Abusing Science

Number 64 of a series

The title was enough to get me interested. First of all, the statement is blatantly false, and it is one that has grown thin from wear. The Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture made the link available through their Evolution News site.

It’s an item posted by Michael Egnor:

Michael Egnor is a pediatric neurosurgeon and intelligent design supporter who writes for the Discovery Institute blog. He is a professor at the Department of Neurological Surgery at Stony Brook University, a position held since 1991.

The item caries the title “Arguments for God’s existence can be demonstrated by the ordinary method of scientific inference.”

MICHAEL EGNOR MARCH 22, 2020

Atheist Jerry Coyne has replied to my post last Sunday about prayer and the coronavirus pandemic. I argued that prayer makes sense because God exists, and His existence is demonstrable via the ordinary method of scientific inference. There’s a name for this demonstration—natural theology, which is the science of demonstrating God’s existence using evidence and logic. Natural theology may be contrasted with revealed theology, which is the study of God via revelation in Scripture.

Natural theology has a massive history—it goes back at least to the ancient philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) (the Prime Mover argument). A high point in natural theology was Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways, which are scientific (i.e. evidence-based) arguments for God’s existence. In fact, the cornerstone of Aquinas’ metaphysics is that essence (what a thing is) is utterly distinct from existence (that a thing is).

So begins the argument. Readers are invited to go to the link and read the entire thing. The essentials are here:

Here’s Aquinas’ First Way:

1) Change exists in nature (evidence)
2) Change is the actuation of potentiality and an essential chain of actuations cannot go to infinite regress. A fully actual Prime Mover is necessary (logic)
3) That Prime Mover is what all men call God (conclusion)

I may be dense, but this appears to be the Argument from First Cause rehashed.

  • Everything has a cause.
  • The Universe is finite—there was a time when the Universe did not exist.
  • Therefore the Universe had a cause before it existed.
  • That cause must be God

There are some things wrong with this, the first being the statement “Everything has a cause.” We can demonstrate events that do not have a cause, but that is minor objection. Another objection is Egnor takes the supposition that the Universe had a beginning as a fact, when it really is a supposition upon which a bunch of scientific theory is based. To complete his argument Egnor will need to prove the Universe had a beginning, and that is something which appears to be true, but for which there is no factual evidence. He is saying supposing what some very reputable scientists hold to be true really is true, then it follows that God exists.

There is more. Read Egnor’s complete argument. “3) That Prime Mover is what all men call God (conclusion).” Notice “call God.” Dude, just because some people call the prime mover God does not lead directly to their actually being a God.  Calling a stick a snake does not make it a snake. It is still a stick, and specifically it is not a snake.

Michael Egnor does not seem to do any real science, nor do any of those shilling for Intelligent Design at the Discovery Institute.

Abusing Science

Number 63 of a series

Discovery Institute to the rescue again. Whenever I need some nonsense about science they are my reliable source. This is from Evolution News, their well-maintained blog site.

Neo-Darwinism and the Big Bang of Man’s Origin

Lönnig wants to invoke the late Phillip Johnson, former law professor at UC Berkeley. Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial reignited interest in the Intelligent Design concept. Previous creationists of the 20th century laid the creation argument totally upon a literal interpretation of the Bible. When courts threw out their arguments for teaching creationism in public schools, creationists saw Intelligent Design as a wedge for driving their entry into government-supported religious proselytizing. In fact, Johnson is credited as principal author of the so-called Wedge Document.

The Wedge Strategy is a creationist political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the pseudoscientific intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document. Its goal is to change American culture by shaping public policy to reflect politically conservative fundamentalist evangelical Protestant values. The wedge metaphor is attributed to Phillip E. Johnson and depicts a metal wedge splitting a log.

Lönnig is recycling material from December 2011, which I addressed previously. At the center is a video featuring Johnson answering some setup questions. Lönnig recaps one of Johnson’s responses:

Well, if I am out of my element then Charles Darwin must also have been out of his element because his training was in medicine and theology3 although he was, in fact, a very good scientist, self-taught, a gentlemen amateur like others of his time. Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, was a lawyer. But you know, the thing about Darwinian evolution today is that it is a general philosophical concept that connects many disparate fields of science. So that you see, a molecular biologist [is] relying on fossil experts, paleontologists, and vice versa. And they are all relying on geneticists and each one of these groups of scientists outside their own element is just a generalist, is just a layman like anyone else. So there aren’t really any specialists in evolution. It’s a generalist’s country.

Johnson is explaining why he, as a lawyer, is as qualified to speak on matters of human evolution as was Charles Darwin, who is given credit for the science. Of course the proper response from Johnson should have been to acknowledge Darwin’s extensive field work and his chain of reasoning leading him to propose natural selection as an explanation—a theory. Johnson could also acknowledge the accumulation of fact that continues to support both the evolution of living forms while never finding evidence that refutes the theory. In the video Johnson appears to dispute the fact of evolution—that living organisms have evolved. When I first posted on this in December 2011 I noted his duplicity:

In a rambling, oblique way Johnson seems to be saying he does not believe the basic fact of evolution-that current life forms share a common ancestry.

What is so puzzling about this is that just a few months prior to the interview Johnson was saying something else.

At the SMU symposium in March 1992 I had the opportunity to find Johnson in conversation with Jon Buell. Jon Buell heads up the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the organization that produced the Pandas and People creationist text that was central to the Kitzmiller v. Board of Education trial in 2005. The FTE was also a co-sponsor of the symposium.

I put to Johnson my two burning questions: Do you believe the Earth is billions of years old and that current life forms share a common ancestry? Johnson blinked a couple of times and stated flatly yes to both parts. Amazingly, Buell answered affirmatively, as well.

I discussed this topic again with Johnson in subsequent correspondence, and he never used the occasion to repudiate that position. Watching his response in the interview you will not get the idea that Johnson believes in common ancestry.

Readers are invited to read the Lönnig piece on Evolution News and to watch the video. The whole business is a fabulous abuse of science.

Abusing Science

Number 62 of a series

I would let you borrow my copy, but it’s a Kindle edition, and I’m not sure how that would work out. I bought the book. It’s Undeniable by creationist Douglas Axe.

Douglas Axe is the Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University, the founding Director of Biologic Institute, the founding Editor of BIO-Complexity, and the author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. After completing his PhD at Caltech, he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre. His research, which examines the functional and structural constraints on the evolution of proteins and protein systems, has been featured in many scientific journals, including the Journal of Molecular Biology, the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesBIO-Complexity, and Nature, and in such books as Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer and Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris.

Some elaboration for those not up on the creationism scene: BIOLA stands for Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Despite the reference, there appears to be a branch in Thousand Oaks. Besides his association with Biola, you need to also note his association with the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, a prime mover for creationism. Anyhow, this book may be a lesson on how science and religion can reconcile. Or not.

I have not read the entire book, but a few excerpts will give you the flavor. Axe relates how he moved from being addicted to science and reason to accepting the obvious—none of this stuff can exist without the intervention of an intelligent designer. Start here:

I recall a question on a final exam near the beginning of my graduate studies at Caltech: Which of the biological macromolecules is apt to have been the first “living” molecule, and why? If that sounds like Greek to you, relax. I promise to write in plain English. All you need to know is that the question is about how life began, posed with the unstated assumption that it began by ordinary molecular processes. That assumption had been ingrained in biological thinking for so long that it went without saying. Every student in the class understood this, but I understood it more critically than most did. I knew the expected response to the test question, but through my critical lens, that response seemed scientifically questionable. So I had a choice: Do I go with the flow, or do I push against it?

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (p. 2). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Axe elaborates on his chain of thought.

Of all the controversial ideas to come from modern science, none has brought more awkwardness than Darwin’s idea of evolution through natural selection. We know natural selection means “survival of the fittest,” which in one sense isn’t at all controversial. Indeed, Darwin’s observation that fitter individuals are apt to have more offspring is so obvious it hardly needs to be stated. But how can something with so little content—a truism—possibly explain the astounding richness of life?

The biggest question on everyone’s minds has never been the question of survival but rather the question of origin—our origin in particular. How did we get here?

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (p. 3). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Note the italicized piece at the end. “How did we get here?” This is a sticking point for many, and not just for the religious. At the base may be the human need for purpose. People live by purpose, and they naturally look for purpose, especially in things they do not understand. The problem with this way of thinking is it’s circular—ignoring that purpose is not a feature of nature.

Peer pressure exists in science as in most aspects of human society. Axe exploits this recognition and attempts to lay it at the feet of scientists who have accepted natural causes as a basis for human existence.

But if science itself wasn’t the cause of the change, then what was?

Whether he intended to or not, Darwin reveals here that peer pressure is a part of science, happening behind the scenes as the various scientific interests compete against one another for influence.

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (p. 5). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Allow me to loosely define materialism as the notion that we live in a material world, absent of spiritual entities hovering about and tweaking that world. Axe displays his disdain for materialism.

By way of background, the flag that has flown for many generations over the academy of higher education is that of a broad school of thought known as materialism.5 The meaning here isn’t the common one (an obsession with flashy cars or expensive clothes) but rather the view that matter—the stuff of physics—underlies everything real. Even if they don’t use this term, atheists tend to subscribe to the materialist view of reality, believing God to be a product of the human imagination, which they believe to be a product of material evolution. Theists, on the other hand, believe the reverse—that the material universe was brought into existence by God, who is not material. Both views accept the reality of the physical world, but one sees this as the only reality whereas the other doesn’t.

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (pp. 6-7). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

He inserts this sidebar, which is worth a look:

TWO -ISMS WORTH REMEMBERING materialism: the belief that physical stuff underlies everything real scientism: the belief that science is the only reliable source of truth

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (p. 7). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

The hard fact is physical stuff does underlie everything real, and science, or something strongly resembling science, is the only reliable source of truth. I will explain that last. Science is a rigorous approach to looking at what is going on and figuring out 1) what is going on and 2) rational explanations for what is observed and how this fits into the remainder of what we know. Absent science, we must ask what other means we would suggest for discovering truth. Some options:

  • Do not examine further, but sit quietly and concoct a story that fits our fancy.
  • Read an ancient text and make it into an explanation of how the world works.
  • Listen to a strident voice and accept what is said, ignoring other sources.

Yeah, we used to do that, and human progress stagnated for centuries until people started getting serious about solving real problems.

He invokes Thomas Nagel, getting around to:

As a first-rate philosopher of the mind, Nagel actually changes the debate with this candid version of atheism. In light of his example, thoughtful atheists no longer have the luxury of assuming their worldview just works somehow—that dead molecules somehow formed simple life, and that simple life somehow formed us, despite all the apparent difficulties.

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (p. 8). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Axe cites “dead molecules” and “apparent difficulties,” exposing his inclination for resorting to emotionalism. He seems to do a lot of that in this book. Another sidebar:

THE BIG QUESTION To what or to whom do we owe our existence?

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (p. 9). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

“To whom.” And that’s going to be what’s at the bottom of Axe’s argument. We are supposed to consider not merely a what but a who. There has to be a person, assumed transcendental, behind all of this. We have entered Axe’s world, and it is not the world of science and reason. He mocks natural causes, likening them to “oracle soup.”

1.​Fill a large pot with oracle soup.
2.​Cover the pot, and bring the soup to a boil.
3.​Remove the pot from the heat, and let the soup cool.
4.​Lift the lid to reveal complete instructions for building something new and useful, worthy of a patent—all spelled out in pasta letters.
5.​Repeat from step 2 as often as desired.

Axe, Douglas. Undeniable (p. 16). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

The allusion is to obtaining information from a source that contains less information. Creationist William Dembski previously invoked Kolmogorov complexity to argue life (complex chemistry) cannot be derived from non-life (not complex chemistry), because that would invoke the creation of information, in violation of the Kolmogorov complexity principle.

From all observation, life sprang from non-life without the introduction of information derived from an outside (intelligent) source.

As his book starts out, Axe is doing nothing more than to argue for the existence of the God of Abraham. If you doubt that you need only ask him.

