Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

creationist infighting

Dr. Georgia Purdom of the young earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis (AiG) takes a look at "Intelligent Design" (ID):

The definition of ID can be best summarized as a theory that holds that “certain features” of living and nonliving things were designed by an “intelligent cause” as opposed to being formed through natural causes.1 The ID concept does not name the intelligent cause, nor does it claim that everything is designed, thus allowing for evolution/natural causes to play a role.

After acknowledging some things which, from the AiG perspective, are positives of ID, Dr. Purdom levels this criticism:

However, the major problem with the ID movement is a divorce of the Creator from creation. The Creator and His creation cannot be separated; they reflect on each other.

In today's culture, many are attracted to the ID movement because they can decide for themselves who the creator is—a Great Spirit, Brahman, Allah, God, etc. The current movement focuses more on what is designed, rather than who designed it.

And I agree. Well, I'm not so sure that anyone is drawn to ID because of the vagueness of its definition of God; my understanding is that the vast majority of ID proponents profess some form of Christianity.

But the ID movement does divorce the creator from creation. When ID proponents argue that the best evidence for a creator can be found in the organization of the bacterial flagellum, and not in the hearts of the followers of Christ, it becomes hard to imagine that they might be talking about a personal creator.

Dr. Purdom's next criticism is this:

Proponents of ID fail to understand that a belief in long ages for the earth formed the foundation of Darwinism. If God’s Word is not true concerning the age of the earth, then maybe it’s not true concerning other events of the Creation Week; and maybe God was not a necessary part of the equation for life after all.

On this one I have to side with the proponents of ID.

I see two fallacies here. First, the age of the earth — about 4.7 billion years according to the most accurate radiometric dating methods available today — is much greater than the age needed for Darwinian evolution. According to current estimates, life did not appear for more than a billion years after the planet was formed. What's more telescopic observations and background radiation measurements indicate that the universe existed for about nine billion years before our little solar system was formed. The ages of the earth and the universe have been continually refined as scientists have uncovered more precise methods of measuring them. These are not arbitrary numbers chosen for the benefit of Mr. Darwin.

Second, the book of Genesis was not written to provide us a simple historical timeline. Since ancient times, believers have applied allegorical interpretations to Bible stories to uncover deeper meanings. AiG's suggestion that we can't trust God if the earth is more than 6000 years old simply makes no sense. What's more, in staking out such a position the young earth creationists have placed themselves firmly in agreement with the new atheists. That's probably not the company you need if your goal is to promote the integrity of scripture. But I digress.

Dr. Purdom continues:

In addition, because the ID movement does not acknowledge God as Redeemer, there seems to be no final solution for the evil in this world; and by all appearances it will continue to reign supreme.

I'm not sure what is the basis for this criticism. As far as I can see, ID is not mutually exclusive with the idea of God as redeemer. And since many of the leading ID proponents claim to be Christians, they evidently don't see any contradiction between these two beliefs.

On the other hand, Dr. Purdom would be correct if she stated that ID does not require its adherents to believe in God as redeemer. In, fact it requires nothing at all in terms of belief in God.

And that, I think, is AiG's main concern with the ID movement. In their single-minded focus on sneaking their designer into science class, ID proponents have lost sight of the bigger picture. Young earth creationism, for all its flaws, at least ostensibly has the goal of glorifying God. The ID movement holds on to the creationism but cuts ties with God.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 16, 2009

the stumbling block

I don't think the title was meant to be humorous.

Marcia Segelstein has a guest column at OneNewsNow, titled Intelligent Design for dummies. (Ron Britton at Bay of Fundie replies, Why Yes! Yes It Is!)

Segelstein claims not to be interested in the whole debate over ID:

As far as I was concerned, all that mattered was my belief that God created the universe and everything in it. How He did it, when He did it, and what complex processes were involved were beyond my extremely limited understanding. They still are. And what continues to matter most to me is that God get the credit for creation.

And yet, she is drawn to the story of one Brian Westad. His experience

made me understand how the predominance of Darwinism can be a stumbling block to faith, even for believing Christians.

