The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels
Newsletters ● 1999 ● March
In this issue:
We've published some new papers this month! Chief among them are three papers from Professor Adolf Grünbaum, distinguished philosopher of science at the University of Pittsburgh.
By Robert T. Pennock
In Tower of Babel, philosopher Robert T. Pennock compares the views of the new creationists with those of the old and reveals the insubstantiality of their arguments. One of Pennock's major innovations is to turn from biological evolution to the less charged subject of linguistic evolution, which has strong theoretical parallels with biological evolution, both in content and in the sort of evidence scientists use to draw conclusions about origins. Of course, an evolutionary view of language does conflict with the Bible, which says that God created the variety of languages at one time as punishment for the Tower of Babel.
Several chapters deal with the work of Phillip Johnson, a highly influential leader of the new Creationists. Against his and other views, Pennock explains how science uses naturalism and discusses the relationship between factual and moral issues in the creationism-evolution controversy. The book also includes a discussion of Darwin's own shift from creationist to evolutionist and an extended argument for keeping private religious beliefs separate from public scientific knowledge.
Each month mathew dredges the bottom of the net to bring to you strange religious claims, flim-flam schemes, pop-culture memes gone awry, and the downright superstitious. This month mathew asks, are the Teletubbies gay? Is Elvis really dead? Is there hidden porn in Disney movies? Can your browser handle the upgrade to web.scan or will it crash on mathew's bizarre sense of humor? Give it a try at <URL:http://infidels.org/infidels/web.scan/1999/scan03.html>.
The Evolutionist is a new online magazine edited by Oliver Curry and published out of the London School of Economics at <URL:http://cpnss.lse.ac.uk/darwin/evo/start.htm>. The magazine promises to carry interviews with and articles on the leading evolutionary thinkers of the day. Curry also says that the magazine will emphasize the use of modern Darwinism to understand human behavior.
Set your phasers on stun. Volunteers of the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS), working for over a year now, have just published the classic 1968 "Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects" online at <URL:http://www.ncas.org/condon/>. Commissioned by the Air Force, the study was carried out under Dr. Edward Condon of the University of Colorado to address growing public concerns that the government was trying to cover up the existence of UFOs.
"All I knew was that I would be discussing religious issues with three others," Nick said. The three other guests on the program turned out to be a rabbi, a minister, and a Muslim woman. The show was "something of an anti-intellectual farce," Nick said, noting that the moderator, an irreverent young man named Ali Gupta, raised absurd issues and asked offensive questions.
"If God is everywhere, does that mean he is in the toilet too?" Gupta asked his religious guests at one point. Another time, Gupta tried to swap his own wool hat for the rabbi's yarmulke. Nick endured Gupta's wrath as well. Nick was told that he was "inconsistent" when he answered "1999" to the question, "What year is it?" Gupta insisted that an atheist could not use the Gregorian calendar since it began with the birth of Christ. After Nick told him that calendar years were really quite arbitrary and that they depended on cultural use, Gupta continued to insist he was wrong. "I think that the other three guests and me were surprised to find out what Mr. Gupta was like," Nick said.
"Even though Gupta made the theists look silly," Nick said, "freethinkers should be opposed to this kind of production because it is simply a 'dumbing down' procedure which discourages critical thought by the viewers and directs their attention to trivial matters."
Despite the carnival atmosphere, Nick managed to raise burden of proof objections to theism as well as to present the problem of evil, which the other guests countered with the defense that human suffering is a "mystery." The rabbi was the only other guest to present a cogent argument, insisting that it is highly improbable that life arose due to random mutation. "I pointed out that the theory of natural selection does not propose that life arose merely by random mutation," Nick replied, "hence he misunderstood the whole theory." To another guest's claim that God created the world 5,000 years ago, Gupta interjected "That's impossible, there are castles older than that!" At another point, Gupta did not know who George Bernard Shaw was when Nick mentioned him in his discussion.
Ironically, the camera operators and the show's producer were better equipped intellectually to converse than the show's moderator. "After filming," Nick said, "they were genuinely interested in what I had to say and were asking me questions about whether I thought Richard Dawkins has given good arguments for atheism and whether I thought that Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem has any relevance to defences of atheism/theism."
Victor J. Stenger
Victor J. Stenger is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Working with many collaborators over the years, Professor Stenger has been involved in elaborating the properties of quarks, gluons, neutrinos, CP violation, and the weak neutral current that eventually led to the current standard model of elementary particles. He was one of the pioneers in the development of high energy gamma ray and neutrino astronomy. He is currently a collaborator on Super-Kamiokande, an experiment in a mine in Japan that has recently reported the observation of neutrino mass.