Abusing Science

Number 58 of a series

Discovery Institute to the rescue again. When I need to illustrate the abuse of science, their creationist Center for Science and Culture will reliably come through. Here is a recent posting on the Evolution News site:

“Safe to Question” — Another Graduate of Summer Seminars on Intelligent Design Shares Her Story

Behind every Iron Curtain is a private network of dissenters, who come out into the light when the curtain falls. That was the case with the old Soviet Union. And so it is in the tightly policed world of evolutionary biology with its “great evolutionary firewall,” guarding against expressions of fundamental doubt about neo-Darwinian theory.

Discovery Institute is populating a community of dissenters in academia with the annual all-expenses-paid Summer Seminars on Intelligent Design, to be held this year from July 10 to 18 in Seattle. The application deadline is March 4. Intended for current undergraduate and graduate students plus a few teachers and professors, the Seminars run on two parallel tracks: 

From this you readily get DI conducts a series of seminars aimed at reassuring religious believers they can feel safe contradicting scientific evidence. The propaganda value of David Klinghoffer’s efforts are here in full display. Starting with the third word he is likening modern science to the iron curtain of the former Soviet Union. This barricade against outside influence was named by Winston Churchill shortly after the conclusion of the defeat of the German Nazi regime. DI wants you to know the modern scientific consensus regarding biological evolution is like an iron curtain, erected to keep free thought from intruding.

Klinghoffer relates the story of a student who attended one of the seminars.

I attended the Summer Seminar for Intelligent Design my last summer in grad school. It was life changing.

Before that summer, I had never met another scientist who thought intelligent design was anything more than a joke, let alone a powerful explanation for the observations we make in biology. I was fearful of being ridiculed by my colleagues and never said a single word about it throughout grad school, even when the topic came up.

But at the seminar, I’m in a room full of not just students, but also MDs and PhDs. Folks who run their own labs at prestigious institutes around the world. Biologists of every flavor, physicists, mathematicians, engineers, physicians, philosophers, and more. Many of them are silent too. And suddenly, oh the conversations we’re having! I felt so alive! We’re diving into science, engineering, and philosophy! Arguing, debating, pitching research ideas, asking questions, and critiquing ID research and ideas that have already been published. There was never a moment when the room was not wildly animated. I don’t think anyone else had met other scientists who hold to ID either. I think we were all starving for a sense of community. At least I was. I’m still in touch with many of the folks I met that week.

Best of all, I felt safe to QUESTION. I didn’t have to simply accept what I was being told as “fact.” ID is young and still underdeveloped as a framework of thought. You better believe that I threw out many questions as the speakers had time for. Others did too. I wanted to explore these ideas as widely as possible before the week was up.

Being a part of a community where it was safe to question and share ideas about design and engineering in biology transformed my life. I don’t know why, but I felt less anxious after that week. My life long struggle with social anxiety seemed to disintegrate. I was suddenly confident in myself, not just in beginning to speak out about ID, but in all areas of social life. Every year, I wish I could go back. Summer Seminar friends, I miss you all and hope to see you at some conference or event sometime soon! Thank you for the massive influence you all had on my life.

Here is a student, possibly by religious motivation but not necessarily so, who had doubts of biological evolution absent any supernatural element. Apparently she had been in a position of thinking, “There is no way,” but she feared speaking out, lest she be tagged as a crank. Klinghoffer and DI want to assure us this is much the case with those who look for supernatural causes.

I keep injecting the word “supernatural,” because that is the distinction between the scientific consensus and its opponents. The opponents entertain one or more of the following:

  • My religious belief is that the God of Abraham created us or else guided the process by bending nature to his (her) will.
  • I’m not a believer in the GoA, but this notion that only natural processes can accomplish this borders on the absurd.

The problem with this way of thinking is it runs hard up against basic fact.

  • Science involves itself only with matters of nature, excluding what is commonly termed the supernatural.
  • The supernatural does not exist, almost by definition.
  • In all of human history nobody has ever demonstrated a supernatural event. All attempts in modern times to invoke the supernatural have failed.

The student in Klinghoffer’s story can now go into the world confident there are highly accomplished others who reject the need for natural explanations. She has the choice of keeping silent and smiling inward, when discussing matters of human origins for example. Or she can speak her mind and face the objections of others. It’s a world we all live in. However, if it is the world of science she wants to live in, she will need to start by arming herself with facts, because scientific theories derive from facts and not from personal preference.

Abusing Science

Number 54 of a series

Discovery Institute to the rescue again. Whenever I need a story about abuse of science I know I can always find one coming from this creationist organization. Their Evolution News site is a wealth of material. Here I can always count on something fresh. By “fresh” I mean stale. A lot of this stuff I have seen in a previous life spent writing about young Earth creationism.

Truth be told, I subscribe to their newsletter. A recent issue pointed me to a video titled “Is Homology Evidence for Evolution?” It’s short, and it is aimed at children. The idea of religious zealots is to inoculate young minds in order to ensure a ready feed stock for adult propagandizing. It’s a touchy-feely form of child abuse. I watched it through twice and obtained some screen shots for illustration.

This video attacks biological evolution by going after the concept of homology. Briefly, homology, the study of like forms, got people to thinking about evolution thousands of years ago. The idea is it appears humans share structures of like form with other animals.

And here is what is so ironic. The Intelligent Design advocates largely accept common ancestry. Jon Buell heads up the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (see following), and the late Philip Johnson is considered the godfather of the modern Intelligent Design movement. In a conversation in March 1992 both agreed they believed in common ancestry.

Despite what you will be told in the video, homology is evidence of evolution and also common ancestry. Young minds enjoying this piece of propaganda are supposed to get the idea homology is the linchpin holding evolution together and, further, they will be informed that homology is debunked.

Whales, people, and dogs enjoy five-digit appendages.

But, what is the proper interpretation? Is it common descent, or is it evidence of a common designer? This is the point where the video first hints at Intelligent Design.

The video illustrates with the Corvette—a classic American sports car. If you follow the evolution of the car’s design from its origins to today’s model, you will see it morph through several stages.

But this is not due to Corvette models’ common ancestry. It is due to the car’s common manufacturer, the American Motors Corporation.

Here the video is being disingenuous. The story of the Corvette relates descent with modification. Homology relates existing organisms according to their common features. Machines are products of human enterprise and do not undergo the evolutionary process that living things did. Although still not pertinent, a more proper illustration would have been to compare the modern bicycle with the 2020 model of the Corvette. Thousands of years ago people got the idea that wheels would facilitate transportation, and a result is both the bicycle and the Corvette have wheels.

At this point, the video gets to the matter of cytochrome C.

We have seen that before. From the item linked above:

It reflects an argument used by a young Earth creationist in an attempt to debunk homology, and evolution. The argument goes like this:

  • You compare the amino acid sequence of cytochrome C in modern organisms.
  • You note the differences do not reflect a progression from “least developed,” e.g., a carp, to “most developed,” e.g., a horse.

The image is derived from one on page 38 of the creationist text Of Pandas and People, second edition. The book was produced by the Richardson, Texas, Foundation for Thought and Ethics. Creationists attempted unsuccessfully to introduce the book into the science curriculum of the Plano, Texas, public schools in 1995. A similar attempt with the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district culminated with the 2005 case Kitzmiller, v. Dover Board of Education. The creationists lost “bigly” then, and a lot of the Discovery Institute’s propaganda thrust since has been in response to this loss.

Here is another illustration from page 37 the Pandas book.

This illustrates how little the Intelligent Design argument has progressed in its attempt to distance itself from the dismal science of young Earth creationism. The difference in cytochrome C sequences reflects not development from ancient to modern, but the development since the most recent common ancestor. The difference between human and wheat and the difference between human and dogfish are nearly the same, because their most recent common ancestor marked the branching between plant life and animal life.

The video entertains us with more of this. And it moves on to cytochrome D, which I have not studied.

The video characterizes the involvement of homology in the theory of evolution as a circular argument. Evolution implies homology, which implies evolution.

Abuse of science has not much grown up since the Bible-thumping days of the Scopes Trial.

Abusing Science

Number 52 of a series

This column is ordinarily devoted to matters of science and the abuse of same. Here an exception is being made. There is abuse of philosophy, as well, and of thinking, in general. I found this on the creationist Web site Evolution News.

C.S. Lewis and the Argument from Reason

For those who don’t know, Jay Richards is the co-author with Guillermo Gonzalez of The Privileged Planet. Here is more from the site:

Editor’s Note: In celebrating the release of the new documentary film “C.S. Lewis and Intelligent Design” and commemorating Lewis’s life this month, the 50th year since his death, we have been publishing excerpts from CSC associate director Dr. John West’s book The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. The following is from Dr. Jay Richards’s chapter, “Mastering the Vernacular.”

To see Lewis’s genius, I’d like to focus on one of his best-known arguments — often called the “argument from reason.” The purpose of the argument is to show that naturalism and reason are incompatible, that believing in naturalism is self-defeating. That is, if naturalism is true, then we ought not to trust our capacity for reason, and so, ought not to trust arguments in favor of naturalism.

Philosopher Victor Reppert describes the argument (and several versions he develops from Lewis’s original) as “beginning with the insistence that certain things must be true of us as human beings in order to ensure the soundness of the kinds of claims we make on behalf of our reasoning.”1 This argument gained attention when Lewis proposed it in the first edition of Miracles. Philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe critiqued the original formulation of the argument, so Lewis corrected it in a subsequent edition of Miracles.2 It is this revised version of his argument that millions of readers have encountered. (He also discusses the argument in some lesser-known articles published in Christian Reflections and God in the Dock.)

So naturalism is the belief that nature is all there is, and the supernatural does not exist. The article makes numerous references to “reason” and “reasoning” but never gives an adequate definition of
“reason,” never adequately explaining what it is. I will, in this vacuum, state that reason is the employment of logical inference, doing, as we all do, defining one term by invoking other terms.

Here is a further excerpt:

It is in this context that Lewis takes up the so-called “cardinal difficulty of naturalism.” Naturalists in Lewis’s day were very much like naturalists in our day. They normally imagine that their philosophy is the result of sound reasoning and solid evidence, and assume non-naturalists are ignorant and irrational. Lewis argues quite the opposite: naturalism is not compatible with knowledge and the reliability of reason.

By “naturalists” we might think “scientists.” The crux of the argument appears to be that scientists rely almost exclusively on reason, to which argument I object. The outstanding feature of science is observation and the testing of theories (explanations). The matter of observation pretty much rules out the existence of miracles (the supernatural), leaving only the natural. Hence, naturalism.

Richards writes:

Naturalists, like everyone else, generally trust their reason to lead them to truth. We all take it for granted that we can learn about the world around us through our senses. We experience heat and sound and color and other people. We somehow synthesize and take account of these things with our mind. From these experiences we make inferences about the world: “We infer evolution from fossils: we infer the existence of our own brains from what we find inside the skulls of other creatures like ourselves in the dissecting room.”3

No. Richards misunderstands science profoundly. Evolution does not stand on inference alone. Evolution is proposed as an explanation (a theory) to explain observations. Science works to determine whether any parts of the theory contradict observed facts. Lacking disqualification, evolution continues to stand. In contrast, creationism (the supernatural), while explaining the facts, adds an unnecessary feature—a feature that cannot be verified except by using it to explain that which it proposes. C.S. Lewis notwithstanding, you cannot invoke the supernatural to justify the existence of the supernatural.

Readers are invited to read the complete Jay Richards article. Post your comments.

Abusing Science

Number 49 of a series

My Facebook timeline gets pinged regularly by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. The organization is this country’s—perhaps the worlds’—premier promoter of Intelligent Design, a rejuvenation of biblical creationism. To make it clear, the CSC wants us to know there is a supernatural cause behind the origin of the universe and all life on this planet. I capitalize Intelligent Design, since it is standard English to capitalize the names of religions.

Michael Behe is “professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University.” Intelligent Design has a long history, and its resurgence is in response to the failure of biblical literalism to legitimize creationism. Intelligent Design advocates want to convince us nature in general and life in particular are too well configured to have natural origins. Some intelligent force must be at work. Hint: advocated make scant secret this intelligent force is the God of Abraham.