In short, Westad learned about evolution in college, but had trouble reconciling it with his belief in an active God. He leaned toward theistic evolution for a while, but began to drift toward atheism.

Then Westad began a research project with another student who introduced him to ID and to Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box. Behe is the originator of the hypothesis of "irreducible complexity," the idea that some things in this world — the rotating flagellum of certain types of bacteria, the blood clotting cascade found in most vertibrates — simply would not work until all the parts were assembled.

Behe's ideas gave Westad a reason to believe again. Westad is now the Executive Director for the IDEA Center, a non-profit organization for promoting ID in schools.


Segelstein's article contains some glaring errors: She calls Phillip Johnson "a leading I.D. scientist." Though he is by profession an attorney, a college professor, an author, and a leading strategist for the ID movement, he is not a scientist. Segelstein refers to "the fact that the bacterial flagellum could only function when all its components were present simultaneously." [emphasis mine] Unfortunately, other scientists have discovered ways in which the flagellum could have been built in stages.

But that's really beside the point. The point of Segelstein's article is that "Darwinism" can be a stumbling block to faith, and that ID is more sympathetic toward Christianity.

This view is disturbing on more than one level.

First, and most basic, is this: We are not allowed to choose our science based on how easily it integrates with our faith. It doesn't matter whether ID meshes better with what we want to believe. What matters is which hypothesis gives us a more complete understanding of the workings of the natural world. Just by the way the hypothesis was formed, ID cannot win that battle; it insists that some things are just too complicated to explain.

But ID is disturbing at a deeper level as well. Segelstein's article makes a big deal about Westad's difficulties reconciling evolution with faith in God. Yet, for me at least, ID presents the greater challenge.

Proponents of ID ask us to believe in a creator who went to great lengths to build a rotary motor to help H.pylori and E.coli bacteria navigate our digestive tracts. Yet this same creator sits idly by while 25,000 children die every day, most from preventable diseases.

The ID proponents say their hypothesis tells us nothing about the creator. I disagree. We can infer from the ID hypothesis that this creator cares more about germs than humans. I don't see any way of reconciling the implications of ID with Christianity.

I grant that if Christians accept the modern evolutionary synthesis, we still have to grapple with a God who lets 25,000 children die every day. Still, that is a problem for Christians of all stripes, including those who believe in young earth creationism and those who maintain that we can't possibly know how we got to this point. But only the ID proponents propose a model in which the creator shows such loving care for the little germs that can make us sick or kill us.

If that's not a stumbling block for Christians, I don't know what is.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, January 05, 2009

dawkins' god delusion revisited

A blogger named Philobyte has found my March 2007 post The God Delusion: A Source Criticism and is not impressed.

It's good that someone religious has read Dawkin's God Delusion. One would hope for some debate of facts and attitudes, but instead there is only sarcasm.

Actually, the technical term is satire, but I'll try not to quibble.

As I read The God Delusion, I was struck most by the unevenness of the book. Dawkins raised some serious issues which show the hollowness of Intelligent Design (ID), he struck some mortal blows at the philosophical "proofs" for God's existence, and he pointed to double-blind experiments on intercessory prayer that have shown it not to be effective.

Dawkins also likened religious instruction to child abuse, he alternately referred to God as an imaginary and an immoral being, and he alleged that suicide bombers take their faith more seriously than soup kitchen volunteers.

The God Delusion is a book with two separate voices competing for attention. So I thought I'd play a little game of source criticism. Philobyte was disappointed with the tack I took:

So you expect some examples of poor research, or self contradiction in the essay, you will be disappointed. The writer sets up "sources" of inspiration for Dawkins:

Erm, no, I set up "sources" who were the "actual authors" of the book. There is "H" who has most of the good arguments, and "A" who comes up with the insults. Then there is Dawkins himself, "R", who blends the writings of "H" and "A", with mixed results.

Of the two "authors", "H" has the more modest goal … to disprove the "god hypothesis", which is:

There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

"A" is antagonistic toward all possible concepts of a divine being:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

Now I don't really believe The God Delusion had multiple authors; the "H" and "A" labels are simply a convenient way to sort out the book's two voices.

