Dispatches from the Creation Wars

New Scientist has an article about the Biologic Institute, the lab that the DI set up about a year ago in Redmond, Washington. I guess is where that unnamed research is going on under double-secret probation. It’s headed by Douglas Axe, author of a couple of ridiculously hyped “pro-ID” articles that turned out to be anything but that. The article is fairly amusing, as it begins with one of the directors of the institute, George Weber (also the head of the local chapter of the creationist group Reasons To Believe – remember, ID advocates are not creationists…except for those who are), tells the author that the lab is a wing of the Discovery Institute and that their goal is to “challenge the scientific community on naturalism.” That leads to him being fired from the board of the institute for failing to parrot the party line. Repeat after me: this has nothing to do with god; this has nothing to do with god; this has nothing to do with god. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

So what will they actually be doing at this lab? I mean, it appears to be an actual working lab; it has bunson burners and pipettes and everything. There is no actual ID theory from which one can derive hypotheses to be tested, and as Minnich admitted in the Dover trial, all of the hypothetical tests they can come up with are really tests (poorly designed ones at that) of evolution, not of ID. That’s because all of their positions rest first on the failure of evolution to set up the false dichotomy that if evolution is wrong, ID must be true. I think Jason Rosenhouse is correct on the kind of research the lab will produce:

One suspects that what will emerge from the lab is the sort of milquetoast, run-of-the-mill research that fills the back pages of second-tier journals. They’ll produce results like, “Point mutations in the obscurity gene, which codes for the protein esotericase, leads to a catastrophic loss of function.” Then the shills at the DI will shamelessly peddle this as cutting-edge research in support of ID. Such results clearly show that esotericase couldn’t possibly have evolved, right? The conscienceless lickspittles at the various ID blogs will wield it with comical indignation the next time a scientist points out that there is no research in support of ID.

This isn’t exactly a fisky prediction, of course, since we’ve already got a well established pattern of this happening. We all remember a few years ago as Dembski spoke breathlessly about how Behe and Snoke’s upcoming 2004 paper “may well be the nail in the coffin [and] the crumbling of the Berlin wall of Darwinian evolution.” In fact, that paper ended up as one of the nails in the ID coffin in the Kitzmiller trial, as Behe was forced to admit under oath that their computer simulation had in fact concluded that an irreducibly complex protein binding site could evolve in only 20,000 years even when the parameters of the experiment were purposely rigged to make it as unlikely as possible.

And we heard the same thing about Axe’s 2000 paper on perturbation in enzymes. Dembski hailed this research as proving the existence of biochemical systems “for which any slight modification does not merely destroy the system’s existing function, but also destroys the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever.” In fact, this was a wildly inaccurate claim about the nature of Axe’s research, as Matt Inlay documented in this post at the Panda’s Thumb. Axe’s paper was a classic “knockout” experiment, where greater and greater numbers of point mutations were induced and at each step, measurement of the ability of the enzyme to function was measured, in an attempt to find out how many such substitutions had to take place before all function was lost.

According to Dembski, the experiment showed that any slight modification of the sequence not only destroyed the enzyme’s function but also destroyed the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever. That claim could scarcely be less credible. Axe performed the knockouts in groups of 10 amino acid substitutions and found that none of the four substitutions, by themselves, seriously affected the enzyme’s function. It found that you had to combine three sets of substitutions to reduce function by 99%, and had to combine all 4 sets of substitutions to kill function completely. This means that you could substitute 10 or 20 amino acids at a time and only get a negligible decrease in function. If you substituted 30 amino acids all at once, you lost 99% of the function. And if you knocked out 40 at a time, you could kill all function. But this is a full 10% of all the amino acids in the entire protein, and 20% of the exterior residues, which is what the experiment was dealing with. As Inlay tells us:

As previously mentioned, at least 30 substitutions were required to reduce activity greater than 99%, and 40 mutations to completely abolish it. This amounts to about 20% of the exterior residues, or 10% of the total protein. This can hardly be considered “slight”, by any definition of the word. One substitution would be considered slight, not 30 to 40. This is not just a semantic quibble, as the changes that occur during the course of gradual, ‘Darwinian’ evolution occur one substitution at a time (except in cases of recombination and exon shuffling).