Professor Stenger's second career is more familiar to Secular Web readers. He is an author, skeptic, and top-notch baloney detector on subjects ranging from alternative medicine to psychic phenomena and quantum mysticism. He has written many articles for skeptical journals and three books: Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (Prometheus Books, 1988), Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books, 1990, and The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Prometheus Books, 1995). He has been unsuccessfully sued four times by psychics, including three lawsuits brought by psychic spoon-bender Uri Geller over Physics and Psychics.
Dr. Stenger's books have been critically acclaimed. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about The Unconscious Quantum: "TheUnconscious Quantum is an interesting, provocative, informative and impassioned attempt to rescue physics from the contemporary unscientific or anti-scientific appropriations of its softer-edged theoretical self-description." We decided to brave the tropical weather in Hawaii to interview Professor Stenger.
Can you explain what the "anthropic principle" is and whether or not it is good science?
Yes. Actually, I am preparing a lengthy article on this subject for the British Skeptical Intelligencer. Its current draft can be found at <URL:http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/vjs/www/
The fallacy of this argument is that it assumes only one kind of life is possible--our kind. We have no way of knowing what other forms of complexity would exist with different laws of physics, or the same laws with different values for the basic constants. I have taken the existing laws and randomly varied four basic constants over ten orders of magnitude and looked at the resulting universes. I find that most of the resulting "universes" still have long-lived stars with enough time for complexity to develop. You can play this game yourself, choosing whatever constants you want, at <URL:http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/vjs/www/monkey.html>.
What do you think about the spate of recent "science finds God" articles in popular magazines and can we expect this trend to continue?
These seem to be the result of a heavily financed campaign by wealthy Christians to produce a public illusion that science and religion are coming together. The meetings, seminars, and workshops funded from these sources so far have included few nonbelievers but have been well-attended by reporters. These media representatives have been largely duped into thinking that science is reaching some new consensus that their observations are pointing toward God. In fact, the majority of scientists remain nonbelievers. In my own fields of physics and astronomy, at least eighty percent do not believe in God and this has not changed much over time. At least one astute reporter, George Johnson of the New York Times, has already detected this scam and we can hope that others will soon follow. [See Johnson's essay "Science and Religion: Bridging the Great Divide" -Ed.]
Creation science seems to be preoccupied with destroying the Big Bang theory. Assuming they were to succeed, do they have a model with which to replace it?
The creation scientists who have been battling evolution and arguing for literal reading of the Bible are not a major force in the new, more sophisticated "intelligent design" movement. Far from disputing the big bang, the cosmic creationists view the big bang as confirming the biblical picture. They even accuse the diminishing few who still question the theory as having an agenda of keeping God out of science. But, no viable alternative to the big bang exists, including the inflationary model that describes what happened during the first tiny fraction of a second. Put together these do not require a purposeful creation. In my view, the big bang makes a case against God.
Do you expect old-earth creationists to replace the young-earthers given the problem with the speed of light and a universe several billion light years in size?
I think they already are doing this. The new cosmic creationists accept evolution, for example, although they still insist that God steps in occasionally to help things along. While they agree that life evolved, they insist it could not have done so by purely natural processes. That is where recent writers, such as Michael Behe and William Dembski have made their case. But their arguments still amount to little more than the traditional God of the Gaps: science cannot explain this, that, or the other thing, so therefore God exists.
What are your current research interests? Is there a book forthcoming?
I am about 80 percent finished with a book tentatively called Atomic Reality: The Simplest of All Possible Worlds which argues that a metaphysics of localized objects moving along definite paths in space and time is consistent with all we know from physics, cosmology, and the rest of science. The key idea is that, at the quantum level, particles can move backward as well as forward in time. This does not imply time machines for humans, however, since a statistical arrow of time emerges at the macroscopic scale. To read the currents drafts, and join in the discussion, go to <URL:http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/vjs/www/void.html>. I do not imagine we will see it on the shelves for another year.
Darwin and the Invisible Hand
Since its beginning, Darwinism and economic theory have been closely linked. Darwin's revolutionary ideas themselves were in large part indebted to his readings of Malthus, a contemporary mathematician/clergyman/economist. Malthus argued that populations would always grow to the maximum that resources could bare. He focused on the fact that, because of the tendency of organisms to procreate as fully as possible, scarcity of resources would always follow a surplus, and competition for resources will always cause famine, misery, and want.
Darwin gained two things from Malthus. Firstly, it was Malthus' theory that helped him realize that members of a species are in constant competition with each other. Malthusian population growth insures that there will always be competition amongst a species for resources. The second thing Malthus gave him was inherent in the source of the Malthusian dilemma. The notion that organisms will multiply to fully utilize the resources available surely helped Darwin to take the next logical step and concluded that differential rates of this Malthusian reproduction, under the stress of the competition it itself creates, could lead to the quick multiplication of beneficial traits.