But for the sake of discussion, I'll drop these imaginary sources. Richard Dawkins is the one whose name is on the book; he is responsible for the ideas found therein — regardless of who might have actually penned them.

Had Dawkins stuck with the premise of debunking his god hypothesis, this would have been a devastating critique of all "proofs" of the existence of God. Dawkins knows, however, that many believers do not see their deity as a hypothesis; that they would respond simply by saying, "That's not the God I believe in," so he tries to either shoehorn them into the same mold, or dismiss them as not being sincere.

Consider Dawkins' handling of polytheistic religions:

Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? … Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it.

Now I'm no more a believer in Wotan than Dawkins is, but I can't see how this gesture could even begin to cover Dawkins against a charge of neglect. Does Dawkins have a clue about the meaning of the ancient myths (or modern myths, for that matter)? Does he have any familiarity with the work of Joseph Campbell, or of Carl Jung, in understanding how mythology can shape our lives? Does Dawkins show even the tiniest glimmer of understanding of the power of myth? I don't think he has ever looked at mythology beyond maybe a superficial glance.

You see, in the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies, the gods did not create the universe. Had Dawkins wanted to relate his dismissal of mythology to the god hypothesis, he could have pointed to that fact alone, and said nothing more. But Dawkins has a higher goal in mind, that of attacking all religion. He explains in chapter eight:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

Now just how mythology teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue, Dawkins never addresses. He just assumes that we'll take his word without questioning.

Moving on, here's Dawkins on non-theistic religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism:

Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.

This shows Dawkins' gross ignorance, not just of these religions, but of what constitutes a religion. Certainly non-theistic religions don't mesh with Dawkins' god hypothesis, but Buddhist non-theism is very different from atheism. Buddhist non-theism is more about recognizing that the ultimate answers must come from within. This is not incompatible with belief in supernatural beings which may help or hinder the individual in finding those answers. Many Buddhists pray to the Buddha or to other spiritual guides. Meanwhile, Confucian rituals such as taking shoes off when entering the home or burning money as an offering to dead ancestors can hardly be called an ethical system or a philosophy. These are religious rites, performed by religious people who are not the least bit concerned about proving a hypothesis about a creator-god.

So once again, Dawkins is not speaking in the context of the god hypothesis; if he were, these religions would be outside his scope. He's looking to his larger goal of abolishing all religion. But if Dawkins wants to be taken seriously, he needs to explain why Buddhist and Confucian prayers and rituals should be considered a philosophy and not a religion. Where should we draw the line between the one and the other? Or, failing that, Dawkins needs to explain how these religions make the world safe for fundamentalism and teach children that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

I've raised just two very basic questions in this post: What is the power of myth? and, What is the dividing line between religion and philosophy or ethics? In the more than 400 pages of The God Delusion, Dawkins doesn't even begin to address either of these. If he really wants to make the case that religion in all its manifestations is dangerous, he needs to do better than that.

I haven't even touched on Dawkins' lack of understanding of the monotheistic religions; as time allows, I'll address that in a future post.

Labels: , ,

Monday, October 20, 2008

the schizochroal compound eye

Kurt Wise is perhaps the world's best educated creationist. He earned a doctorate in paleontology from Harvard, where his advisor was no less than Stephen Jay Gould. Dr. Wise has also been described by Richard Dawkins as an "honest creationist" because he freely acknowledges that his belief in creationism is grounded in his reading of scripture and not in his reading of the scientific data.

In an article for Answers in Genesis, Dr. Wise suggests that, outside the Bible, the best evidence for creation comes from "the design of organisms past and present".

The schizochroal compound eye of the trilobite (a horseshoe crab-like organism of the past), for examp le, contains the only known lens in the biological world which corrects for focusing problems that result from using non-flexible lenses. The designs of the schizochroal lenses, in fact, are the very same designs that man himself has developed to correct for the same problems. Furthermore, the design of the schizochroal eye combines this optimum focusing capability with the optimum sensitivity to motion provided by the compound eye as well as the stereoscopic (3-D) vision provided by closely spaced eyes.

For another perspective — and photos — see this article on the evolution of the trilobite eye.