Lacking demonstrable evidence for an intelligent designer, proponents scratched about for arguments to boost their assertions. In 1996 Professor Behe published Darwin’s Black Box. The book seeks to convince readers that step-wise mutations in a genome, a key component of Darwinian evolution, cannot produce ever more elaborate organisms. Behe has since published The Edge of Evolution and more recently Darwin Devolves. I have the Kindle edition and started reading it a few days ago. By page 39 it became apparent Behe had yet to make an argument based solely on fact. What I have seen so far is, at the base, a plea for the reader to believe. Some excerpts will illustrate. In his Introduction Behe lays out his premise:

Yet despite the long and varied history of discourse, discourse, all particular positions on the topic can be considered to be elaborations on either of just two general mutually exclusive views: (1) contemporary nature, including people, is an accident; and (2) contemporary nature, especially people, is largely intended—the product of a preexisting reasoning mind.

I will argue in this book that recent progress in our understanding of the molecular foundation of life decisively supports the latter view. To help frame the issues we’ll consider later, let’s first briefly recall a few highlights of what earlier writers thought about nature and purpose.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (pp. 1-2). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Talking about Anaxagoras, he explains:

His student Diogenes of Apollonia was even more explicit: “Without an intelligence it would not be possible that the substance of things should be so distributed as to keep all [nature] within due measure.”

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 2). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Reference to ancient Greek philosophers is enlightening, but ultimately a scientific argument will need to come down to some hard science. Before there is any science, we will hear more from ancient philosophers:

Galen concluded that the human body is the result of a “supremely intelligent and powerful divine Craftsman,” that is, “the result of intelligent design.”2

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (pp. 2-3). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

William Paley, writing over 200 years ago, brought Intelligent Design into modern society.

Several decades later, the Anglican clergyman William Paley, ignoring Hume and drawing on sophisticated work in biology, presented the watchmaker argument (discussed in Chapter 3)—widely considered to be the strongest, most detailed case for design up until his day.

About sixty years later Charles Darwin parried Paley’s argument. He proposed that there was a hitherto unrecognized natural process that, over a very long time, could imitate the results of purposeful design—namely, natural selection acting on random variation.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 4). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Behe, as do proponents of today, pits Charles Darwin against the concept of Intelligent Design. If you study the modern creationist through a few of their writings you will conclude a principle aim is to associate natural causes with Darwin and to refer back to his thinking in arguing against them. What a careful reader should recognize in considering these arguments is a simple observation. The evidence for evolution by natural causes does not hang on Charles Darwin. Darwin, working in a time when evidence was scant, produced some naive concepts. Modern studies have overridden many of Darwin’s ideas and have at the same time reinforced the conclusion that natural processes are sufficient to explain biological evolution. A key factor of real science is that you can toss out all previous research and start fresh, ultimately coming to the same conclusions. Religious concepts are not like that. If you toss out the Bible you cannot reproduce the God of Abraham. Jehovah is the creation of ancient minds and no real evidence will ever reproduce the concept.

Behe argues advances in the human intellect further enable the argument for Intelligent Design.

Recall, however, that the state of the design argument depends on our understanding of science and logic, which has accelerated explosively since Darwin’s day. The development of analytical philosophy in the early twentieth century encouraged much more rigorous arguments; advances in formal logic and probability theory, such as Bayes’ theorem, made that easier.3

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 4). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

For those not familiar with it, Bayes’ theorem relates to conditional probabilities. What is the probability this is true given that is true. Hopefully we will see Bayes’ theorem invoked later in the book.

Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the idea of natural selection about the same time as Darwin, and they coordinated their publications in 1858. Behe remarks:

Wallace thought that much of nature showed strong evidence of purpose, as he forcefully conveyed in The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose.4

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 5). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

A key argument for Intelligent Design consists of the assertion things had to be just in order for us to be here talking about it.

desolate. Subsequent progress concluded that it’s not just our world—the physics and chemistry of the whole universe is astonishingly fine-tuned for intelligent life on earth.6

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 5). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Behe explains the origins of his thinking about irreducible complexity by recounting a conversation with a fellow academic.

Talk turned to the origin of life. Although she and I were both happy to think life started by natural laws, we kept bumping up against problems. I pointed out that to get the first cell, you’d first need a membrane. “And proteins,” she added. “And metabolism,” said I. “And a genetic code,” said she. After a short time we both looked wide-eyed at each other and simultaneously shouted, “Naaaahh!” Then we laughed and went back to work, as if it didn’t really matter to our views. I suppose we both thought that, even if we didn’t know how undirected nature could begin life, somebody must know. That’s the impressive power of groupthink.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 7). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

With the beginnings of Behe’s thinking on the matter we also see the beginnings of his misdirection. Life we see today is founded on cells, as Behe describes. His mistake is in concluding the chain of life must have always involved cells. Or perhaps not. Behe may agree life chemistry at one time was not based on cells, but he exposes the lack of an explanation of how early life chemistry produced the first cells. Here he exposes a great hole in human knowledge, and into this void he drops the notion of an intelligent designer, specifically the God of Abraham.

Behe pursued Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. He recalls his reaction.

I got mad. Over the following months I spent much time in the science library trying to find papers or books that explained in real detail how random mutation and selection could produce the exceedingly intricate systems routinely studied by biochemistry.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 8). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Pause for a moment. Michael Behe has written a book seeking to debunk natural causes behind evolution and to reinforce belief in an intelligent designer. We would hope to see logic and reason employed. Even evidence. What we see are arguments from emotion. He got mad. That is neither a scientific nor a logical argument. It is meant to tug at the reader’s inner beliefs.

Behe begins his assault on the science community’s acceptance of natural causes.

At that point I concluded that I had been led to believe in Darwin’s theory not because of strong evidence for it. Rather, it was for sociological reasons—that simply was the way educated people were expected to think these days. My professors hadn’t been intentionally misleading—that was the framework in which they thought about life too. But from then on I resolved to decide for myself what the evidence showed.

When one starts to treat Darwinism as a hypothesis about the biochemical level of life rather than as an assumption, it takes about ten minutes to conclude it’s radically inadequate. It takes perhaps another ten minutes to realize that the molecular foundation of life was designed, and for effectively the same reason that Anaxagoras, Galen, and Paley reached the same conclusion for visible levels of biology (although, because of progress in science and philosophy, the argument is now necessarily much more detailed and nuanced than their versions): the signature of intelligent activity is the arrangement of disparate parts to fulfill some purpose. The molecular parts of the cell are elegantly arranged to fulfill many subsidiary purposes that must blend together in service of the large overall purpose of forming life. As we’ll see in this book, no unintelligent, undirected process—neither Darwin’s mechanism nor any other—can account for that.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (pp. 8-9). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Please forgive the extended excerpt, but it is necessary to lay out in some detail Behe’s chain of thinking.

We begin to get some insight into the other than rational motivations behind the Intelligent Design movement. As additional information channels opened he exchanged thoughts with like-minded academics.

Like me, most had religious convictions, which freed them from the crippling assumption that—no matter what the evidence showed—unintelligent forces simply must be responsible for the elegance of life. Some of us banded together under the auspices of the Seattle-based think tank Discovery Institute, the better to defend and advance the topic of intelligent design (ID), to which we had become dedicated.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 9). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Key here—religious convictions freed these people from a crippling assumption—that assumption being the reliance on natural explanations. If you are of another mind you are beginning to see Behe and others have entered the world of superstition and magic. This is a world apart from any definition of real science.

Behe foresees and heads off a critical counter move of the rationalists.

(One common confusion of critics is to think that ID argues everything is planned. That’s not the case. Chance is an important, if superficial, feature of biology.)

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 9). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Yes, proponents are careful to not lay everything onto supernatural causes. At this point I will caution rationalists who seek to debate Intelligent Design. Do not fall into the trap that “intelligent” ad employed  by the creationists, means “smart.” Do not point toward all the dumb things found in the design of living organisms. The creationists use “intelligence” to mean “information,” particularly information from a supernatural source. This information is not guaranteed to produce joyful results.

Not all of what Behe writes is strictly factual.

After DNA and proteins were discovered in the late twentieth century…

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 10). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Proteins began to be studied in the 18th century.

 

As science rapidly advanced in the early twenty-first century, large studies showed only surprisingly minor changes in genes under severe selective pressure. And as we’ll see in this book, now several decades into the twenty-first century, ever more sophisticated studies demonstrate that, ironically, random mutation and natural selection are in fact fiercely devolutionary. It turns out that mutation easily breaks or degrades genes, which, counterintuitively, can sometimes help an organism to survive, so the damaged genes are hastily spread by natural selection. Strangely, in the space of a century and a half Darwinism has gone from the chief candidate for the explanation of life to a known threat to life’s long-term integrity.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 10). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Here is going to be a principal argument in the book. Behe agrees evolution does take place. He will not agree with the principle that natural processes can produce “improvement.” He will argue natural processes, “Darwinism,” can only eliminate improvement. I put “improvement” in quotes, because much of Behe’s argument consists of his claiming what is and what is not “improvement.”

He initiates discussion of improvement with the example of polar bears. Polar bears are the largest land carnivores, and some examination has revealed they are closely related to the North American brown bear, the grizzly bear, and the Kodiak bear. It is considered the polar bear derived from an ancestral brown bear, giving up its brown color for a coat of white fur. The white fur is obviously a benefit to a bear living almost entirely on white ice and snow. We like to think this is Darwinian evolution in action.

Not so, according to Michael Behe.

Although Charles Darwin didn’t mention them in his 1859 masterwork, On the Origin of Species, the polar bear is a wonderful illustration of his theory of evolution by random variation and natural selection. Like other examples Darwin did cite, the giant predator is clearly related to a species that occupies an adjacent geographical area, while just as clearly differing from it in a number of inherited traits. It is easy to envision how the polar bear’s ancestors might gradually have colonized and adapted to a new environment. Over many generations the lineage could have become lighter in color (making the bears less and less visible to their prey in snowy environments), more resistant to the cold, and more adapted to the sources of food in the Arctic, a process in which each step offered a survival advantage over the previous one.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 16). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Only several years ago—only after laboratory techniques were invented that could reliably track changes in species at the level of genes and DNA—was the genetic heritage of the Arctic predator laid bare. The results have turned the idea of evolution topsy-turvy.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 16). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

There are two significant genetic differences between polar bears and brown bears, the other being accommodation for a fat-rich diet. Polar bears eat a lot of seals. But I will illustrate with Behe’s comments on pigmentation (or lack of) of polar bears.

A second highly selected gene, LYST, is associated with pigmentation, and changes in it are probably responsible for the blanching of the ancestors’ brown fur. Computer analysis of the multiple mutations of the gene showed that they too were almost certainly damaging to its function. In fact, of all the mutations in the seventeen genes that were most highly selected, about half were predicted to damage the function of the respective coded proteins. Furthermore, since most altered genes bore several mutations, only three to six (depending on the method of estimation) out of seventeen genes were free of degrading changes.2 Put differently, 65 to 83 percent of helpful, positively selected genes are estimated to have suffered at least one damaging mutation.

It seems, then, that the magnificent Ursus maritimus has adjusted to its harsh environment mainly by degrading genes that its ancestors already possessed. Despite its impressive abilities, rather than evolving, it has adapted predominantly by devolving. What that portends for our conception of evolution is the principal topic of this book.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 17). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

And that is it. Behe, throughout much of his work at refuting natural causes, points to mutations which turn out to be beneficial to an organism are in reality the destruction of a genetic trait that was likely hard-gained, supposedly by supernatural processes.

And I will rest discussion of this point until such time I review the entire book, and I will turn to a minor point the modern creationists continually ignore. What is the evidence of a supernatural intelligence at work? By what means does a transcendental entity that exists outside time and space effect changes in a genome? If natural causes are insufficient to produce beneficial mutations, mutations that will stick? Does this transcendental entity develop material fingers, which fingers need to exist within time and space, that reach into natural chemical processes and produce just the required mutation that will be beneficial to an organism?

Take special note. Michael Behe believes in evolution. He concedes populations have evolved and that modern species have origins stretching back millions of years.

For example, the ideas that life has changed over time and that organisms are related by common descent (both of which were controversial in Darwin’s time) are supported by evidence from geology, paleontology, and comparative anatomy. Those parts of his theory have withstood the test of time very well.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 19). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Seeming without justification, Behe makes a bold claim.

Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolution is more widely questioned today than at any time since the role of DNA in life was discovered.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 19). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

At one point he lays bare a critical drive of the creationists.

Building a solid foundation for understanding that data does require some work. But it brings the substantial reward of a much better appreciation for the place of humanity, and indeed of all life, in the universe. At a minimum, we need a grasp of the outlines of the history of biology, the strengths and weaknesses of Darwin’s theory and modern extensions of it, the latest pertinent research results, and crucial philosophical topics. All of that this book will provide in a way that aims to be accessible to the general reading public. The book’s goal is to give readers the scientific and other information needed to confidently conclude for themselves that life was purposely designed.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 20). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

I have put in bold a phrase pushed by those who want to challenge purely natural causes in public education. Creationists have (for the moment) given up on teaching creationism or even eliminating the teaching of Darwinian evolution. We see introduced in state legislatures laws that promote teaching the controversy and teaching the strengths and weaknesses. Behe indicates his alignment with these maneuvers.

The book’s goal is to give readers the scientific and other information needed to confidently conclude for themselves that life was purposely designed.

Behe, Michael J.. Darwin Devolves (p. 20). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

And I will close it down with that. I promise to finish reading the book, and a review will come within a few weeks.

Abusing Science

Number 47 of a series

I apologize if it appears I keep dragging on the Discovery Institute for stories about abuse of science, but fact is these people are a gold mine of cases. The push for their narrative against natural causes is relentless. To the end I tap into this resource, I receive almost daily updates. Here is from an email in November:

Dear John:

If you listen to the media, you’d think that science has refuted God, the debate over Darwin is closed, the solution to the origin of life is right around the corner, and humans are no more significant than cockroaches.

If you are as sick of this kind of fake news as I am, read on: There is a solution—and you can be a part of it. The solution is called Evolution News and Science Today.

Discovery Institute started this news outlet back in 2004 to counter all the fake news in the debate over intelligent design. Since then, the audience for Evolution News has grown from a few thousand to more than a million users a year. In fact, according to Google, Evolution News is on track to reach 1.7 million users by the end of 2019. That’s right: Not 1,700. Not 17,000. But 1.7 million.

Our growing readership gets unique reporting and analysis from Discovery Institute Fellows like biochemist Michael Behe, philosopher Steve Meyer, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, biologists Jonathan Wells and Ann Gauger, paleontologist Günter Bechly, and many more.

Darwinists absolutely hate Evolution News. Why? Because they know we have an impact! Remember how Yale computer scientist David Gelernter gave up his faith in Darwin earlier this year? One book that influenced his change of mind was Debating Darwin’s Doubt. Many of the chapters in that book were originally published as articles on Evolution News.

Whenever the media or scientific establishment spreads phony information about evolution, we spring into action.

For example, when the journal Science went after Michael Behe’s blockbuster book Darwin Devolves this year with a sham review, Mike and our other scientists were able to use Evolution News to utterly demolish the journal’s bogus claims.

All told, we publish 800+ articles a year, and we even produce an edition in Spanish, translated for us by a courageous university student in Central America.

We want to continue Evolution News (EN) and expand its impact. You can be a part of our efforts by generously supporting EN now.

And it closes with an appeal for donations. You will have surmised I did not contribute.

Some points are worth examination: “If you listen to the media, you’d think that science has refuted God…” The fact is, if you give the matter some serious thought the concept of God is refuted. Lacking any physical evidence, the concept of a transcendental being outside the realm of time and space must rely on philosophical arguments. Creationists will posit the need for an intelligent designer meets the requirement for a scientific basis, but that is turned on its head and exposed as a philosophical argument. The creationists must justify the existence of a transcendental being that has the inclination to create the universe and all these people. To be sure, that line of reasoning is going nowhere.

How about, “…and humans are no more significant than cockroaches.” Amazing! This is an argument that is sure to get you an A on a Philosophy 101 mid-term. Just kidding, of course. From where do these creationists get the idea this conclusion follows? I am guessing what is involved here is not a stab at logical proof but is an appeal to the reader’s preconceived notions. We are dealing with emotions here, and reason be damned.

I will not dissect the entire note, but I will close with a comment on this paragraph: “For example, when the journal Science went after Michael Behe’s blockbuster book Darwin Devolves this year with a sham review, Mike and our other scientists were able to use Evolution News to utterly demolish the journal’s bogus claims.” Full disclosure: I purchased the Behe book and have started using excerpts in rebuttal to CSC’s propaganda campaign. See a previous posting on “The Years of Living Stupidly.”

Also note the Discovery Institute has tuned up the title for their Intelligent Design site. It is now Evolution News & Science. You will be seeing a bunch more here about the fresh surge from the CSC.

Abusing Science

Number 42 of a series

Discovery Institute to the rescue again. Here is something recent from their Evolution News site:

Walnuts: Intelligent Design in a Nutshell — Literally

Evolution News @DiscoveryCSC

September 19, 2019, 4:46 AM

Thank you to Paul Nelson who points out a paper in Advanced Science that is both nutty and not nutty at the same time — nutty, because it concerns walnuts; not nutty, because there is nothing silly or unintelligent about the way walnut shells are designed.

“The outer protective shells of nuts can have remarkable toughness and strength,” say Sebastian Antreich and six others in the paper. Considering that walnuts are widespread and commercially important, they decided to look at the nuts in detail. They found a unique architecture in the shell called “interlocked packing” that resembles a 3-D puzzle.

Follow the link. Read the entire post, which concludes with:

The stately English walnut trees with their thick, white trunks provide another unusual benefit to man: furniture and fine art. Some walnut trees respond to mold or insect infestations at ground level by growing thick, dark “burls” around the site of injury, surrounded by tough bark. Walnut burl wood, with its deep red color and complex swirled grain, is highly prized for making coffee tables, guitar inlays, gun stocks, jewelry and other artistic creations. Some burl items can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Walnut trees are good for the economy!

So what’s not to love about walnut trees? They provide nutrition, art, exercise, shade, lumber, and now another benefit: a biomimetic model for materials science. Like the Moringa tree discussed in an earlier post, some plants seem to give much more than they take to for mere survival. It fits with the ID view that a designer had the Foresight to equip the world with good resources that would be needed and appreciated by the most exceptional beings of all: humans. A friend of Evolution News grew up on a ranch with a walnut grove and supplied the wonderful accompanying photos. Enjoy!

I may be wrong, but I suspect the conclusion the writer wishes to leave is there is a benevolent, transcendental being who loves us and wants us to be happy. For some people, this is science.

Abusing Science

Number 41 of a series

Once again I have the Discovery Institute to thank. They are a source that never falters. Here is the latest from their Evolution News site:

Physics Nobel Prize Invites Snark from the Anti-ID Peanut Gallery

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

October 9, 2019, 5:00 AM

Congratulations to Princeton cosmologist James Peebles, who shares the Nobel Prize this year for physics. His work, as the Wall Street Journal summarizes, “developed precise models of cosmic creation, transforming cosmology ‘from speculation to science,’ the [Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences] said.” A frequent if not obsessive ID antagonist, Kevin Williamson, seizes upon this as an occasion for a swipe at intelligent design and a put-down directed at all those rubes (presumably including subscribers and readers of the magazine where he writes, National Review) who would seriously entertain the idea.

I will leave it to readers to decipher that passage, and I will get to the meat.

The Irony, Please?

Yet, insofar as Peebles’s work helped to strengthen the evidence for a cosmic beginning, it is actually part of the argument for intelligent design made by, among others, philosopher of science Stephen Meyer in his next book, The Return of the God Hypothesis. As Meyer and fellow ID proponents have shown, a starting point to physical existence, which is what the Big Bang represents, is among the most persuasive evidences against a materialist perspective on reality. Taken together with the remarkable fine-tuning data, it suggests a purposeful cause operating intelligently outside nature, responsible for creation. That is why materialists resisted it until the gathering evidence, developed in Peebles’s field, made it impossible for them to do so any longer.

I have no idea what view Professor Peebles takes on these grander ramifications. But as another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the late Charles Townes, put it, “Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real.” Nor is he alone. Physicist Brian Josephson, another Nobelist, says he is “80 percent” confident that intelligent design is correct. As the odds go, that’s not bad. How about giving the snark a little rest, Williamson?

For more on intelligent design and the arguments from cosmology, see Episode 4 of Science Uprising:

What I find most stunning is this snippet of text: “Yet, insofar as Peebles’s work helped to strengthen the evidence for a cosmic beginning, it is actually part of the argument for intelligent design made by, among others, philosopher of science Stephen Meyer in his next book, The Return of the God Hypothesis.” The awful truth is any notion that the output of Stephen Meyer is in the same league with that of James Peebles is pure fantasy. While Peebles spent decades observing the cosmos and applying mathematical analysis and reasoned insight, Meyer has dedicated the past two decades to convincing others the universe and all life resulted from the musings of a transcendental being. The ultimate insult is having somebody such as Stephen Meyer attempt to hitchhike on the work of real scientists.

If the term “peanut gallery” puzzles you, then Google is your answer.

Abusing Science

Number 36 of a series

Once again I need to post an item on the topic of Abusing Science, and once again I turn to that reliable source, the creationists of Discovery Institute. Here is something directed to me from their Center for Science and Culture. The email service arrives regularly and is titled “Nota Bene.” Make what you want of the title, but here is a link from the email:

WHY CAN’T MONKEYS TYPING FOREVER PRODUCE SHAKESPEARE?

Before communication can begin, there must be an intention to communicate

BY RUSS WHITE ON SEPTEMBER 10, 2019

If you give an infinite number of monkeys typewriters and allow them to type freely, will they eventually produce the works of Shakespeare? Call this the infinite monkey theorem (IMT), widely attributed to Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895), best remembered today as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution. In 2000, a tongue-in-cheek “protocol” for such an experiment was developed. Independently, in 2003, enterprising researchers gave a group of monkeys keyboards, in what they were willing to discuss as a test of the theory:

It is a shopworn challenge, and it centers on the random mutation aspect of Darwinian evolution. How, creationist argue, can a random process using finite resources produce well-crafted organisms? Richard Dawkins addresses the argument in his book, The Blind Watchmaker.

The resemblance of a cloud to a weasel is only mildly diverting, barely worth calling to the attention of our companion. Moreover, we are quite likely to change our mind about exactly what the cloud most resembles.

Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius. By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet. Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius. It is backed like a weasel.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (pp. 65-66). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Dawkins discusses how random permutation of a sequence of letters can eventually form Shakespeare’s line, “Methinks it is like a weasel.” He produced a computer simulation that did exactly that. However, his process incorporates a selection mechanism as required by Darwinian evolution. Dawkins’ process permutes letters in the initial string until a letter fits the required pattern, then the process stops permuting that letter and continues with the rest. In short order the process produces “Methinks it is like a weasel.”

Of course, nature does not act this way. Nature is likely to continue permuting a letter that already fits the expected pattern. Besides, nature does not have an expected pattern as a goal. And that is a thing that bothers the creationists. There must be a goal, or else Darwinian evolution cannot work. It is inside that goal Intelligent Design lives. The “intelligent” part of Intelligent Design has nothing to do with smarts. It’s all about goals. Goals are fed into the process from an external source—a source of intelligence.

And that gets us the the crucial part of White’s thesis. After some lead-up he gets around to:

These issues speak to intent. It is not enough to form symbols; it is not enough to form words; it is not enough to form sentences. Before communication can begin, there must be an intention to communicate which results in the creation of dictionaries and grammars which interact with one another and are often layered in complex ways. Intent, then, is a critical component of communication.

At this point I need to call a halt to a serious misconception by White and others seeking to use information theory to argue against Darwinian evolution. There is a basic misunderstanding of what communication is. I state without authority the following:

  • At the base level information is the entity that mediates cause and effect.
  • At the base level communication is a manifestation of cause and effect.

All higher levels of communication we experience—talking person to person, watching a game on TV—they all distill down to the bullets above. Further justification on request.

White writes, “Before communication can begin, there must be an intention to communicate…,”  and he says this without justification. He wants to construe communication in the same sense as people talking on a telephone, where intent is an ingredient. Intent is not a requisite for communication. But what is intent, and does it exist?