It should also be noted that, contrary to Dembski’s claim, Axe’s experiment made no attempt to study any other function other than the original function of the enzyme. But in fact, other functions do in fact increase with those changes:

I don’t know how Dembski can claim that the mutations destroyed other functions of the system, since Axe never tested for other functions. This is basically an appeal to ignorance. However, as it turns out, another group analyzed mutations in the active site of the exact same gene (TEM-1) and found that certain “slight modifications” drastically reduced the original function of the system (penicillin and ampicillin resistance), but increased a separate, distinct function (cephalosporin resistance).

The ID Clown Posse knows all of this, of course. Behe knows damn well that the paper he did with Snoke provides no support whatsoever for ID, and in fact argues against irreducible complexity, but that doesn’t stop him from promoting it as such anyway. Dembski knows damn well that Axe’s papers didn’t really say what he claimed they said. But that’s not the point.

Back in the 70s, when I was growing up, Ricardo Montalban was not only the infamous Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Island, he also starred in a commercial for Chrysler where he tantalized potential buyers by telling them that the seats in the car were covered “with the finest Corinthian leather.” No one really knew what Corinthian leather was; indeed, it didn’t actually exist. Corinth, of course, exists, but they do not produce leather there. In reality, that “fine Corinthian leather” was produced in a factory in New Jersey. But the commercial illustrates just how easily people are fooled by a slogan that sounds vaguely exclusive and out of reach.

The same phenomenon is at work here. The ID crowd knows that 99% of their followers and supporters are not going to go and look up a paper in Protein Science; they also know that 99% of them wouldn’t be able to understand if even if they did. What matters is that you have a good slogan – this is a “nail in the coffin” of evolution – and some really fancy sounding terms – “made of the finest perturbation rates.” After all, perturbation sounds pretty darn scientific, doesn’t it? And when your’e dealing with a public that doesn’t know a point mutation from a point guard, covering that old creationist couch with the finest Corinthian leather makes it seem all shiny and new.

Comments

  1. #1 llDayo
    December 15, 2006

    Something I don’t understand:

    First, something to remember
    1)”challenge the scientific community on naturalism”
    2)(From Wiki)Naturalism (philosophy) – any of several philosophical stances wherein all phenomena or hypotheses commonly labeled as supernatural are either false, unknowable, or not inherently different from natural phenomena or hypotheses
    3)Science uses naturalism because there’s no way to test the supernatural world.

    Second, WTF?
    How exactly is the lab using science, a tool which cannot be used to test for the supernatural, to challenge naturalism? Am I missing something obvious here because I’m completely befuddled on this issue?

  2. #2 jba
    December 15, 2006

    ‘Am I missing something obvious here because I’m completely befuddled on this issue?’

    Nope. They are.

  3. #3 mark
    December 15, 2006

    Another car commercial:

    It LOOKS like a Mercedes! (but it’s a Ford Granada)
    Kinda like It SOUNDS like science!.

    But when someone with a little knowledge looks or listens, the differences become obvious. The only ones duped are those lacking knowledge.
    (By the way, when the Granada was redesigned as a Fairmont with a higher price tag, the commercial was not reshot to say “It looks like a Fairmont.)

  4. #4 doctorgoo
    December 15, 2006

    How exactly is the lab using science, a tool which cannot be used to test for the supernatural, to challenge naturalism? Am I missing something obvious here because I’m completely befuddled on this issue?

    Well, it’s not obvious, but I’ll certainly take a crack at explaining it.

    They fully believe in the false dichotomy, that if evolution (naturalism) is false, then ID (supernaturalism) must be true.

    To us, proving evolution false (however unlikely) would just mean that there’s another naturalistic theory that explains the evidence better. But to them, proving evolution false means that by default, ID must be true.