The revolutionary aspect of Darwin's ideas as far as biology is concerned is that it provided a method of self-organization. The divine hand of God was no longer necessary to explain the complexity and organization of life; instead of simple set of natural processes left on their own became an increasingly more probable cause than a celestial engineer. It became clear that the complex systems of organs, nerves, and muscles seen in living systems can come into being through the differential reproduction of beneficial traits. Entire ecosystems regulate themselves through competition and natural selection.
The imagination doesn't have to stretch very far to see why the idea of natural selection would be snatched up by free-market advocates and embraced as support for an ideology that was, until then, on shaky ground. If God isn't needed to engineer the integrated and interdependent organs in an animals body, then certainly the intervention of man isn't needed to engineer an economy. In a time when large segments of the population were angrily rallying for greater property rights and a free market economy, Darwin's ideas were absolutely explosive.
An economical environment is very intricate and complex, but certainly it is far less so than even a simple ecosystem--yet, if Darwin's ideas were correct, ecosystems had managed to survive for millions of years without any help thank you very much. Man himself had, without any outside aid, evolved from the humblest of beginnings. It seems reasonable, then, that a free market could fare just as well. In fact, if the progress and direction that was perceived in Darwinism also applied to the marketplace, then one would expect things to only get better as a free market economy evolved.
The analogy between natural selection and capitalistic free enterprise is a strong one. For one thing the organization that takes place is the result of competition in both. In the biological world, the competition is for food, mates, and space. Those animals with the most "innovative" adaptations that allow them to make most efficient use of food or more readily escape predators will pass along their traits to the next generation, insuring, it seemed, continuous progress towards more efficient and effective organisms. Evolution was seen as a natural law that not only governed change, but one which almost guaranteed the rise of intelligent, tool-making, organisms such as human beings.
In the economic world, businesses compete with each other for consumers. Those businesses that are able to make most efficient use of their resources, it is argued, will be able to produce the cheapest products, and therefore receive the most income from consumer profits. Those businesses with the most innovative technologies and products will rake in the most cash; and, while businesses don't procreate in the same way biological organisms do, successful economic strategies do proliferate both because profitable small businesses become profitable big businesses, and because success breeds imitation.
This parallel between economic systems and biological systems, allowed capitalist economists and philosophers to argue that free-market competition causes an inevitable rise in the standard of living in the same way that evolution will lead to progressively "better" animals. This has, by far, been the dominant argument for a free market. True, there have been some arguments, such as those given by Robert Nozick, from the idea that property rights are so sacred as to be inviolable, but the overwhelming support that there is for free-market economies comes from the presumption that competition inevitably causes products of increasing quality and decreasing cost.
Of course, the reason why I decided to write this article is because it is one of the great misunderstandings of Darwinism to think that natural selection implies steady progress. Indeed, it wasn't until the 20th century that non-directed mechanistic natural selection was taken seriously by the majority of the scientific community. The harshness of the fact that blind, pointless, often savage, natural selection was responsible for the diversification of life was just too hard for many people to swallow, especially coming out of a time where theological explanations for nature had always been the norm; but it became increasingly clear that, while organisms are indeed much more complex now than they where when life first arose on the planet, evolution doesn't always make progress towards greater and more complex beings. Snakes came from ancestral lizards that lost their legs. Many varieties of fish have lost use of their eyes as a result of generations enclosed in caves. Devolution is as common in nature as evolution.
While this misnomer of necessary progress sadly still prevails in popular understanding of evolution, it has been largely, though not completely, excised from the modern biological community. Further, most atheists assertive enough to "come out" possess this understanding as well, and seldom make such a pedestrian error. It is for this reason that I find it both baffling and depressing that this more refined understanding of natural selection has not come to equal dominance within the economic ideology of atheist circles in the US, though it certainly thrives more there than in the mainstream.
There is indeed a strong parallel between the evolution of an economy and that of an ecology, and it is because that parallel is such a powerful one that careful heed must be taken so as no longer to repeat analogous mistakes made by early Darwinians in modern economic models. Failure to do so could have disastrous effects.
To drive some parts of this economy/ecology analogy home, let us take a moment and look at some of the things evolution has produced.
Liars abound in nature. Mimicry is an adaptation of primary importance to many animals. Some insects look deceptively like twigs, leaves, or bark, a lie which serves them well as a defense against predators. The flower of the orchid Ophrys Speculum looks so much like a female wasp that males will copulate with it, acting as an unknowing courier of pollen between widely separated plants. A praying mantis lurking patiently in the grass is hardly distinguishable from its surroundings, and deadly is the mistake of any insect that crosses a hungry mantis mistaking it for a blade of grass. Venus flytraps emit an odor that lures prey into its jaws with the promise of sweet nectar, trapping them and dissolving their bodies for nutrients. Some of natures lies are quite amazing. The anglerfish actually uses its uniquely shaped horn to "fish" for its prey. The horn is tipped with what resembles a morsel of food, and the unsuspecting victim is lured in with the promise of an easy meal. Once the prey close enough to the anglerfish's jaws someone indeed has an easy meal, but it is the angler fish that swims away satisfied.