Stating without authority, intent is a feature of living organisms, and it is particularly a feature of animal life forms. Animal life forms move about and do things, and their actions are driven by intent. Let that be the working definition of intent.

Where does intent come from? We are born with it. Without it most animal forms would quickly perish and would not reproduce. Darwinian evolution has produced intent on this planet. Some elaboration.

A baby mammal is born. If it is born without the intent of seeking its mother’s nipple, then it will not live to reproduce. Animal life is driven by goals, the substance of intent. The animal is hungry. The animal seeks food. The animal (often without much thought) seeks to reproduce. Intent is essential to the promulgation of a species.

But whence intent? On this planet before there was life there was no intent. Creationists want to argue there was intent, and, further, that intent came from a transcendental being that exists outside space and time. You can see I am making a bunch of this stuff up.

Ultimately White’s argument appears to go nowhere. He concludes:

Neither of these approaches, however, will ultimately work — real communication requires intent, not only in the communication itself but even in the creation of the shared framework (dictionaries and grammars) in which communication takes place. Ultimately, then, thinking through the IMT shows us that artificial intelligence cannot produce the works of Shakespeare. There can be an illusion of intent but the original intent required to communicate just is not there.

He says much, but tells us nothing. What we are observing is a horrendous abuse of science.

Abusing Science

Number 29 of a series

The Discovery Institute continues its campaign to paint Intelligent Design as a valid scientific enterprise. A recent post to their Evolution News site highlights their approach:

Watch: Stephen Meyer Expertly Punctures the Rule of Methodological Naturalism

Following on chemist Marcos Eberlin’s comments yesterday about intelligent design and the definition of science, watch philosopher Stephen Meyer expertly puncture the idea that science requires an approach of methodological naturalism (MN):

[Link to the video]

The rule, as he explains, is arbitrary. True, the designing agent inferred by ID theory is not directly observable, but neither are the elementary particles. Both are inferred. And the so-called demarcation criteria that would exclude ID as science would, if applied consistently, also exclude Darwinian theory. Most fundamentally, MN shuts down on principle what ought to be the goal of all science: objectively seeking the truth about nature, whatever that truth might be.

Particularly galling is the assertion “True, the designing agent inferred by ID theory is not directly observable, but neither are the elementary particles. Both are inferred.” What may not be obvious to David Klinghoffer is that while the “designing agent” is inferred (conjectured, postulated, imagined), elementary particles are not. Not, that is, unless the definition of the word “inferred” has been changed.

The designing agent, although proponents may be reluctant to admit so, is the god of Abraham. There is no physical evidence for the existence of this entity, and no manner of approach for probing its existence has been proposed.

Fundamental particles include protons, neutrons, electrons, muons, and such, and their properties and their presence are routinely studied. These things have mass, and they can do real damage when flung about. The notion that the fundamental particles of physics are on the same level as an imagined transcendental being speaks to the abysmal level of scientific thinking among fans of Intelligent Design. If you want to see abuse of science done so ineptly, here it is.

Abusing Science

Number 28 of a series

The above meme is supposed to be an argument for Intelligent Design, a modern form of creationism. A similar argument is the one that invokes fine tuning:

The Radio at the Edge of the Universe

Some atheists have been crowing lately about the rise of the “nones.” Many of those “nones” aren’t atheists, and the trend toward atheism is greatly exaggerated. But the way many scientific materialists talk, anyone capable of walking while chewing gum must see the “overwhelming evidence” that “God is dead.” 

Wait. That’s just the intro. Here is the meat of Marcos Eberlin’s argument:

Think of a radio dial that needs to be set at precisely the right frequency — “tuned” — to find the desired station. If the universe were a radio and the desired setting allows for life, it would have dozens of dials for setting the values of the universal constants. Muff even a single of these dial settings at the beginning of the universe, by even a tiny bit, and the result is a universe that can never host life. 

Confronted by this, distinguished physicist Fred Hoyle commented, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”

Failing to comprehend the circumstances underlying our existence, more so the existence of the Universe, we must fall back on legends perpetrated by Bronze Age tribesmen living on the eastern region of the Mediterranean Sea. I am thinking Eberlin expects too much of me. Here is some background:

Marcos Nogueira Eberlin (born 4 March 1959) is a Brazilian chemist and professor at the Institute of Chemistry of the University of Campinas. He is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and received the Brazilian National Order of Scientific Merit in 2005 and the Thomson Medal in 2016.

Eberlin discovered the Eberlin Reaction during his work on gas phase ion chemistry, and he and his research group introduced EASI (Easy Ambient Sonic-spray Ionization), an ionization technique used in mass spectrometry.

Eberlin is an advocate of intelligent design in Brazil, a pseudoscience on which he also lectures and he has signed the Dissent From Darwinism statement. He is a creationist also, and has said that evolution theory is a fallacy.

There is more. He is the author of Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose. The notion that wacky ideas about science are relegated to back stream advocates such as William Dembski and Stephen C. Meyer needs to be extinguished. Eberlin continues:

But in fact, intelligent design is testable. Also, if the above definition were the proper definition of science, only one worldview would be allowed in science: naturalism. And that biased restriction would mean that evidence of apparent foresight in the universe and life must be ignored or explained away.

He bemoans restricting science to naturalism. The problem is that beyond naturalism we have the supernatural. The supernatural exists in a realm where anything can happen, and by this means anything can be explained by made-up stories. Read his posting.

The Kansas Board of Education has defined science as a human endeavor aimed at explaining the natural world, though they added one sweeping restriction: It can only appeal to natural forces. “Science is restricted to explaining only the natural world, using only natural cause,” the board wrote. “This is because science currently has no tools to test explanations using non-natural (such as supernatural) causes.”

But in fact, intelligent design is testable. Also, if the above definition were the proper definition of science, only one worldview would be allowed in science: naturalism. And that biased restriction would mean that evidence of apparent foresight in the universe and life must be ignored or explained away.

Follow the link to another Evolution New post regarding testability of Intelligent Design. I will cover that in a future item for this series.

Abusing Science

Number 23 of a series

On Sunday, 19 May, Liam Feldman will host a reading/review of Why Intelligent Design Fails by Matt Young and Taner Edis. The meeting will be at Barnes & Noble 321 NW Loop 410 #104 in San Antonio, starting at 3 p.m. Feel free to come out and join the discussion.

With that in mind, the topic of this post is a book by the Discovery Institute, the leading promoter of Intelligent Design. It’s Science and Human Origins, compiled by Ann Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin. They are all associated with the Discovery Institute. From Amazon:

Evidence for a purely Darwinian account of human origins is supposed to be overwhelming. But is it? In this provocative book, three scientists challenge the claim that undirected natural selection is capable of building a human being, critically assess fossil and genetic evidence that human beings share a common ancestor with apes, and debunk recent claims that the human race could not have started from an original couple.

This is an interesting stance for Intelligent Design, because the philosophy was resurrected 30 years ago to pull the creationist movement away from biblical  origins and to disguise it as a science-based endeavor. Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture were supposed to acknowledge inescapable science and get people to thinking an unknown creator is behind this science. UC Berkeley law professor (now  retired) Phillip E. Johnson is credited with giving Intelligent Design new life and is considered the godfather of the modern movement. Jon Buell is president of the Richardson, Texas, based Foundation for Thought and Ethics. FTE is publisher of the creationist book Of Pandas and People, made famous in the Kitzmiller court case. Both attended a symposium titled ” Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference?” at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, March 26-28, 1992.

It was an opportunity to ask the pivotal question, and I did. Did these two educated men agree the earth is billions of years old and that humans share a common ancestry with other life forms? Both agreed. The ground may have shifted since then, because outpourings from the DI seem to have dropped the facade of scientific literacy. The book that is today’s topic bears that out.

Reviewing books such as this and picking them apart on inconsistencies and obvious wrong facts is a bunch of fun, but I have no experience in the related science, so it’s best if I fall back on others who do. Someone who seems to have given this book a close look is Paul McBride. From a post by Richard P. Hoppe on the Panda’s Thumb site:

Fortunately for me, I’m spared the chore of reading and critiquing the book. Paul McBride, a Ph.D. candidate in vertebrate macroecology/evolution in New Zealand who writes Still Monkeys, bit the bullet and did a chapter by chapter (all five chapters) review of the book. The book doesn’t come out looking good (is anyone surprised?). I’m going to shamelessly piggyback on McBride’s review. I’ll link to his individual chapter reviews, adding some commentary, below the fold.

The book has five chapters, and the one I appear to have found most interesting is chapter 5, “The Science of Adam and Eve.” I am guessing by he title that all pretense of scientific rigor has been discarded. We are back to Genesis with a bang.

My copy of the book is a Kindle edition, and one thing you can do with these is highlight sections of text. I notice I highlighted entire paragraphs when I first went through the book. Here is one section.

Using population genetics, some scientists have argued that there is too much genetic diversity to have passed through a bottleneck of just two individuals. But that turns out not to be true.

Gauger, Ann. Science and Human Origins . Discovery Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

Here is another.

Now, I am a scientist, and not a theologian, but I feel obligated to speak. The challenge being posed to two first parents is a scientific one, so it deserves a scientific response. My purpose in this chapter is not to engage in Biblical interpretation or to pass judgment on the various views Christians hold about Adam and Eve. Instead, I propose to focus on the scientific argument and its validity.

Gauger, Ann. Science and Human Origins . Discovery Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

And there it is. Genesis is true, and Adam and Eve were real people, and we all sprang from this single pair.

But wait! Real scientists hold a similar view. Richard Dawkins, no friend of the Bible, agrees that today’s human population sprang from one woman, exact identity unknown.

The second conclusion of the Berkeley group is less controversial. No matter where Mitochondrial Eve lived, they were able to estimate when. It is known how fast mitochondrial DNA evolves; you can therefore put an approximate date on each of the branch points on the tree of divergence of mitochondrial DNA. And the branch point that unites all womankind—the birth date of Mitochondrial Eve—is between a hundred fifty thousand and a quarter of a million years ago.

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden (Science Masters Series) (pp. 52-53). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

The difference is Mitochondrial Eve was not the first woman. Some elementary mathematical analysis will demonstrate to you that, given the branching inherent in sexual reproduction, any two people alive today should be able to trace their lineage back to a point the paths intersect. Dawkins goes further. He uses the rate of mitochondrial mutation to compute an approximate date of our common ancestry, in the female line of descent.

On the matter of common descent, I first noticed a divergence in thinking among the new creationists at a conference in Dallas in November 2003. Ray Bohlin was there, along with creationist Ide Trotter. Bohlin holds a  Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from the University of Texas at Dallas, and he is also a key person at Probe Ministries in Richardson, Texas:.

Raymond G. Bohlin is Vice President of Vision Outreach with Probe Ministries.

A plenum session gave participants the opportunity to ask questions and to make statements. Ray Bohlin announced to those present he believed all life forms on this planets have a common ancestry. Except humans. People have a different line of descent.

Creationists Ide Trotter and Ray Bohlin in 2003

I yield the remainder of your time to reading Paul McBride’s more thorough examination of this creationist book. Get a copy for yourself if you are interested. It’s a grand exemplar of the abuse of science.

Abusing Science

Number 2 of a series

This series is inspired by Philip Kitcher’s book of the same name.

Back when Kitcher published this book, creationists were of the worst kind. They wanted to convince people that the story of Genesis was true, the universe and all life forms were created by the God of Abraham in the course of six days about 6000 years ago. Furthermore, the story of Noah and a worldwide flood was for them a part of world history. It was tough sledding.

Modern science, starting around 200 years ago, began to undercut these fables. The science of geology pointed to an ancient Earth. Darwin’s explanation of biological evolution abolished the human species’ special place among living things, and studies of radioactive elements in the earth’s crust pointed to a planet over four billion years old. Finally modern cosmology accounted for the formation of the universe over 13 billion years ago—and by natural causes.

In a landmark court case, Federal Judge William Overton ruled in an Arkansas case in 1982 that “creation science,” as creationists then called their theories, is not science. Rather, it is religious-based conjecture. Subsequent attempts to get around this finding terminated in a subsequent loss in Louisiana in a case termed Edwards v. Aguilard. A proposal to require teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution was found to be religiously motivated and in violation of the Constitution.