This design, in fact, seems to far exceed the needs of the trilobite. The origin of the design of the schizochroal eye is not understood by means of any known natural cause. Rather, it is best understood as being due to an intelligent (design-creating) cause, through a process involving remarkably high manipulative ability. Among available hypotheses, creation by God is the most reasonable hypothesis for the origin of the complexity of the trilobite’s schizochroal eye.

One wonders, though, what is the most reasonable hypothesis for humankind's greatly inferior eyes. If I understand the hypothesis correctly, there was an intelligent (design-creating) cause named God, who crafted a very extravagant eye for some types of small hard-shelled, segmented creatures that lived more than 300 million maybe a few thousand years ago, and has never reached the same level of design perfection since. This is what results when we reduce God to the level of a scientific hypothesis.

So what happened to the intelligent (design-creating) cause named God? Has he lost his touch? Gotten distracted or lost interest? Surely he is a god! Perhaps he fell asleep, or has wandered away, or maybe he is relieving himself.

Labels: ,

Thursday, August 28, 2008

teach the controversy

A picture is worth a thousand words. From Sneer Review; hat tip James McGrath at Exploring Our Matrix

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 24, 2008

on intelligent design: first thoughts

The movie Expelled, released last week and featuring Ben Stein, is garnering a lot of attention for the intelligent design (ID) movement. At the core of ID seems to be the hypothesis known as irreducible complexity. Michael Behe -- professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a leading intelligent design advocate -- says that biological features such as the blood clotting cascade, the light sensitivity of photoreceptors in the eye, and the bacterial flagellum are examples of complex systems containing individual parts that could not function in isolation of each other.

Behe argues that the existence of irreducibly complex systems is evidence of fine-tuning by an outside agent, an "intelligent designer," who apparently is dissatisfied with the monotony of earth's life forms, and feels compelled to make inexplicable tweaks in obscure places. This designer might be a supernatural being, or it might be a space alien; the intelligent design hypothesis makes no claims about the nature of the designer.

Is intelligent design good science? Is it good theology? Based on my understanding to this point, I would have to answer no on both counts.

By setting up their hypothesis as a competitor to darwinian evolution, Behe and other ID advocates are trying to blur the line that marks the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Science is the study of the workings of the physical world. Science gives us explanations of natural phenomena. There are many areas of knowledge that are outside the scope of science: ethics, art, philosophy, and, of course, theology, to name a few. There's simply no way to squeeze God into the box of scientific inquiry.

What happens if we try to reduce the creator of the universe to a scientific hypothesis? We end up with the "god of the gaps." God is only useful when we need to explain something that we don't fully understand at the moment.

This is bad science because it can discourage further research. If we believe that increased human knowledge would decrease the power of God, we may turn a blind eye to the research into the evolution of the eye. It's bad science also because it accepts a non-conclusion as a conclusion. Merely because something is not understood scientifically does not automatically place it in the realm of external intelligent agents. There is a wide gulf between "We haven't found a natural explanation," and "We can't find a natural explanation." There is also a wide gulf between "We haven't found a natural explanation," and "An unknown intelligent being has been tinkering with life forms again." (And that's not even considering the fact that many of the "irreducibly complex systems" have been explained through natural processes, specifically through the process of exaptation. That's an issue for a separate post, which probably needs to be written by someone more able than I.)

ID is bad theology, too, as the implication of a god in the gaps theology is that God can only be seen in those things that can't be explained otherwise. So the birth of a baby, for example, could not be considered a miracle, because we understand the physical processes by which offspring are produced. But bacterial rotors... those are truly divine in origin! If intelligent design proponents took their own claims at face value, they would be followers of one strange cult.

They certainly wouldn't be followers of one Jesus of Nazareth, who said to a doubting Thomas, "You believe because you have seen my wounds," but did not add, "Blessed are those who understand the irreducible complexity of the blood clotting cascade." (Hey, that gives me an idea for my next Bible translations update...)

Anyway, thus far I've not been impressed with the intelligent design movement. Its major proponents seem to be trying to blend science with religion in a novel way, but the result is that they are making a mess of both.

