Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Evolution Debate Post-Mortem

Out of a dangerous combination of curiosity and boredom, I got myself into an evolution/creationism debate here. It seems to have winded down, so for my own benefit I decided to go through and try to discern from where the disagreement between the parties was originating. I think I've identified the following misconceptions, each of which may or may not be held by creationists/religious sorts generally. I list them in the order they came up or became clear to me.
  • Evolution by natural selection amounts to "time plus chance plus a protein molecule" - This is, of course, a wildly reductive way of describing the relevant theories, and you can't really create this sort of caricature without misrepresenting the ideas being discussed. Certainly, the atheistic view is that evolution by natural selection proceeds without conscious control, which makes it, in some sense, a "random" process. But it also happens as the result of predictable natural processes, a feature that loose firings of the word "random" don't really seem to capture.

  • "Faith" is required to believe in naturalistic explanations - This is a confusion. It's true that science, by and large, does not consist in a priori reasoning, so its conclusions can't be known with complete certainty. However, it does not follow from the fact that we cannot know X with certainty that believing X requires "faith". Rather, appropriate scientific beliefs are held with relative certainty - as they are viewed as more probable than competing alternatives - and are subject to falsification by evidence. To the extent that a belief admits of the possibility of falsification by evidence, it cannot be described as requiring "faith" in the sense that the word is typically used. Articles of religious faith are not fundamentally probabilistic in the same way scientific beliefs are. Personally, I like to think of scientific beliefs, or a posteriori beliefs generally, as operating assumptions. (Later in the thread, I had to explain that science does most of its work through induction not deduction, so the fundamental problem seems to be a failure to distinguish different types of reasoning.)

  • We have lots of reasons to think that the Bible is a reliable historical record - Given the extent to which the Bible is internally inconsistent, it seems odd to put a lot of stock in its consistency with external reality.

  • Various complex biological phenomena are irreducibly complex, in the sense that they couldn't have evolved gradually over time according to prevailing theories - Creationists don't seem to realize that arguments appealing to supposed irreducible complexity are 1) incredibly ambitious and 2) ridiculously arrogant. Ambitious because you have to rule out every possible progression of evolution as incompatible with theories of natural selection, and arrogant because you have to assume that just because you can't think of a way something could have evolved, it must not have been possible by natural means. As I said in the comments, the poverty of a given individual's imagination says nothing about the potential of evolution by natural selection. And all of this completely puts aside the fact that, so far as I know, every single example put forward by creationists as an instance of irreducible complexity has been rebutted with a possible mechanism of evolution in which each individual step is either selectively advantageous or selectively neutral.

  • There's nothing improbable about the theory that God created everything - However improbable our scientific theories are, surely the theory that God exists and also provides all of our scientific evidence is more improbable still. The bottom line is that if you want to theorize God's existence and agency, that theory either demands explanation and justification, or it does not. If it does, then you should provide it. If it does not, then theistic theories are being held to a much lower standard than scientific theories. This is related to another misconception:

  • Supernatural theories have significant explanatory power - As I said over the course of the argument: First, why assume that a supernatural force must be involved rather than wait and see if a natural explanation can be uncovered? Second, if the force in question has all sorts of physical, material, natural influences and effects, in what sense is it supernatural at all? Why don't we just describe it as a natural force? What work is the "supernatural" part doing except letting us wave away the aspects of the question we don't understand?

  • Evolution by natural selection violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics - I didn't realize people still believed this, so it's helpful to see that the misconception persists. Anyway, the 2nd law pertains closed systems; organisms are not closed systems, so the 2nd law doesn't apply.

Also interesting, but maybe less satisfying to examine, is the peculiar combination of smugness and defensiveness on the part of my interlocutor. On the one hand, I'm told that as an atheist I get a "free ride" from my Christian countrymen and it's suggested that I must not truly understand theistic arguments. At the same time, I'm told I'm "insulting" his intelligence by suggesting that his reasoning is flawed and I'm "hectoring" him when I request examples or arguments in support of his assertions.

Then there's the troubling bigotry of not only the assertion that atheists are doomed to moral inferiority (because we must be relativists!), but also the implication that specifically Judeo-Christian theism is required for sound moral infrastructure. Besides being a (surprise!) reductive view of the history of Western civilization, it also gives short shrift to the two-thirds of the world's population that doesn't share the peculiar religious beliefs of my opponent.