The response from the fundamentalist religious community was to usurp the Young Earth Creationists with a new breed of ecclesiastical scientists and a fresh approach. These creationists were, and still are, real scientists with valid Ph.D. degrees in related fields, and they largely avoided mention of biblical stories about the age of the earth and the God of Abraham. They revived William Paley‘s concept of Intelligent Design. They insist that the complexity of modern life forms is evidence of a higher intellect behind the world we see today. In future installments I will touch on the activities and the writings of the various individuals involved, but to get things going I will delve into something recent.

The organization in this country that most prominently advocates for Intelligent Design is the Discovery Institute, based in Seattle. More specifically, the DI’s Center for Science and Culture is the focus for ID, and they host a blog site titled Evolution News.

A principal talking point used to support ID is the source of novel information. The contention is that for novel life forms to develop, some additional information must be supplied. For illustration purposes, imagine an animal like a fish. It is generally agreed that the ancestors of present day land animals, lizards, for example, were fish. The proponents of ID will point out that fish have no legs, and for land animals to walk around, given that lizards evolved from fish, then new information about legs had to be supplied from somewhere. Or from somebody. Novel information cannot come out of thin air. There must be a supreme intellect behind the development of land animals with legs.

Novel information, and information in general, is a large part of ongoing arguments for Intelligent Design. The CSC person charged with developing and supporting this connection between is mathematician William Dembski. To illustrate how far the modern creationists buy into the relevance of Dembski’s work, he has been dubbed to be the “Isaac Newton of information theory.”

William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, and since this is the Age of Information, that makes Dembski one of the most important thinkers of our time. His “law of conservation of information” represents a revolutionary breakthrough. In Intelligent Design Dembski explains the meaning and the significance of his discoveries with such clarity that the general public can readily grasp them.He convincingly diagnoses our present confusions about the relationship between science and theology and offers a promising alternative.

[Robert C. Koons, Professor of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin—from the dust jacket of Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, InterVarsity Press, 1999.]

Being compared to Isaac Newton is a dab of adulation that Dembski has never disavowed.

So we have it. Information theory continues to crop up in items aimed at supporting Intelligent Design, and that brings us to this:

Bacteriophages, Budding Yeast, and Behe’s Vindication

Ann Gauger is a senior research scientist at Biologic Institute. Her work uses molecular genetics and genomic engineering to study the origin, organization and operation of metabolic pathways. She received a BS in biology from MIT, and a PhD in developmental biology from the University of Washington, where she studied cell adhesion molecules involved in Drosophila embryogenesis. As a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard she cloned and characterized the Drosophila kinesin light chain. Her research has been published in NatureDevelopment, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry.”

Specified complexity is an argument proposed by Dembski and used by him in his works promoting intelligent design. According to Dembski, the concept is intended to formalize a property that singles out patterns that are both specified and complex. Dembski states that specified complexity is a reliable marker of design by an intelligent agent, a central tenet to intelligent design and which Dembski argues for in opposition to modern evolutionary theory. The concept of specified complexity is widely regarded as mathematically unsound and has not been the basis for further independent work in information theory, complexity theory, or biology. Specified complexity is one of the two main arguments used by intelligent design proponents, the other being irreducible complexity.
Abuse of science did not end with demise of the Young Earth Creationists. This series will continue to turn over such cases until I run out of ink.

Abusing Science

First of a series

Philip Kitcher published the book in 1982, and a friend at work recommended I get a copy. I will do a review later, but for now it’s going to serve as the title for a series related to the abuse of science. I will get started with the matter of a sponsored posting that keeps showing up on my Facebook timeline. It’s from the Center for Science and Culture, a division of the Discovery Institute, headquartered in Seattle. The pertinent text goes as follows:

An artificial and oppressive wall separates the realms of faith and science, a wall that needs to be demolished.

That’s the provocative thesis of the Dallas Conference on Science and Faith, to be held just two months from now, January 18-19, 2019. Join philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, radio host and bestselling author Eric Metaxas, theologian and Privileged Planet author Jay Richards, and Rice University synthetic organic chemist James Tour as we breach the fabled wall.

[Links added]

The Facebook posting includes a link to a video, and you should take some time to view it. Here is the link:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWdihTt3tLM

Pertinent screen shots give an idea as to the message. Some disturbing findings are revealed.

Fifty-five percent of American adults believe science and religion are in conflict. (Surprise, surprise!)

Nearly a quarter of young adults from a Christian background think Christianity is anti-science.

Among college freshmen, a significant percentage believe the universe arose by chance.

Let’s take a deep look at these findings.

First, science and religion are in conflict. Science is a way of knowing that involves looking at what’s going on in the natural world and coming up with explanations that fit the findings. Religion answers questions by making stuff up. It cannot be put more straightforward than that.

Second, Christianity is anti-science to the extent that many Christians support their beliefs by denying established science.

Third, good for those freshmen. The universe did not arise by means of an intelligent being intent on performing an experiment with natural law. In that sense, the universe did arise by chance.

So what’s the point of this Science and Faith conference in Dallas?

The CSC has a history, going back more than 20 years, of failed attempts at undermining scientific explanations for the existence of life and even the universe. The obvious intent is to replace religious explanations, their own, for explanations based on fact. Phillip Johnson, a significant catalyst for the revival of the Intelligent Design argument, is the principle author of the Wedge Strategy:

The Wedge Strategy is a creationist political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the pseudoscientific intelligent design movement. The strategy was put forth in a Discovery Institute manifesto known as the Wedge Document. Its goal is to change American culture by shaping public policy to reflect politically conservative fundamentalist evangelical Protestant values. The wedge metaphor is attributed to Phillip E. Johnson and depicts a metal wedge splitting a log.

That the CSC has not been successful in its goals after more than 20 years speaks not so much for the skepticism of the American public as for the creationists’ delusional nature. They keep putting forward arguments that are demonstrably wrong. Thirteen years ago the push to promote Intelligent Design failed spectacularly when the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district attempted to insert the creationist text Of Pandas and People into the science curriculum.

Come forward to 2019, and the CSC people will be having another go at it. The effort appears to be headed up by Stephen C. Meyer, a founder of the CSC. Here is what he has to say (from the video):

Are science and faith incompatible? No! Just the opposite. Science is providing support for faith.

That has to be about the most profoundly stupid statement to ever show up on my view screen. Scientific finds provide no support for the existence of the supernatural, let alone supernatural explanations for life and the creation of the universe. The fact of the matter is that science has worked 500 years at undermining the basic tenets of religious supposition. That would be starting with the age of the earth right on through the supposed miracle of the Shroud of Turin. Additional examples on request.

The CSC posting announces others who will be presenting at the conference. Will I attend and do a review? Only if I can get a pass from Barbara Jean. May Jesus have mercy on my soul.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 11 in a series

The title pretty much explains it all. Some people go for years, their entire lives sometimes, in a continuous state of false belief. That would include a bunch of folks at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Vis their Conference on Science and Faith, scheduled for Dallas in January:

Dallas Conference on Science & Faith, January 18-19: “Tear Down This Wall!”

What If?

Whether science can cast light on the eternally urgent questions has been a subject of debate by philosophers going back to the Middle Ages and beyond. It’s also, obviously, very much of the moment today. From the announcement of the event by Discovery Institute:

According to a nationwide survey, more than two-thirds of atheists and one-third of agnostics believe that “the findings of science make the existence of God less probable,” while nearly half of self-identified theists believe “the findings of science are neutral with regard to the existence of God.”

But what if there is another option? What if the discoveries of science actually lend support to belief in God?

The Return of the God Hypothesis

At the Dallas Conference on Science and Faith, we’ll tackle subjects including “The Return of the God Hypothesis,” “The Miracle of the Universe,” “The Privileged Planet,” “The Mystery of the Origin of Life,” and “Darwin’s Doubt.” There will be plenty of opportunities for the audience to participate — questioning, challenging, and learning from a group of stellar scholars.

Yes, this is a lot to unload. Start with “Whether science can cast light on the eternally urgent questions has been a subject of debate by philosophers going back to the Middle Ages and beyond.” The implication is that faith, and religion in particular, can be invoked in places where science, otherwise known as formalized common sense, is unable to winkle out answers. People, if you study a matter earnestly, turning it this way and that, and you still can’t come up with a worthy answer, the solution is not to just close your eyes and make something up. Made up answers are generally worth the amount of energy it takes to have a bad dream. That is to say, they are not worth sharing with your worst enemy.

The piece posted to Evolution News goes on to cite that agnostics and atheists generally think the application of scientific approaches tend to make belief in God (the God of Abraham in particular) unnecessary to accommodate.

“But what if there is another option? What if the discoveries of science actually lend support to belief in God?” Now this is something worth considering. It is right up there with “What if analysis of elephant’s tusks lead to the conclusion that penguins do not possess a liver?” Both make a lot of sense.

If you are among the many who think this conference is not going to offer anything worth carrying home, then you might want to save yourself the $15 registration fee and also a trip to Dallas.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 8 in a series

The photo shows creationists Walter Bradley and Ide Trotter at a workshop hosted by the Texas Education Agency, where they were assigned the task of reviewing high school biology texts for public schools.

I tend to devote this series to people being stupid about science, such as by using science and religion in the same sentence. That often comes about when people, caught up in religion, carry the contagion with them when they step across the line into fields of science—or into any other area requiring rational thought. Who does this a lot are the people at the Discovery Institute (DI), the premier organization in this country promoting Intelligent Design.

A rich resource on this kind of foolishness is the DI’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC), founded by creationist Stephen C. Meyer, among others. the thinking of DI fellows and the CSC are made public on an associated site called Evolution News. More recently, I found the following posted on the Discovery Institute site:

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor: Why Machines Will Never Think

From remarks at the official launch of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence

ROBERT CROWTHER, II AUGUST 1, 2018

This is interesting on multiple levels, one of which relates to Dr. Michael Egnor, whom we have met before:

Michael Egnor is a prominent neurosurgeon and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Stony Brook University. He became inoculated against evolution (the science of biological evolution) after reading  Michael Denton‘s book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Egnor has aligned himself with the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC), one of the leading creationist organizations in this country and likely the absolute leader in support of the Intelligent Design version of creationism. An excerpt from one of his posts on the CSC’s Evolution News blog may be characteristic:

Scopes was put on trial for violating the Butler Act, which prohibited teaching human evolution to schoolchildren in Tennessee. What Scopes actually taught, if anything, is unclear, because Scopes was untruthful about what he did, and the trial was a legal ploy to spur a Supreme Court ruling. The truth was a secondary consideration at best to Scopes and to his team.

Hunter’s textbook Civic Biology was racist and taught eugenics. It was vile stuff. If a teacher taught from it today, he would not be prosecuted for violating the Butler Act. He would be prosecuted for federal civil rights violations.

Follow the link and read the post for complete details. Anyhow, Dr. Egnor now proposes to  boldly step outside his realm of expertise and into the quagmire that is Artificial Intelligence (AI). I took some time to read through his thinking on the matter, and you are invited to do likewise. What I found is that, while Dr. Egnor is likely correct in some of his conclusions, he is correct for the wrong reasons. An illustration from Dr. Egnor’s monograph:

What is the hallmark of human thought, and what distinguishes thoughts from material things? Franz Brentano (1838–1917), a German philosopher in the 19th century, answered this question decisively. All thoughts are about something, whereas no material object is inherently “about” anything. This property of aboutness is called intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind. Every thought that I have shares the property of aboutness—I think about my vacation, or about politics, or about my family. But no material object is, in itself, “about” anything. A mountain or a rock or a pen lacks aboutness—they are just objects. Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind.

Another word for intentionality is meaning. All thoughts inherently mean something. A truly meaningless thought is an oxymoron. The meaning may be trivial or confusing, but every thought entails meaning of some sort. Every thought is about something, and that something is the meaning of the thought.

