to the claim (which we do), there is another problem with it that can be shown without knowing anything about evolution.
Here is the argument as I have seen it:
The world (universe) is full of complex things
complex things need designers
therefore, a designer of the world (universe) exists.
Ray Comfort is known for arguing that if you see a painting we know there is a painter, if their is a building there is a builder, etc. It is certainly true that things we create have designers, and they certainly are intelligent. But the analogy does not carry through to all things because not all things are constructed in a factory. Other things reproduce biologically and are put together by very complex natural processes that we, admittedly, don’t fully understand. And as far as universes go, I’ve never seen one made, so while I can go to the car factory, I can’t go to the universe factory.
But more importantly is the assumption that all things need intelligent designers to exist simply because they are complex. We know that simple things can become complex through natural selection, but even if we don’t know this we can ask if all things that are complex need a designer, then wouldn’t the designer itself, being a complex thing, need its own designer?
In short, what created god?
Now, the common reply is to state that god is eternal and has always existed. This is special pleading. What that means is that the point is making a special exception of the rules for illegitimate reasons. The question here is whether a god exists, and so in deciding this issue one cannot take as given a special exception for the thing that is in question. One cannot simply define god into existence by saying that it is not subject to the rule that all complex things need a creator. If one did, the results would be somewhat silly.
The bottom line for intelligent design, and whatever people are trying to disguise creationism as these days, is that there is no evidence to support it. Despite Michael Behe’s best attempts, there is no irreducibly complex thing that cannot be explained without the need of an intelligent designer. Natural selection is sufficient to explain complexity in our biological world.
And further, even if it could be shown that an intelligent designer would be necessary, this would still be a far cry from associating this intelligence with any particular god. An intelligent designer would not imply that it had anything to do with any theology or mythology (as if there were a difference) of any religion. A Christian does not win any points for his beliefs even if intelligent design were true. Because if it were true, the Moslem, Jew, Hindu, etc would step up and claim that it is their god that is the intelligent designer.
Luckily for us, that is not an issue because the proposal of an intelligent designer does not stand up to scrutiny. The irony, perhaps, is that intelligent design needs people of lesser intelligence, or at least understanding, to propose it.
If complexity needs a creator, so does the complex creator. God is nothing but a pseudo-answer to a non-problem when it comes to the complexities of the world and how to explain them.
Evolution is a fact. We have seen it happen, so it is certain insofar as we can be certain of anything. Evolution is the basis for modern biology, and is as solidly supported by scientific evidence as gravity. The evidence is so overwhelming in support of the fact that over millions of years processes have caused species to come into being through natural means.
The central process that is responsible for this evolution, natural selection, is rather simple. And yet it is commonly misunderstood, even by intelligent people, in a number of different ways. Thus, I have decided to write about an example, analogous to natural selection in another place than biology; journalism.
In this case, the environment of this process is the media. And in this case I will talk about the newspaper industry, and use its demise as an example of how the change in an environment can cause a species to die out, leaving behind a mutation of itself behind. Thus, in the future, there could be some journalist that might say that there career was not the descendant of a newspaper, because if that were true why are there still newspapers? (as a few newspapers might still exist even then)…and we might recognize this as familiar to us.
The recording of information is a rather old convention of human culture. The very definition of history is intimately tied to this convention, in fact. At some point we became technologically advanced enough to produce pieces of paper in large enough quantities, and quickly enough, in order to have hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of copies sold a day. Thus the newspaper industry was born.
As technology advanced, information was able to be disseminated by other means. Television was one effective change on this industry, but the internet, especially paired with mobile devices, is the most effective of these technologies. This is a change in the environment. It’s the analogy of a climatic change for information. As more people started to read news on the internet, newspapers started to sell less copies. Now we have come to the point where major segments of the newspaper industry are closing down.
Now the analogy is not precise. It is, in fact, largely very different. Nonetheless I think its an interesting analogy to compare the information that is transmitted through news media and the genetic information passed down through sexual reproduction in looking at the ways that the environment will select certain carriers of the news. In a similar way that the genetic information carried in a smarter, stronger, or better hidden biological life form will tend to pass down more offspring, the technology we have will select the vehicles of information that will reach human readers in better ways.
Newspapers are a species that are having less and less offspring. At some time in the last few decades a mutation of this form of media came about and, at first, was odd looking and not well adapted to the culture. But over time,, as the environment changed as the internet spread in usage by more people, this mutation began to transform and be shaped into a wonderful tool that we use today.
Now, there is one major difference between my analogy and the processes involved in evolution. While the transmission of information through various media (like blogs) is the result of intelligent choice (although some choices may not be particularly intelligent), the process of natural selection is not based on any intelligence at all. For the vast majority of evolutionary history, there was no such thing as intelligence, as intelligence is one by-product of this process. That is, while we choose where we read our news with self-awareness, the universe (or the Earth, in this case) does not choose which species survive with any self-awareness. The process is blind, in biology, but it is not blind in terms of where we read our news.
It is this that creates the fundamental misunderstanding about natural selection. It is not a selection in the sense of a choice. It is not a process that has life choose its path and certain choices work better in nature. It is a random mutation that has either no effect or a change in the offspring, having a detrimental effect, positive effect, or no noticeable effect on that offspring’s ability to reproduce itself.
And as these mutated offspring either have no offspring (mutation is not passed on), more offspring (Spreading the mutation at a increased rate) or has little to no effect (mutation becomes moderately spread in the species), then we will see a change in the species as a whole.
This is a natural process, not one driven by intelligence or intentional design. It does not need a god to explain it, and it has nothing to do with the ultimate origin of life. This only deals with what happens when life already exists, and so retreating behind the question of “ok, well how does life get there in the first place” is not a challenge to evolution at all.
The reason, by the way, that there are still monkeys is because we didn’t evolve from them. Other primates and ourselves evolved from a common ancestor. Thus, the monkeys, apes, etc are as evolved as we are. Evolution is not a ladder, nor does it have a goal. We are not more evolved than an ape, a cat, or bacteria. We just have the perhaps unique quality of self-awareness that allows us to actually try to make sense of a senseless process, and thus to add gods to it unnecessarily.