  5. #5 Boo
    December 15, 2006

    I’m guessing they would claim they’re not testing for supernaturalism, only “hallmarks of intelligence” or something of the kind. Like if they get a flagellum real up close under a microscope and it turns to them and says “Hi there!”

  6. #6 Ginger Yellow
    December 15, 2006

    They fully believe in the false dichotomy, that if evolution (naturalism) is false, then ID (supernaturalism) must be true.

    To us, proving evolution false (however unlikely) would just mean that there’s another naturalistic theory that explains the evidence better. But to them, proving evolution false means that by default, ID must be true.

    Well, given that the only coherent definition of ID is “NOT evolution”, I suppose they’re right. Doesn’t make it a productive scientific theory, of course.

  7. #7 PhysioProf
    December 15, 2006

    ‘Like if they get a flagellum real up close under a microscope and it turns to them and says “Hi there!”‘

    That made me laugh out loud!

  8. #8 Sastra
    December 15, 2006

    IIDayo wrote:

    How exactly is the lab using science, a tool which cannot be used to test for the supernatural, to challenge naturalism? Am I missing something obvious here because I’m completely befuddled on this issue?

    The third statement in Wikipedia — “3)Science uses naturalism because there’s no way to test the supernatural world.” — is controversial. As you note, the first statement mentions that there are “several philosophical stances” in naturalism, and one of them would claim that supernatural phenomena are hypotheses which are “false.”

    Whether science can test or establish the existence of the supernatural depends on how the word “supernatural” is defined. Define it as “that which science cannot test or establish” and no surprise here to find that the answer to the question is “no.” But there are other definitions which place emphasis on supernatural as involving pure mind forces or variations of vitalism (“life energy”). Given this way of categorizing supernaturalism, phenomena such as ESP and psychokensis would be supernatural. In theory, you could test and establish those scientifically. And you would then falsify naturalism.

    Remember the movie “Ghostbusters?” A thought experiment showing scientists classifying, measuring, and predicting ghosts. So theoretically, there could be a way to “test the supernatural world” — if there were one.

  9. #9 Raguel
    December 15, 2006

    OT but I’ve been wondering for years what “Corinthian leather” was. :)

  10. #10 Dave S.
    December 15, 2006

    Second, WTF?
    How exactly is the lab using science, a tool which cannot be used to test for the supernatural, to challenge naturalism? Am I missing something obvious here because I’m completely befuddled on this issue?

    You have to use ID/Creationist Logic to follow this…

    1) We can’t imagine how X could happen naturally.

    or:

    1a) We are not personally convinced that some proposed natural process could account for X.

    or:

    1b) We don’t know how X happened naturally.

    2) Therefore X couldn’t happen naturally.

    3) If X couldn’t happen naturally, it must have happened outside of nature.

    QED

  11. #11 Boo
    December 15, 2006

    “Given this way of categorizing supernaturalism, phenomena such as ESP and psychokensis would be supernatural. In theory, you could test and establish those scientifically. And you would then falsify naturalism.”

    But if you could establish, say, ESP as a measurable property of the human brain, would it continue to be “supernatural?” Or would it just mean there was some physical property of our brains that had heretofore been undiscovered and unmeasured?

  12. #12 llDayo
    December 15, 2006

    Boo stole the reply right out of my keyboard. If something is considered supernatural but has a measurable property within the natural world to identify it, is it still supernatural?

  13. #13 Sastra
    December 15, 2006

    Boo wrote:

    But if you could establish, say, ESP as a measurable property of the human brain, would it continue to be “supernatural?” Or would it just mean there was some physical property of our brains that had heretofore been undiscovered and unmeasured?

    One of the huge problems with defining “supernatural” as “that which is outside of the natural” is that what is and isn’t “natural” can be almost infinitely flexible. What is the difference between a phenomenom which is supernatural and one which is simply a higher or subtler form of nature? Answer: no difference.