For me, the point of all of this was getting more of a sense of how a great many people think about these things. I've spent the last seven years or so in the Bay Area, and four of those years I spent studying science. It's easy for me to forget that a great many people haven't had the same good fortune.


Rebecca C. Brown said...

Excellent round-up. Are there any carnivals you can submit this to?

I'd like to add another misconception (and logical fallacy) that I see pop up in creationist reasoning:

1. Science (with a capital "S") claims to hold the answers to everything!

2. If Science has been wrong in the past (e.g., Science used to believe in a geocentrist solar system), then how reliable can Science be today?

3. If a phenomenon cannot be explained with Science, it must represent an act of supernatural power.

This trio of arguments usually appears as a unit, and it indicates a great misunderstanding (and, as you said, arrogance) about human capability. Science does NOT claim to hold all the answers (otherwise we'd stop conducting experiments, duh); it is in fact religion that claims to hold all the answers. It makes me think that religion exists because humans are uncomfortable admitting that they don't know everything.

One the one hand, they chide Science for pretending to be omniscient (which is false), then they use Science's lack of omniscience against it, and then THEY claim to be omniscient.

At what point in children's educations are they taught that the scientific community claims to know everything? Who's spreading these lies?

Thinker said...

Like Fundamentalist Christian Lawyers (see Monica Goodling), Fundamentalist Christian Creationists are good at placing themselves in positions from which to propagate their faith. As far as creationist school teachers, you need look no further than Oakland's own National Center for Science Education (which has been battling them for nearly 20 years) to find who and where they are.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

What's interesting about the debate was how you really skipped the boring part of the evolution debate (debating evolution) and got to the heart of the matter: are atheists immoral. That's the real motivating factor behind creationism and it's what needs to be attacked if you want to make progress.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

D'oh! I just started reading the comment thread that initiated this post, Paul, and I see that you've already stated exactly what my first comment stated.

This must disprove evolution! How could two individuals in separate, distinct environments come to the same exact conclusion? We must have been divinely inspired by the same voioce.

Paul said...

I just submitted to the carnival of the Godless, since that struck me as appropriate.

Matt S. said...

Matt S-

Bravo on a world-class debate. I must say, the Christian was a surprisingly articulate defender of his position; I have little doubt that the myriad evangelical "leaders" of America couldn't muster anywhere near the intellectual rigor that he displayed. (I'd like to see Rick Warren try to go toe-to-toe Paul here; someone’s life would feel very un-purpose filled.) This being said, the Christian's argumentation only showed how fundamentally untenable his opinions really are. How a person can fail to imagine the evolutionary benefit of light sensitive patches on an organism is beyond me. I think a million evolutionary tales could be spun hypothesizing such a selective advantage. But the major fallacy behind the design argument does not rest in disproving any given example. As you point out, supernatural design is ultimately anathema as an explanatory system since it (natch!) explains nothing and must necessarily explain nothing. Were it to actually clarify the causal underpinnings of reality it would have to do so in way intelligible to us. To turn supernatural causation into a intelligible process might be a ripe challenge for the theist but one that ultimately spells it's own undoing since such a project would serve to undermine God's theoretical perch high above the natural order. God himself would be subject to scientific reasoning since, if he were to exist, that is simply where the explanatory chips would fall.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

This conversation has got me wondering if creationists would still fail to understand evolution (and the necessary incompleteness of human understanding of the universe) independent of their spirituality. In other words, do creationists misunderstand evolution because their faith prohibits understanding, or would they misunderstand anyway because they're dumb? (Yes, I just said that creationists are dumb, thus sealing my fate as an "unelectable" presidential candidate.)

(Of course misunderstanding is different from outright denial. You can buy into evolutionary theory while still holding misconceptions about it. And even if religion didn't exist, there would still be stupid people; and in the absence of a faith-based explanation for human existence, everyone would have to buy into evolution for lack of an alternative model, whether they understood it or not.)

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Depends on what you mean by "independent of their spirituality". If you mean "if religions didn't figure heavily in their life, would they still oppose evolution" the answer is clear: If you're not religious you might acquiesce to creationism if everyone around you believed it, but you certainly wouldn't push it in other venues. Creationism is evangelism masquerading a not-a-waste-of-your-time.

Ned Williams said...

Well, Paul, I don't claim to speak for all Theists or religious sorts, and I hope visitors to your blog will actually read the thread rather than take your word for it.

And I can only grimace as I read you and yours comment on arrogance and chiding and claiming to be omniscient. I don't want those to be true of me, and much of the conflict in this debate (generally) is the result of persons on both sides of the debate over-reaching in their certainty and attempting to proselytize others. Too many "scientists" only talk a good game of seeking (as opposed to owning) the truth.