That’s what I like about philosophers. First, they fall back on what other philosophers have said—with little or no attempt at confirmation, and they talk of things being true, apparently for the sole reason that they say they are true. How about, “Only a mind has intentionality, and intentionality is the hallmark of the mind?” Whether he realizes it or not, what Dr. Egnor has just done is to write a definition for the word mind. Please note the statement does not preclude a computer becoming a mind. What it says is that if a computer attains intentionality, then a computer can become a mind. Dr. Egnor never offers any reason a computer cannot become a mind. He says it, so it must be so.

Under other circumstances I would pass off Dr. Egnor’s musing as the product of religious corruption. I cannot do this, because it happens that Dr. Egnor, in his musings, is in the company of mental giants, one being renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. It happens that Penrose is of the same mind as Dr. Egnor in this matter. Neither believes a computer can become a mind, and Penrose has written a book on the matter titled The Emperor’s New Mind. I have had a copy of the book since it came out in 1989, but I did not read through it. That’s because I quickly encountered conclusions I cannot sign off on. In the book, Penrose seems to invoke the argument from incredulity, much as Dr. Egnor does above. Martin Gardner wrote the forward, concluding:

Penrose’s achievements in mathematics and physics– and I have touched on only a small fraction– spring from a lifelong sense of wonder toward the mystery and beauty of being. His little finger tells him that the human mind is more than just a collection of tiny wires and switches. The Adam of his prologue and epilogue is partly a symbol of the dawn of consciousness in the slow evolution of sentient life. To me he is also Penrose– the child sitting in the third row, a distance back from the leaders of AI– who dares to suggest that the emperors of strong AI have no clothes. Many of Penrose’s opinions are infused with humour, but this one is no laughing matter.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 143-148). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Here is a sampling of Penrose’s own thinking, highlighted in my Kindle edition by earlier readers:

Most particularly, I argue that the phenomenon of consciousness cannot be accommodated within the framework of present-day physical theory.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 153-154). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

My reasoning, as presented in this book, has two main strands to it. The first of these endeavours to show, by appealing to results of Gödel (and Turing) that mathematical thinking (and hence conscious thinking generally) is something that cannot be encapsulated within any purely computational model of thought. This is the part of my argument that my critics have most frequently taken issue with. The second strand of the reasoning is to demonstrate that there is an important gap in our physical picture of the world, at a level which ought to bridge the submicroscopic world of quantum physics to the macro-world of classical physics. My viewpoint demands that the missing physics falling within this gap, when found, will play an essential part in the physical understanding of the conscious mind. Moreover, there must be something outside purely computational action in this sought-for area of physics.

Penrose, Roger. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford Landmark Science) (Kindle Locations 164-170). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Penrose appears to set aside a special place for living forms, and he does not limit this thinking to the mind. I took four courses from  Wolfgang Rindler, and after I got my degree I came back to the campus to attend a 70th birthday party for him. Roger Penrose attended, as well, and he gave a talk in which he explained that living material needs to be explained in terms of  quantum physics. I  got that this was an explanation in terms of quantum  physics beyond the fact that quantum physics determines basic chemical properties of the elements, and I asked the question, “Are you resurrecting the concept of vitalism?” He assured me he was not, and I let it go at that. For the moment. The truth is, I consider Penrose’s invocation of quantum mechanics as vitalism dressed up in a lab coat.

Apparently anybody can be a philosopher, so I’m thinking about giving it a try. In future postings I will provide rational explanations for human thought, life, death, and the origin of the universe. Keep reading.

The Years of Living Stupidly

Number 6 in a series

Цифровая репродукция находится в интернет-музее Gallerix.ru

A Facebook friend from time to time posts links to the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News blog. Much thanks. I need to keep up.

Evolution News has a number of authors, mostly notable creationists. These would include Stephen C. Meyer, Michael Behe, John West, and Jonathan Wells. This item was posted by Ann Gauger:

Ann Gauger is a zoologist with a BS in biology from MIT and a 1989 PhD from the University of Washington. As a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard she cloned and characterized the Drosophila kinesin light chain. Her research has been published in Nature, Development, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She also has a number of years of experience as a homeschool teacher.

From Evolution News:

Is There a First Human Couple in Our Past? New Evidence and Arguments

Ann Gauger March 5, 2018, 3:51 PM

Dennis Venema is associate professor at Trinity Western University. His book Adam and the Genome is under active discussion here and over at BioLogos. The central question implied in the title of that book is: does our genome rule out Adam? Could humanity have had its origin in a first pair, or did it have to come from a population of at least several thousand?

This question has been addressed by numerous scientists in the past, ever since human genetic data began to roll in. And all of them, as far as I know, have said that yes, our genome rules out Adam. We are the product of common descent. We are descended from an ape-like population of at least several thousand. This we have heard before.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. There has been a debate going on over at BioLogos for a number of months that was triggered by Venema’s book. The debate is about whether there could have been a bottleneck of two at some time in the human past. This discussion was started when Richard Buggs, Senior Research Leader (Plant Health) at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and Reader in Evolutionary Genomics at Queen Mary, University of London, challenged Dennis Venema about what Venema wrote in Adam and the Genome. Venema had argued:

As our methodology becomes more sophisticated and more data are examined, we will likely further refine our estimates [of human population size] in the future. That said, we can be confident that finding evidence that we were created independently of other animals or that we descend from only two people just isn’t going to happen. Some ideas in science are so well supported that it is highly unlikely new evidence will substantially modify them, and these are among them. The sun is at the center of our solar system, humans evolved, and we evolved as a population.

Put most simply, DNA evidence indicates that humans descend from a large population because we, as a species, are so genetically diverse in the present day that a large ancestral population is needed to transmit that diversity to us. To date, every genetic analysis estimating ancestral population sizes has agreed that we descend from a population of thousands, not a single ancestral couple. Even though many of these methods are independent of each other, all methods employed to date agree that the human lineage has not dipped below several thousand individuals for the last three million years or more — long before our lineage was even remotely close to what we would call “human.” Thus the hypothesis that humans descend solely from one ancestral couple has not yet found any experimental support — and it is therefore not one that geneticists view as viable. [Emphasis added.]

The image above appears at the head of Gauger’s Evolution News posting. It’s a painting from centuries ago titled “Adam and Eve” or something close to that.

I have previously reviewed the book Adam and the Genome by Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight. The summary of the book is that the creationists have it all wrong, the human species did not descend from a single pair of humans, but is the most recent of a lineage stretching back billions of years. However, God does exist, and God is responsible for all this.

Update: I am adding some material of interest.

Gauger mentions she has previously discussed this point.

So TSP is not validated for these highly polymorphic genes, HLA-DRB1 in particular, and convergent evolution (or original diversity) is validated. I addressed, by the way, the question of HLA-DRB1’s polymorphism and TSP, and a first human pair, in the book Science and Human Origins (2012). That book was written after I discovered that Francisco Ayala’s argument against the possibility of a first pair based on HLA-DRB1 did not stand up.  My hypothesis about a first pair was based on what I saw in papers about HLA-DRB1, most notably this and this, but the hypothesis was more suggested than demonstrated. I am glad to see that some of what I wrote has been substantiated.

See below for an expansion of TSP. The book in question has five parts, written separately by Gauger, Douglas Axe, and Casey Luskin. Gauger contributed chapters 1 and 5. Chapter 5 relates to the topic of her posting:

5

THE SCIENCE OF ADAM AND EVE

Ann Gauger

Using population genetics, some scientists have argued that there is too much genetic diversity to have passed through a bottleneck of just two individuals. But that turns out not to be true.

IN CHAPTER 1, I ARGUED THAT OUR SIMILAR ANATOMY AND DNA sequences are not sufficient to demonstrate that we share a common ancestor with chimps. Using peer-reviewed scientific literature about transitional fossils, and what is known about current chimp and human anatomy, I concluded that there are too many anatomical changes and too little time for neo-Darwinian processes to have accomplished the supposed transition from our last common ancestor with chimps to us.

But the current challenge concerning our origins involves more than fossils, anatomy, and improbable Darwinian scenarios. Now that DNA sequencing has become relatively simple and cheap, researchers are gathering vast amounts of human sequence data. They use the genetic variation they find to reconstruct past events in our genetic history. They derive evolutionary trees, estimate ancestral population sizes, and even calculate when and where our ancestors migrated out of Africa. Based on this kind of work, some have argued that we cannot have come from just two first parents.

[Location 2102 in the Kindle edition]

Gauger wants to take exception to the first part. Evidence that points to human origins from a collection of a few thousand individuals is not conclusive. The original pair of humans is not ruled out by modern research. The sum total of the piece is a glaring heap of wishful thinking, as would be evident to people knowledgeable of the subject and taking time to run down all Gauger’s arguments. And that I will leave to others, since it is beyond the scope of my expertise to critically evaluate the opposing arguments. I will just get to Gauger’s concluding statement:

So let me restate: the best explanation for the similarity among alleles is convergent evolution (or possibly original diversity), and not TSP. Finally, this analysis is strong evidence that TSP does not rule out a bottleneck of two.

To sum up, it’s very simple.

  • A bottleneck of two that is older than 500,000 years ago cannot be ruled out. That does not mean such a bottleneck ever existed, but rather that the possibility cannot be excluded. Future models may change that number of 500,000 years, up or down.
  • This is based on an analysis of the genetic data run by Drs. Schaffner and Swamidass, themselves evolutionary biologists and not ID supporters.
  • In addition, the bottleneck hypothesis stood up to a test using TSP (trans-species polymorphism). The test showed TSP was due to convergent evolution. This was a surprise to Dr. Swamidass.
  • A bottleneck of two, or a first pair at our origin older than 500,000 years, is possible.
  • Evolutionary biologists, including Dennis Venema, can no longer say we had to come from a population of 10,000 at any time over the last 3 million years.

Obviously, there is no rigorous science being argued here. This amounts to a special pleading for religious belief, particularly for biblical truth. Along that line, Gauger is not attempting to sell the full load. The Bible recounts the origin of the human race from two people. Gauger stops there. She lets slide the remainder of the story—that all this happened little more than 6000 years ago. Lady, if you’re in for a penny, you need to be in for a pound.

It’s an interesting twist we are observing. In days gone by—actually, in decades gone by—those people at the Discovery Institute sought to sell Intelligent Design as legitimate science, devoid of religious indoctrination. They seem to have thrown that notion over and have now gone full Monty pushing for the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity. At times the openness can be refreshing.

Deeper and Deeper

A Reading Of High Delusion—Part 2

I previously reviewed The Language of God, by Francis Collins. This is Adam and the Genome, by Dennis R. Venema and Scot McKnight. I obtained the Kindle editions of both after a short dive into a posting to Evolution News, the blog site of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. No author is listed for that post, but it centered on this book and the one by Collins:

In Adam and the Genome, Trinity Western University biologist Dennis Venema covers many other subjects besides what you might expect from the book’s title. We have been reviewing this material by the prominent theistic evolutionist and BioLogos author; find the series so far here.

Thus, Venema cites the high degree of genetic similarities between insulin genes in humans and other mammals as evidence for our common ancestry. He writes:

[W]e can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past … What we observe for this short segment is that the gorilla sequence is identical to that of the human except for one letter; the chimpanzee is identical except for three; and the orangutan is identical except for five. As before, this level of identity far exceeds what is needed for functional insulin, and strongly supports the hypothesis that humans share a common ancestral population with great apes. Indeed, the similarities between these sequences make English and West Frisian look like very distant relatives by comparison.

(Adam and the Genome, p. 30)

Yes, Venema does dig deeply into revelations from the human genome, and Evolution News does make a big deal about that. But Venema goes far deeper, a depth not plumbed by the posting. All this you can marvel at by plugging through the remainder of the book—which I did.

From the back cover of the book:

Dennis R. Venema (Ph.D., University of British Colombia) is professor of biology at Trinity Western University and Fellow of Biology for the BioLogos Foundation. He writes and speaks regularly about the biological evidence for evolution.

In the book Venema does lay out the evidence for evolution in grand detail, and it is this part that has caught the attention of the Intelligent Design pitch men. Some excerpts from the book elaborate:

Like many evangelicals, I (Dennis) grew up in an environment that was suspicious of science in general, and openly hostile to evolution in particular. Yet I had a deep longing to be a scientist, even as a child. For a long time, I reconciled my two worlds by rejecting evolution— after all, evolution was “just a theory” pushed by atheists and supported by “evidence” so flimsy that even a child could see through it. Moreover, Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life, and “what the Bible said about creation” was good enough for me.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science . Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

He goes on to say that conflicts with his faith almost kept him from pursuing his dream of becoming a scientist. Fortunately for science and for his students at Trinity Western, reason won out.