Thieves are even more common in the animal world than are lairs. Every predator is a thief, even a murderer, stealing the very life from other organisms to benefit themselves. Even herbivores mercilessly munch up leaves and grass, stealing the fuel laboriously manufactured by the plants themselves from sunlight. And plants are not blameless either. Over evolutionary time, plants wage grim wars to push competitors out of choice locations, fighting over patches of sunlight and supplies of water as remorselessly as animals vie for hunting grounds and mating rights.
If we model an economy to be driven by natural selection we shouldn't expect only positive resemblances to the biological world to emerge. The liars in nature will be paralleled by the liars in business. What percentage of advertisements can truly be called anything but misleading? Bright colored labels are designed as to catch the consumers' eye, promising good things within. Food, drink, and cars are linked with youth, beauty, and sexuality in billboards and television ads. Mattress springs are called "coiled sense and respond devices," medicated shampoos are sold because they "tingle, " and whenever I'm looking over isles of packaging constructed from deliberately feminine curves, I can't help but think of the Ophrys Speculum orchid, and its mislead suitor.
Thieves also abound in the corporate world. Businesses are caught in illegal transactions all the time. Companies abuse the tax code to withhold profit from the government, and even manipulate that government by cashing in money for political leverage and to shape laws to their advantage. Insurance companies do their best to avoid paying out claims that they owe. Thieves abound--indeed, what is profit but the difference between what a product is worth and what it is sold for?
If the analogy between the two different arenas of natural selection is a good one, we should expect a whole plethora of similarities between a free market and a naturally evolved ecosystem; and we're not disappointed. There are thousands of species of parasites in the natural world; breeds of leaches, mites, and fungus, make a living at the detriment of other animals. Likewise, there are thousands of companies that make money simply by moving money around, producing nothing. There are even companies that exist for no other purpose than to patent items and then wait for a violation so that they can sue for damages. Nature is also rife with cannibals, and likewise companies routinely gobble up like companies, eliminating competition and increasing profit.
Modern day ghost towns caused by corporations uprooting and moving plants out of the country where they can pay cheaper wages are an eerie echo of the mass extinctions evidenced in the fossil record.
No doubt selection in a free market generates a great deal of organization--much of it is even positive. But with all the optimistic talk about the invisible hand of capitalism, free market economists fail to realize that that hand is often all thumbs. If natural selection provides us with an analogy by which to predict the outcome of economic selection, we should expect not only positives in similarly modeled economic systems, but many negatives as well. It is simply not true that competition always leads to what is best for the consumer. Indeed, the very Malthusian assertion that sparked off the Darwinian revolution was the notion that population growth means that there will always be competition and strife.
What biologists overlooked for almost a century is the fact that evolution is totally anti-teleological. It is literally void of any purpose. What economists are overlooking is that a totally free marketplace is equally directionless. For this reason, if there is to be a goal to economic policy, some degree of economic intervention must be embraced. A garden in which plants are left to grow mostly on their own, but where weeds are pulled, fertilizer is sown, and plants are pruned, will be a greater source of produce and beauty than an overgrown yard.
'Death to the schools' - Leaders of religious right calling for a Christian exodus out of public education
By Deborah Kovach Caldwell / The Dallas Morning News (1/30/99)
Leaders of a rapidly growing movement of conservative Christians are urging followers to withdraw their children from public schools by next year in order to bring down the government school system.
At least four organizations have sprung up around the country in recent months to press parents to abandon what fund-raising letters describe as "atheistic" and "unclean" public schools in favor of home schooling and Christian academies.
The movement, which is just beginning to surface among mainstream evangelicals, bills itself as a way to "trump" public education by offering strategies to "thoroughly supplant the corrupt government school system."
This is dangerous hogwash, said Lee Berg, an expert on the religious right at the National Education Association in Washington.
"Public education happens to be the foundation of democracy,"said Dr. Berg, a Southern Baptist ethicist from Houston who battled the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. "It's where our diverse society learns to live with each other."
The movement is gathering steam at a time when the nation's public schools are already under siege. Many schools are battling high-profile problems with violence, drugs, racial strife, funding and poor educational performance while facing challenges from the growing support for school voucher programs and charter schools.
The movement's leaders have gained the endorsement of the Rev. D. James Kennedy, an influential conservative Christian broadcaster who heads Coral Ridge Ministries in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. His Center for Reclaiming America was behind last summer's national anti-gay rights advertising campaign featuring "former homosexuals." Another endorser is Tim LaHaye, a conservative political activist and author of 43 books, including the spectacularly successful Left Behind novels based on the Book of Revelation.