Labels: , ,

Friday, March 21, 2008

both sides do it

In response to recent post a look at uncommon descent, commenter gleaner63 said:

A few months ago an interesting exchange took place on the Neil Cavuto Show (Fox News). The debate was between a Global Warming advocate and a skeptic. The advocate, a member of Greenpeace said (paraphrased); "...look, you *are not* a climatologist so no one should take what you say seriously...". Cavuto stepped in and asked the Greenpeace rep what his feild of study was; " training I am an economist...".

Aside: What I find puzzling about this is why Fox News presented a debate about climate science without inviting a climatologist. But I guess there's more than one way be "fair and balanced".

gleaner63 continues:

The point is both sides engage in this. When Dawkins or Sagan or Asimov condemn Christianity, a lot of non-believers take their opinions as gospel, although none of the aforementioned have any credentials in theology or anything closely related.

I don't like the phrase "both sides," with its implication that there can be only two possible positions to take. Still, gleaner63 raises an important point about atheists and theology.

I've written repeatedly about Dawkins' failure to grasp even the basics of Christian theology. It's not just a matter of having no credentials -- I'm no theologian myself -- but of willfully ignoring the contributions of those who do know somthing about the subject.

When Richard Dawkins speaks about religion while dismissing the insights of theologians, and when William Dembski speaks about evolution while dismissing the research of biologists, they are being willfully ignorant. And when Fox News presents climate change as merely a debate between environmentalists and skeptics, it's being willfully ignorant.

Sadly, willful ignorance is currently in fashion in the United States. We see it in politics, where most people get their information second hand, from sources that pre-spin it into sound bites. We see it in television news, where the sound bites are welcomed because the half hour news format does not allow time for in depth analysis of any topic.

Laypeople can become knowledgeable about almost any subject, but it takes some effort. You won't learn annything by watching Fox News or reading a popular book by a pontificating expert-in-another-field. Go directly to the people who know the most about the subject, and you'll get the best information.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, January 10, 2008

a look at uncommon descent

I don't often blog about creation and evolution, though several bloggers that I read do. Henry Neufeld writes frequently on the subject. Michael Westmoreland-White is currently in the middle of a comprehensive series on the topic.

These bloggers are quick to note that they are not scientists, and though they both appear to be knowledgeable about scientific matters, they focus more on the theological side of the issue.

On the other hand, organizations like the Discovery Institute and the Creation Museum are quick to trot out lists of scientists who oppose evolution.

A closer look, though, reveals that virtually all of these scientists specialize in fields other than biology. (The same pattern holds for climate change skeptics and climatology, but that's another issue for another time.)

Consider this list of contributors to Uncommon Descent, the blog of Dr. William Dembski, Research Professor in Philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

  • William Dembski: Mathematician and Philosopher
  • Denyse O'Leary: Author
  • Barry Arrington: Accountant
  • Lee Bowman: Entrepreneur
  • Salvador Cordova: Consultant/Engineer
  • Crandaddy: "Philosopher-in-training"
  • DaveScot: Computer Engineer
  • Gil Dodgen: Software Engineer
  • Red: Graduate Student in "biophysical sciences"
  • Scott: Computer Programmer

There's not a biologist in the lot, with the possible exception of "Red", the graduate student in "biophysical sciences". Now if I were challenging the foundation of modern biology, I'd recognize that my biggest weakness is that I don't have a degree in biology, and I'd recruit a first-rate biologist to help develop and test an alternative. Dr. Dembski, on the other hand, has gathered a set of computer and engineering professionals, and blended them in almost equal measure with a group of non-scientists. Is it any wonder that leading biologists do not take this group seriously?

Digging a little deeper, we find just exactly why this group opposes evolution in the first place:

Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins.

It's not that the science itself is bad. It's merely been corrupted by a "materialistic ideology", which undermines scientific inquiry. In other words, it's the philosophy, not the science, that Dembski is trying to overthrow.

Now it becomes clear. Philosophy is Dembski's specialty. He does not need to recruit an expert in the field.

But, if this is the route Dembski wishes to take, his task becomes much more difficult. His goal must be to find weaknesses not in evolutionary theory, but in the scientific method itself.

I am not a philosopher, but I am skeptical about his chances for success.

Labels: , ,