My family explored the possibility of my attending a Christian university, but it was more than we could afford. So a secular university it was, and I braced myself for what would surely be a trial for my faith.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 2). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Interestingly, I would remain an antievolutionist through the course of my PhD and on into my career as a professor, now teaching at the very same Christian university I was unable to afford as a student. What would come as something of a shock to me as a young professor is that, contrary to the claims of my Christian grade-school workbooks, evolution is a theory in the scientific sense.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 11). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

What those creationists of the second kind found worth challenging is Venema’s erudite exposition of the evidence for common descent. For example:

In looking at the sequences above, we can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past, just as “butter, bread, and green cheese” and “bûter, brea, en griene tsiis” do. The principle is the same: they are far more similar to each other than they are functionally required to be. In principle, any words could stand for these concepts in either English or West Frisian; similarly, any matched pair of hormone and receptor could function to regulate blood sugar levels in humans or dogs. Yet what we observe strongly suggests, in both cases, that the present-day sequences are the modified descendants of what was once a common sequence.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 30). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Besides giving the creationists something to chew on, Venema does a great job of taking them down.

In the late 1990s I was a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, studying genetics and development. I had weathered my bachelor’s degree with my faith and antievolutionary views intact, and my area of study did not require me to think about evolution much at all. 3 Evolution was not completely avoidable, however: one very proevolution professor down the hall from my lab maintained a bulletin board called “Crackpot’s Corner,” where antievolutionary views were held up as objects of ridicule. It was here, on this bulletin board, that I first became aware of biochemist Michael Behe, a leader in the intelligent-design (ID) movement. 4 A little digging indicated that he had recently published a book, Darwin’s Black Box. In that book, which I eagerly devoured, Behe makes the case for what he calls “irreducible complexity”:

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (pp. 67-68). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Venema explores Behe’s irreducible complexity conjecture and finds it bare of support.

Behe argues, we can infer when we see protein complexes composed of several proteins that bind to one another that they are the product not of evolution but rather of design.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 69). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The irreducible complexity argument goes like this:

  • A living organism, even the simplest cell, is a complex assembly. Darwinian evolution stipulates that life forms were not always that complex.
  • Evolution from less complex to more complex life forms has taken place.
  • We now know that evolution proceeds by random mutation of genes, coupled with selective pressure that produces organisms more likely to predominate in the gene pool.
  • Random mutation of genes must occur in small steps, slight changes in a DNA chain—the genome.
  • Each slight change in the genome must be beneficial to the organism, else that change will not be preserved.
  • Existing organisms cannot operate competitively with the loss of a single function coded in the genome.
  • Modern organisms are irreducibly complex. There is no way to proceed from one viable organism to a new and more viable form by means of single mutations.

Behe stakes his argument against Darwinian evolution on his contention that many biological functions are irreducibly complex. What Venema does, and what others do, is to expose Behe’s supposed irreducibly, showing how current forms can be obtained by means of Darwinian evolution.

Interestingly, the virus did evolve to use a second host protein, one called OmpF. Not only did this happen once, but it happened repeatedly in the experiment. Sequencing the DNA of the viruses able to use OmpF instead of LamB revealed that one of the virus proteins— the one that normally binds to LamB, called “protein J”— had accumulated four amino acid changes. By looking at the preserved samples, the researchers showed that the new binding requires all four mutations to be present. They also showed that these mutations did not happen simultaneously, but rather sequentially. As it turns out, these single mutations allowed the protein J to bind more tightly to LamB, which was a significant advantage since hosts with LamB were so scarce in the experiment. Once three single mutations were in place, the virus was only one mutation away from the ability to bind and use OmpF. Interestingly, viruses capable of using OmpF retained  their ability to bind LamB— the virus could now use either host protein.

Two key aspects of this experiment are problematic for Behe’s thesis. First and foremost, this experiment documents the addition of a protein to an irreducibly complex system. The original system was composed of virus protein J binding to LamB, plus numerous other protein-binding events. The modified system lacks LamB and has a modified virus protein J that binds to OmpF instead. The intermediate system has the modified virus protein J and LamB, as well as OmpF, but now only one of LamB or OmpF is required. The transition from one irreducibly complex system to another has an intermediate state between them that acts as a scaffold, or to use Behe’s term, a stepping-stone.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (pp. 79-80). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Is it any wonder those creationists of the second kind, writing for Evolution News, feel the need to take Dennis Venema down.

Venema is beginning to look like a secular camp hero of the first kind. Where this discourse starts to come apart is the latter half contributed by Scot McKnight.

Scot McKnight (born November 9, 1953) is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, and author who has written widely on the historical Jesusearly Christianity and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. McKnight is an ordained Anglican with anabaptist leanings, and has also written frequently on issues in modern anabaptism.

From Chapter 5 through Chapter 8, McKnight lays out a devilishly detailed analysis, some would say apologetic, on the place of Adam, both as a character in Genesis and as an ideal in Judeo-Christian faith. I apologize for having little comprehension of what he is attempting to get across, but I will have a go at my interpretation.

What happens when the church or, in my case, a Bible professor, encounters the kind of science found in the first part of this book? What happens, not to put too fine a point on it, when evolutionary theory and the Human Genome Project encounter the Bible’s creation narratives? What happens then when we are told that the best of science today teaches that the DNA characteristic of modern humans could not have come from less than approximately 10,000 hominins? What happens when we are told there were pre-Adamite humans? What about those two humans in Genesis 1– 3? And what about the eight that survived Noah’s flood? Which are we to believe, some ask: the Bible or science?

That last question leads some of us to dig in our heels while others shift with the latest conclusions of science. Some relish the countercultural stance of digging in their heels, and, to switch imagery, the second group at times refers to their counterparts as hiding their heads in the sand of the past or even of religious superstition. What the first thinks is faithfulness to the Bible, the second thinks is intellectual compromise. The accusations go both ways. You’ve probably heard them as often as I have. To illustrate I pose the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, who dug in against scientists, with Galileo from the generation following Luther, who permitted science to reshape his thinking. Luther said this of the facts in the Bible that seem to conflict with the external realities: “The more it seems to conflict with all experience and reason, the more carefully it must be noted and the more surely believed.” When Luther turns to Eve being formed from a rib, he says, “This is extravagant fiction and the silliest kind of nonsense if you set aside the authority of Scripture and follow the judgment of reason.” But perhaps this illustrates his heel digging the most: “Although it sounds like a fairy tale to reason, it is the most certain truth.” Here Luther contrasts “reason” (or scientific thinking) and faith or Scripture. One might call Luther’s approach the dominating approach to science and faith because he chooses— against reason, he admits— for the Bible to dominate the evidence. Galileo mirrors Luther with another kind of domination: “A natural phenomenon which is placed before our eyes by sense experience or proved by necessary demonstration should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.” The choice to let either the Bible or science dominate the other is common enough, but there is a better way, one that permits each of the disciplines to speak its own language but also requires each of the voices to speak to one another. Science, after all, can help the interpreter of the Bible just as the Bible can provide horizons and vistas for the scientist. Three Old Testament scholars are modeling how this dialogue between the Bible and science can be fruitful— John Walton, Tremper Longman, and Peter Enns. They don’t agree with one another always, nor do I always agree with them in the pages that follow, but they have opened up new pathways for this kind of dialogue to occur.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 93-94). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That’s a massive chunk of text carved out of a book for review, but it’s worth doing on two counts:

  • McKnight has a knack for the longest trains of thought I have encountered in writing, making it difficult to find a good point to insert a break.
  • This piece pretty much summarizes my impression of where McKnight is going with the last four chapters.

He seems to accept that Adam and his faithful companion Eve are not the origin of the human race. Then he spends the remainder of his alloted space attempting to justify the story of Adam (and Eve) by invoking context.

I have to admit that the encounter with science made me wonder at times about what I had been taught, about what the Bible said, about whether or not the Bible was wrong, and— this was for me a defining intellectual moment— about whether traditional interpretations of Genesis 1– 2 were perhaps well intended but misguided and in need of rethinking. In other words, my encounters with trustworthy scientists and their works taught me to go back to the Bible with other questions and other possible interpretations and to ask what Genesis meant in its world. In this I believe I was motivated by a quest to know the truth. I went back to the Bible to read Genesis in context and to ask if what many thought the Bible was saying (that is, its interpreted meaning) was not in fact what the Bible was actually saying (its original meaning). But there’s more: my encounter with science that prompted renewed study of Genesis also led me to challenge science about some of its assumptions. Modernity, expressed in extreme form in the “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, presses into our minds that the only reality is the empirical. If only what studies the empirical world (science) ascertains reality, then only science tells us the truth about reality. However, this common assumption in modernity is a case of concluding what one already assumes. How so? This approach restricts discoveries to empirically testable realities. Nothing else is real. But what if there is more? What if some kind of nonempirical reality exists? This is the sort of question the Bible presses on the scientist. I am convinced that there is more than the empirical, or perhaps I should say the more is hyperreality or suprareality. If so, there is a reality not knowable exclusively by the empirical methods of science. Theology, which is designed to investigate that nonempirical reality in some ways, can provide a map onto which we can locate science and which can challenge science.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 95). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[Emphasis added]

Use of “context” occurs four times prior to this point, including once in an introduction and once in the Table of Contents. It appears an additional 85 times from this point forward. My take: context is everything.

Where have I seen this before? It was in the matter of tattoos. A Facebook friend, a devout Christian and one who from time to time posts pronouncements of faith, called attention to her tattoos. Gentleman that I am, I reminded her that the Bible forbids tattoos, much as it forbids homosexuality. A relative chimed in with the reassurance that it is a matter of “context.”

My take (again): “context” is a cop-out. When context is invoked to justify the Bible, then what you are getting from the Bible is the interpretation being pushed by the speaker. You are not getting the word of God. You are getting the word of the interpreter. You are not placing you faith in a 3000-year-old set of laws. You are placing your faith in whoever happens to be professing faith, an extreme case being the sordid collapse of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple.

Previously mentioned, McKnight’s parsing of theological history largely passes over my head. Therefore I will post a few excerpts that caught my attention, and  I will let the reader get back to me. Advice requested.

I went back to the Bible to read Genesis in context and to ask if what many thought the Bible was saying (that is, its interpreted meaning) was not in fact what the Bible was actually saying (its original meaning).

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 95). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Every statement about Adam and Eve in the Old Testament, in Jewish literature, and in the New Testament is made from a context and into a context. Furthermore, some of the statements about Adam and Eve in all this literature are designed to speak against that context. That is, those statements are polemics and apologetics. Learning about those contexts and polemics often brings fresh understanding of the intention of the Bible and hence of what God wants his people to hear. In addition, this contextual approach to Adam and Eve provides a model for how Christians today can think about Adam and Eve in the context of the faith-and-science debate. If the Human Genome Project provides brilliant discoveries about the origin of life and the development of humans into who we are today, we will all gain clarity if Christians learn how to speak about Adam and Eve in a context that both affirms conclusions about the genome and challenges some conclusions drawn from the Human Genome Project. Contexts, both ancient and modern, shape what we see, what we hear, and how we respond.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 97). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Winding down with:

Interpreting the Bible is not easy. As Scot demonstrates, taking into account the languages, contexts, and presumed intents from centuries ago is a lot like, well, paleontology. Again, when explaining the challenges science presents to Christian faith, I stress the important distinction between scientific findings (e.g., DNA in a Siberian cave) and the philosophical or theological interpretations of those findings (Homo sapiens therefore emerged by sheer luck of the genome, or God operates on a circuitous route not unlike wandering in the wilderness to get to the promised land).

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 197). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Summarizing the book, we have two obviously intelligent people still clinging to the notion there is a magical person who created us and the universe and who cares for us personally. That this can be so is not an indication that there is no problem at hand. It is an indication that the problem is both wide and deep-seated.

May Jesus have mercy on our souls.