"The Christian Right has been calling on the nation to correct all these social and moral problems we have," said the Rev. E. Raymond Moore, a South Carolina minister who founded Exodus 2000 just over a year ago. "We're trying to stop pornography and eradicate abortion, and yet we have not been obedient to God on the biblical mandate for educating our own children. Perhaps the renewal of the culture could be as simple as the Christian church renewing its obedience to that biblical mandate."
He also said that if evangelical Christians exited en masse, "this event could seriously cripple the power [that] secularism now holds over our culture by holding our children as near-hostages in state schools."
The "death to the schools" movement, as one conservative Christian described it, is spearheaded by Mr. Moore and three other men. One is Brannon Howse, founder of Exodus Project in St. Paul, Minn., who believes public schools are so anti-Christian that those who don't agree with the secular state's world view will be discriminated against and ultimately stuck with a bad education that will prevent them from succeeding as adults.
Another is Robert Simonds, founder of the Irvine, Calif.-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, which during the 1980s fought well-publicized textbook battles over religious issues and urged conservative Christians to run for school board seats. He is now organizing Rescue 2010, whose fund-raising letters describe public schools as places where Christians are "spiritually raped."
The founder of the movement is Marshall Fritz, a Libertarian Party organizer and former computer programmer who started the Fresno, Calif.-based Separation of School and State Alliance as a think tank to change public opinion about state-sponsored schools. About 6,500 people have signed his proclamation calling for an end to public schools, including 550 Texas signers. (The proclamation is on his Web site at www.sepschool.org.)
Mr. Fritz's group is the most eclectic - it includes a sprinkling of Jews and Muslims as well as people who are motivated not so much by theology but by political philosophy.
"There is no peaceful solution to the school wars other than the separation of school and state," said Mr. Fritz, a Roman Catholic. "It's the only plan that has in it the makings of a turnaround of American culture. We're falling like a stream-lined brick into the toilet."
Government-sponsored schools are bad, Mr. Fritz said, because they shift what he believes is a parent's duty to educate children to the state; they keep God out of children's education; and they coerce homeowners to pay for their own children's education, as well as the education of non-homeowners, who don't pay property taxes.
He said that if the public school system crumbles, citizens would realize a $300 billion tax cut, which means two-thirds of the population would be able to afford private school tuition. He expects churches and charities to pick up the rest of the tab.
Dr. Berg of the NEA said many conservative Christians genuinely believe there is a conspiracy afoot in public schools to destroy their values, though he vigorously disputed that claim.
But Dr. Berg also said some Christians use that explanation as a cover for their real reasons for pushing home schooling and Christian academies in an attempt to abolish state-sponsored education: dislike of ethnic and racial minorities who attend public schools and a desire to make money by opening private schools that will need supplies and curricula.
"When I first stumbled across this movement, my concern wasn't over the impact. I don't believe you'll see millions of people leaving the public schools," said Dr. Berg. "But I do think there is continual damage done to public education by demonizing it."
The movement is poised on the edge of controversy in its own ranks.
"This is going to be a hotter and hotter issue," said Jody Capehart, national education director for the Dallas-based Every Church a School Foundation and founder of Prestonwood Christian Academy in Dallas as well as other Christian schools around the country.
She predicted there would be major conflict among conservative Christians over the issue within six months. She sees a split between those who believe all evangelicals must pull their children out of public schools and others, like herself, who think the movement should also support Christian parents whose children remain in the public system.
"We want to support them while they're still in there rather than mandating all 'good' Christians leave immediately," said Mrs. Capehart, whose organization helps churches start schools and supports evangelical educators and parents. "What does this say to strong Christians who have made a statement in committing their lives to public schools?"
But the movement's founders say state-sponsored education is too far gone.
"The schools are not going to be fixed, nor should they be," said Mr. Moore, who home-schooled all four of his grown children. "They're really unbiblical at their core."
He hopes to persuade the parents of about 4 million children to abandon public schools by next year, or soon after. He explains his views on his Web site, www.exodus2000.org.
There are about 52 million American children in public schools, according to education experts. Eight million, about 11 percent, are educated in private schools or at home, experts say. Mr. Moore estimated that half of the second group is composed of evangelical Christians.
But he said that between 12 million and 15 million evangelical Christian children still attend public schools.
"We don't think they're a safe place anymore for Christian children," he said. "The public school system is doing more harm now to the country than any single thing except perhaps the popular media."
In Texas, Mr. Moore has enlisted the help of the Rev. Curtis Tomlin, a self-described fundamentalist Baptist minister from Killeen and founder of the Christian Alert Network, which he said monitors legislation that degrades Christian moral values.