Lastly, I want to point out that the post was about atheism and its insufficiency to support a civil society. Hence, my comments about "free rides" and hectoring. You've given me a lot to think about and it can't hurt to talk stuff through, can it?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I can't speak for the other commenters but I certainly did read the whole comment thread. I found the discussion about atheists setting up a civil society much more interesting the the evolution debate. You seem to be pretty sure that an atheist society would fall apart but your arguments are pretty thin. Perhaps it would be best to organize your different arguments into a numbered list so they can be more easily inspected individually.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Yes, let's do argue about the viability of an all-atheist society. Let's try it deductively AND inductively.

Inductively, we're out of luck; there haven't been any modern all-atheist societies yet. (Communist leaders can't actually control what their subjects believe.) But at some point in human societal development homo sapiens went around without relgion, and they managed to not kill each other off. Of course every society eventually came up with one spiritual belief system or another, which could act as evidence that stable societies require religion. There are two problems with this hypothetical argument, though: First, who's to say religious societies are any more stable than pre-religious societies were; we're certainly more scientifically and technologically advanced now, but this is an artifact of human intellectual and academic development, not the influence of faith. Second, there's no reason to believe that religion developed in order to promote social order; religion probably sprouted from the same impetus that Science did, namely human curiosity.

Deductively, the failure of an all-atheist society is contingent upon the truth that (a) belief in supernatural beings is the only path to moral development, thus (b) atheists are incapable of morality and cooperation. This just doesn't make sense. The assertion that atheists who have achieved morality are only drawing from Judeo-Christian moral is unsuported inductively (other non-Judeo-Christian religions arrived at many of the same moral conclusions as The Bible) or logically (the most plausible cause of similar moral codes across cultures is the existence of certain behavioral patterns that most successfully lead to social stability and cooperation, principles that apply to atheists as much as to theists).

My background is in induction (research), and because we can't randomly assign newborn babies to theist and atheist vacuums, we can't know for sure whether people raised in the absense of faith can achieve moral development (and of course research can only disprove, never prove, so we'd never know for sure anyway). There's no reason to think that they don't, though.

Oh, and the claim that atheism (or really strong agnosticism) is like a "religion" in that it's followers are capable of evangelism is like saying that potatoes taste like brownies because they both bake in my oven.

Paul said...

I think the strongest argument against atheist societies is that people tend to respond to incentives, real or imagined. So if they think acting like a jerk will get them punished for eternity, they're more likely not to act like jerks.

I think that's a pretty weak argument, though, since that's only one incentive among many, and I haven't even seen any evidence that individual theists are particularly more ethical than individual atheists.

Also, that argument speaks only to the utility of theism, not it's accuracy. It's also not a metaethical argument; postulating a God that offers reward or punishment for certain behaviors doesn't get you any further away from moral relativism. At most, it just makes the morals relative to God.

As for me, on those rare occasions that I cook whole potatoes, I microwave them. I have never microwaved brownies (except to reheat them), and I suspect it would not work to do so. Clearly, potatoes and brownies are different.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Wait wait wait, Paul. ... You eat VEGETABLES?!

Ned Williams said...

I need to go beddy-bye, but I thought I'd contribute a little to the discussion before doing so.

I think that worldview is relevant in establishing a gov't or society because a gov't or society based on a flawed worldview would be doomed. Setting policy, responding to adversity, promoting community or safety--all elements of governance, if established or pursued or fashioned or based on a flawed view of reality will not have their desired result.

And my point to Paul about atheists getting a "free ride" in America relates to my belief that even though Atheism is not antithetical to morals or cooperation, it (Atheism) certainly would not have produced the society we now enjoy. I can benefit from or enjoy the use of a system or procedure established by another person, even if I could not have designed/created the system or procedure myself, and (assuming the system is well-designed) even if much of what I do causes stress on the system.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

"A society based on a flawed worldview would be doomed". Are you saying that Japan is doomed? After all they are based on mostly Shintoist (and Buddhist) world-view. My friend just came back from there and unless "doom" is connected with excessively priced video-games I think it's safe to say there's no problem there.

Or perhaps I misunderstand: Do you think Shintoism - whose adherents worship a great number of different gods - is not a flawed world-view?

Rebecca C. Brown said...

I'm glad Ned is contributing to our comments. He obviously cares about rhetorical quality and internet civility, which is refreshing.

But I'm getting diddly ding darn frustrated that he won't provide meterial or theoretical evidence that atheists couldn't have produced a productive, cooperative society in the absense of contact with theist societies. Because it's impossible to utilize real-world examples to support or deny atheists' society-building capabilities, I'd be happy to accept speculative musings.

Ned Williams said...

TS, In all candor, yes I think that Shintoism is flawed or wrong (and I don't hate them for it, I just think they're wrong/misguided), but I'd assert that the prosperity and freedoms they now enjoy are the result of a political system imposed on them by Judeo-Christian America after WWII.

RCB, Sorry that I can't provide evidence of my position . . . it is more logic. I think that an Atheist must borrow heavily from other worldviews to formulate policy or a basis for sound policy. This is a sincere question: what is the Atheist's basis for morality? or basis for values? or basis for policy?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I see. Before I thought you were arguing that non-Christians were free-loading in that they were benefiting from a culture that only existed because Christians were maintaining it. Now I see that Christians aren't even necessary to keep a culture going! They just get the ball rolling.

To be honest I think there's a strong argument that the values we exported to Japan are Liberal-democratic ones (plus Capitalism which Japan embraced long before the WWII), not Christian ones. Basically, it's enlightenment: The same values that motivated that great Jesus-rejecting American Thomas Jefferson as he wrote our constitution with his un-Christian hand.

That Christians would try to take credit for Enlightenment, after they fought against almost every step of the way is a little perverse.

Ned Williams said...

Well, Jesus was a "Liberal" in the classic sense. Just because the "Enlightenment" was a reaction or counter to the religion of that time period that happened to be sort of Christian (even while claiming to be Christian)--yes, I'm referring to Catholicism, doesn't mean that the Enlightenment principles sprung from thin air.

But I don't think you understand my point about the system that the Japanese (or any non-Judeo-Christian people) enjoy . . . it is rooted in Biblical values, even if all the Bible-ish references or qualities have been discarded. Mankind is special; survival of the fittest is uncivil; relatedly, rule of law is essential; there is a code higher than what we necessarily agree to or can conceive. And I guess you are aware that the social revolution that happened in the bosom of "the Enlightenment" was rather inferior to the one that happened in America; characterized by excess violence, in particular. It was a revolution without a cause or northstar.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I think I understand your argument I just think it's pretty thin.

Could you give me some examples of traditional cultures that don't think "Mankind is special"? I mean, surely most atheists agree that man is remarkable in many respects. Surely they agree that mankind should enjoy certain privileges that other animals should not.

As an observation "survival of the fittest is uncivil" is just banal. Of course it is. That's why every major culture (Judeo-Christian or not) has the golden rule which certainly violates "survival of the fittest". Check this out:

"This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you." — Mahabharata (5:15:17) (c. 500 BCE)
"What you do not wish upon yourself, extend not to others." — Confucius (ca. 551–479 BCE)

Whoa! Perhaps time-traveling Christians went back and taught the ancient Hindus. Or maybe a lost tribe of Jews wandered into the Shandong providence of China 500 BCE.

As for the rule of law being essential try organizing a simple city-state without laws. Even the smallest bands of pacific islanders had all kinds of laws concerning everything from food to sex. Don't you know? It's taboo: A "code higher than what we necessarily agree to or can conceive".

By the way if you want to claim something like "it is a Christian value that no one is above the Gods laws, not even the king" let me know: You will get served.

As for the America's revolution being less bloody than other revolutions: are you seriously arguing that this has something to do with America's revolution being religiously based? Seriously? More religiously based than Oliver Cromwell's war? Really? You don't think that has anything to do with the fact that the king we were fighting against lived like 5 time zones away across an ocean? Or that it wasn't necessary to topple the existing aristocracy in order to procure our freedom? All we did was bleed the British till they got sick of fighting and left.

ordinarygirl said...

Ned Williams said:

"This is a sincere question: what is the Atheist's basis for morality? or basis for values? or basis for policy?"

What is it that makes a mother care for her child? The basis of our (that's a general human "our")values and morality has a lot to do with being a productive society and finding a way to live together.

For me personally as an atheist my basis for morals is to not impinge on the rights of other human beings. My basis for value is examination of the world and consideration for other human beings.

I don't usually set policy, but in this case I think you may be talking about supporting policy. My basis there would go back to the rights of human beings and my consideration for my fellow human.

That's very simplistically and generically stated, as were the questions, but I don't see how that basis would create an unstable society.