Mr. Tomlin, who serves as Exodus 2000's Texas state coordinator, is launching three church-centered "Christian learning centers" - two in Lampasas and one in San Saba. The centers will bring together local home schoolers and perhaps lead to formation of church-sponsored schools, he said.
Mr. Tomlin talked of public schools teaching "social reindoctrination," and he said they are promoting "forced labor" through high school volunteer programs. He also contended that school officials are allowing "invasive genital examinations."
"I've got a stack of three-ring binders full of things you cannot imagine," he said.
Issues such as those are part of the reason Mike Southerland, a systems engineer for EDS who lives in Carrollton with his wife and three children, decided to sign Mr. Fritz's proclamation.
"The less government, the better," he said. "There's got to be a better alternative," he said.
He is home-schooling his 5-year-old daughter; if all goes well, he'll do the same for his 3-year-old and 1-year-old when the time comes.
He said he's not particularly interested in working to abolish public education, though he added, "I'm not going to lose sleep over it if the public schools go."
By home-schooling his children, he knows they'll learn his values.
"Even in private Christian academies, you don't know for sure if that church lines up with you," he said. "Christianity is a big part of my life, and my kids need to be taught that on a daily basis."
[Reprinted with permission of the Dallas Morning News.]
Anyone who has followed the creationist movement for the last 10 years or so has probably encountered a new argument in the arsenal of creationists. I call it "the argument from bias." The claim is that evolutionists are so biased that they a priori rule out the mere possibility of the supernatural. For example, anti-evolutionist Phillip Johnson writes,
Johnson argues that because evolutionists are committed to naturalism, they ignore evidence which might suggest creationism or which might cast doubt on evolution. He writes, "To Darwinists the ability to imagine the process is sufficient to confirm that something like that must have happened."2
Several individuals -- naturalists and anti-naturalists alike -- have pointed out the errors in Johnson's claims. Creationist Owen Gingerich, writing in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, notes that Johnson defines evolution as inherently naturalistic philosophy, despite the fact that the majority of evolutionists are not naturalists.3 Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, states that science is methodologically naturalistic; science "explains the natural world using only natural causes." As Scott points out, this does not mean that science presupposes metaphysical naturalism, the belief that there are no supernatural beings.4 And Terry Gray, a self-described creationist at Calvin College, has criticized Johnson's attacks on the scientific evidence for evolution. He writes, "It is not clear to me what kind of evidence [for evolution] Johnson would find persuasive."5
I agree with all of these points. However, there is an additional reason why I reject the claim that "evolutionists a priori rule out the evidence for the supernatural." My reason is this: there are good empirical reasons for believing that metaphysical naturalism is true, and therefore a denial of the supernatural need not be based upon an a priori assumption.
Some Evidence for Metaphysical Naturalism
Here I want to give two lines of empirical evidence which I think support metaphysical naturalism. Although I believe there are additional facts which support naturalism, space limitations require that I limit myself to just two lines of evidence. I shall attempt to argue that these two facts are much more likely on naturalism than theism.
(1) Naturalism makes sense of the physical nature of minds.
As Paul Draper, an agnostic philosopher at Florida International University, puts it, "Consciousness and personality are highly dependent on the brain. Nothing mental happens without something physical happening."6 Now Michael Tooley, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has stated five lines of evidence in support of this claim. Let me summarize just briefly that evidence. First, when an individuals brain is directly stimulated and put into a certain physical state, this causes the person to have a corresponding experience. Second, certain injuries to the brain make it impossible for a person to have any mental states at all. Third, other injuries to the brain destroy various mental capacities. Which capacity is destroyed is tied directly to the particular region of the brain that was damaged. Fourth, when we examine the mental capacities of animals, they become more complex as their brains become more complex. And fifth, within any given species, the development of mental capacities is correlated with the development of neurons in the brain.7 Thus, the conclusion that, "Nothing mental happens without something physical happening," seems inescapable.
But if nothing mental happens without something physical happening, that strongly implies that the mind cannot exist independently of physical arrangements of matter. In other words, we do not have a soul. And this is exactly what we would expect if naturalism is true. But if theism is true, then our minds should not depend on our brains for their existence; we should have souls. Also, if theism is true, then God is a disembodied mind; Gods mind is not in any sense dependent on physical arrangements of matter. But if nothing mental happens without something physical happening, that is evidence against both the existence of souls and the existence of any being who is supposed to have a disembodied mind, including God. Therefore, the physical nature of minds is unlikely if theism is true, but what we would expect if naturalism is true.
(2) Naturalism makes sense of the pointless evil and suffering in the world.
Have you ever wondered why there is so much evil and suffering in the world? In addition to evils committed by human beings, there is much agony and pain caused by solely natural processes, including earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and viruses. Recently, a new type of virus has evolved that makes AIDS seem like a common cold. Biochemists call these viruses "hot viruses," and I want to read you a short, graphic description of what happens to someone infected with a hot virus. Brace yourself. After becoming infected with a hot virus, the victim
Now, this tends to be pretty embarrassing for the theist. If theism is true, we have to believe that God allows people to suffer horrible pain that any decent person would themselves prevent. But that's hard to believe. If there is a God, He is more than just a decent person; He is the very standard of decency itself. So why doesn't he just eliminate evils like the one I just described? Even after thousands of years of theological reflection, theistic philosophers still have no idea. They just assume that there must be a reason for God allowing evil. For example, Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame University, one of the most influential theistic philosophers of our time, admitted, "Many of the attempts to explain why God permits evil ... seem to me shallow, tepid, and ultimately frivolous."9 Naturalists, on the other hand, have a plausible explanation for pointless suffering: there is no all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing being to intervene and prevent pointless suffering. Therefore, pointless suffering is much more likely on naturalism than on theism.
Thus, I think the metaphysical naturalist is amply justified in concluding that the universe is a closed system, and I therefore strongly disagree with Johnson's portrayal of metaphysical naturalism as an arbitrary, a priori assumption. It follows that even if evolution were based on metaphysical naturalism (which it is not), that dependency would be a strength, not a weakness. Metaphysical naturalism may be a philosophical belief, but it is a belief supported by empirical evidence.
1 Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Regnery, 1991), pp. 179-180.
Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of a "meme" in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins theorized that a meme is to the mind what a gene is to biological evolution. Basically, a meme is a simple aphorism or some kind of self-contained informational bundle that replicates itself within culture by jumping from mind to mind. Successful reproduction requires that the meme be especially gripping (a "tale well told" so to speak) so that those who encounter it desire very much to pass it on to others; thus, enabling the meme to stay alive within the culture that sustains it. Dawkins argues in his paper "Virus of the Mind" that memes are more than just carriers of information (such as a book) but are also capable of altering behavior. In The Selfish Gene Dawkins writes:
Memes propogated among Christians include such time-worn fabrications as the pious student who stumps his philosophy professor; the atheist who tried to refute the Bible, failed, and subsequently converted; and the story of how NASA's computers "found" the missing day of Joshua 10. This last meme has been making its rounds on the Internet and popping up in our feedback. Here is a reprint of the entire meme that was sent to us:
This story has jumped from brain to brain for at least 100 years and owes it origins to the book Joshua's Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz: A Scientific Vindication (1890) by Charles Totten, a retired Yale professor. Totten began with two simple premises: (1) Creation occurred on September 22, 4000 BCE; and (2) God began to create the world on a Sunday. Then Totten made his calculations and discovered that September 22, 4000 BCE fell on a Monday not a Sunday as the Genesis account demanded. This could only mean one thing, 24 hours was missing from time!
Totten solved the mystery by postulating that the long day recorded in Joshua 10:13, in which God made the sun stand still until the battle could be completed, stopped time for 23 hours, 20 minutes. What about the remaining 40 minutes? Totten argued that Isaiah's miracle of 2 Kings 20 accounted for the remaining time. Professor Robert Newman, Biblical Theological Seminary, critiques Totten's conclusions. Why should creation begin on a Sunday, he argues, or on September 22, 4000 BCE? This meme circulated in other forms but resurfaced in the 60s in the form printed above, only now the spectacular findings are attributed to "Mr. Harold Hill."
In 1994, skeptic Jim Lippard investigated the claims of Mr. Hill and posted to the newsgroups sci.skeptic and alt.folklore.urban that:
Lippard goes on to note that Logos International, Christian publisher of other phony testimonials, published Hill's version of the story in How to Live Like a King's Kid in 1974. The story thrives on the Internet today. Infidel Bill Schultz ran a detailed search on AltaVista (www.altavista.com) and discovered that dozens of Christian web sites posted the story, all tracing their source back to a newspaper article of the NASA version that was published in the Evening Star of Spencer, Indiana. Schultz immediately recognized an odd coincidence. Dr. Sadler, founder of the Urantia cult, was also born in Spencer, Indiana. Sadler credited his personal revelations to another "evening star," an angel from heaven. (See <URL:http://www.geocities.com/~nduval/OriginofUP.htm>.) Schultz determined that there is no such newspaper in Spencer, Indiana, suggesting perhaps that Sadler's religious visions were somehow confused with a newspaper at some point along the meme's propagation. Urban legends that cite newspapers as their source also lend credibility to the legend.
We can expect to see this meme sustained for quite some time in Christian circles. However, what is perhaps more interesting is how the details of the story evolved over time to accomodate new circumstances and settings. The Missing Day in History meme is an excellent illustration of how evolution works in our natural world.
Book Review: The Science of God
Gerald Schroeder's recent book, The Science of God: the convergence of scientific and biblical wisdom (1997, ISBN 0684837366) is a couple of notches above the Gish/Morris level of creationism. It was recommended to me by a Christian whose intelligence I respect, and it was praised by Michael Behe (the biochemist who wrote Darwin's Black Box) on the back cover. Dr. Schroeder has a PhD in physics from MIT. He argues that
(1) The physical constants and initial conditions of the universe were fine-tuned to produce life.
(2) The six days of creation in Genesis correspond perfectly, both in order and timing, to a universal clock based on the frequency of the cosmic background radiation.
(3) The origin and evolution of life are too improbable to have been driven by random variation, even with the help of non-random natural selection.
(4) Quantum mechanics has proven that determinism is false, thus allowing free will.
(5) Natural evils (e.g., earthquakes and diseases) are a side effect of God giving us free will.
The fine-tuning argument has been addressed many times. See for example http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/vjs/www/cosmyth.txt. You can read Dr. Schroeder's "universal clock" argument in his own words at http://members.xoom.com/torahscience/bigbang1.htm. There is a rebuttal by Vic Stenger at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/vic_stenger/schrev.html.
I'll spend most of this essay dissecting the arguments about evolution. He makes much of the recent discovery that Pax-6, a gene involved in the development of eyes, is found in several different phyla. He says on p. 92, "There is no way this same gene could have evolved independently in each of the five phyla -- it must have been present in a common ancestor. The gene that controls the development of eyes was programmed into life at the level below the Cambrian. That level is either the amorphous sponge-like Ediacarans or one-celled protozoa. But neither has eyes." But according to Encyclopedia Britannica 1998, the last common ancestor of the phyla in question is thought to be something like a flatworm. And flatworms (at least the non-parasitic ones) do have simple eyespots. They also have the Pax-6 gene, which presumably controls the development of the eyespots.
Some of Dr. Schroeder's examples use an estimate of mutation rates that is wrong by several orders of magnitude. On pp. 109-110, he says, "Reported mutation rates of gametes range from one mutation in ten matings to one per 100,000 matings." After looking at his references, I'm confused about how he derived these numbers. One of his references gives an error rate of one per 10 billion base pairs per replication. Since there are 6.4 billion base pairs in a human diploid cell, that's almost one mutation per cell division. And there are hundreds of cell divisions in the production of sperm. His other reference lists specific mutations occurring in about one out of 100,000 individuals. Perhaps he misinterpreted this as meaning that only one out of 100,000 individuals have any mutations.
In any case, although some older books do give mutation rates as low as 0.1 per individual (in humans), recent estimates are much higher. According to John Drake et al in "Rates of Spontaneous Mutation" (Genetics 148:1667-1686, April 1998), the average human zygote has about 64 mutations (though only 1.6 of these are in protein-coding DNA). Fruit flies have about 1.5 mutations per individual (with 0.14 in protein-coding DNA).
Dr. Schroeder also vastly underestimates both the population sizes and fecundity of animals. In one example on p. 110, he supposes a population of 100,000 individuals, and assuming one mutation out of every 10 matings, calculates only 5000 mutations per generation. This implicitly assumes that each pair produces only one child. Even if he were talking about humans (and he's not -- this is about the evolution of the eye), a more realistic number of children per couple (in pre-industrial times) would be maybe 10. When you plug in numbers like 100,000 eggs laid at one time by the common octopus, with a population size of 2,000,000,000, and one mutation per individual, you get 10^14 mutations per generation. This means that every possible mutation will almost certainly occur many times (about a million times for a genome size of 10^8) in every generation. This makes a mockery of his calculation of a million generations to get one specific mutation.
When it comes to quantum mechanics and free will, I have two points: first, we don't know whether QM involves true indeterminacy. Nonlocal hidden variables interpretations are not popular, but they have never been disproven. (See http://www.mtnmath.com/faq/meas-qm-faq-7.html>.) More importantly, randomness is not what free will is all about. When we say that we want freedom, we don't mean that we want our actions to be random.
Finally, on p. 169, Dr. Schroder gives the example of a natural evil: the massive doses of cosmic radiation that accompany the warming rays of the Sun. He writes, "The biblical Creator has the ability to form stars without lethal radiations. But they would not be natural. They would offer absolute testimony to the existence of the Creator." It's ironic that he has spent the entire book trying to prove that God exists, and yet here claims that God wants his existence to be unprovable.
Kudos to Alejandro Pareja for correcting an error in the last issue. The quote "the pen is mightier than the sword," which we had erroneously attributed to Voltaire, actually comes from the play Richelieu by playright/author Edward Bulwer Lytton (1805-1873):
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