    Thus, people can (and have) claimed that disembodied souls, ghosts, ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondances, healing energy, vitalism, karma, prana, cosmic consciousness, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism — and God — exist, but see, they’re all NATURAL. Nothing supernatural there. It’s all physical but on a “higher plane.”

    Look at Deepak Chopra. When he talks about a “deeper understanding” of God which eschews dualism and reductionism, this is what he means. Nature is embued with an irreducible force of consciousness, and there’s a holistic meld of matter and spirit which can support everything from ESP to astrology to God without ever having to go outside of nature. This view is particularly appealing to people who see “natural” as being equivalent to “normal, right, and healthy.”

    That’s why I, as a naturalist, prefer to define “supernatural” in terms of top-down views of reality involving pure mental being or its products, instead of “what is outside of nature” or “what cannot be measured by science” (which both end up being vacuuous.)

    So yes, even if our brains put out some sort of measurable will-power energy, if this “energy” is unique to mind and separable from the brain, it would not just be a new kind of natural effect. It would be science proving the supernatural — and naturalism refuted. Naturalism shouldn’t be infinitely flexible.

    Imo using “naturalism” as a falsifiable theory keeps us honest.

  14. #14 Sastra
    December 15, 2006

    Think of it this way:
    Imagine you have been given an advance of $100,000 to write a science fiction short story where the Biologic Institute actually *discovers* the existence of supernatural design, and doesn’t just find something complex and use the argument from ignorance to claim supernaturalism by default. You can come up with anything you want — “designatron” energy forms, a prayer which creates life, junk DNA which spells out the Nicean Creed, flagella angels which appear and obey any scientist who holds the Bible, etc. Go to town. Get wild. Be creative. Consider the fantastical and miraculous, but make it to some degree repeatable and measurable and open to cross-confirmation. Every knee shall bend and every head shall bow, when that scientific breakthrough is announced and the holy beaker held aloft.

    It’s not that it’s impossible. It’s that it’s unlikely.

    Real, real, real unlikely. Which is why they know better than to try it the honest way.

  15. #15 386sx
    December 15, 2006

    If something is considered supernatural but has a measurable property within the natural world to identify it, is it still supernatural?

    That’s hard to say. From our perspective, at best the supernatural can only be “play pretend” because we can only see natural things. (If it were supernatural, then it would be outside of our senses -except for our “play pretend” senses, of course.) But on the other hand, it is entirely possible to have “pretend game” woo-woo fantasies about things that are natural. So your question is difficult to answer. For instance, most (or all) of your major religions are based on idiotic fantasies that are really stupid, and yet billions of people think that they are supernatural. Hope that helps. Happy holidays!

  16. #16 David Heddle
    December 15, 2006

    386x

    If it were supernatural, then it would be outside of our senses -except for our “play pretend” senses, of course

    That is not correct. Supernatural means it cannot be explained by natural causes. Ever. It does not preclude it (if it exists) from detection. If the Red Sea parted, it was supernatural, but the Jews would have seen it via real photons impinging upon their eyes. Hope that helps.

  17. #17 Gretchen
    December 15, 2006

    That is not correct. Supernatural means it cannot be explained by natural causes. Ever. It does not preclude it (if it exists) from detection. If the Red Sea parted, it was supernatural, but the Jews would have seen it via real photons impinging upon their eyes. Hope that helps.

    Care to explain how one can causally affect natural entities via non-natural means? Sure seems like you’re stuck with a Cartesian dualism there, just without even a pineal gland to point to.

  18. #18 David Heddle
    December 15, 2006

    Gretchen,

    I can’t, by definition.

    You can argue that the supernatural doesn’t exist, but you are stuck with the definition that it includes manipulating matter by means other than the natural laws. There is no (sensible) explantion for how Jesus walked on water. He either didn’t, or, if he did, he did so in a way that cannot be explained, though it could have been witnessed.

  19. #19 Coin
    December 15, 2006

    Supernatural means it cannot be explained by natural causes. Ever.

    It isn’t really ever possible to classify an event as supernatural, then, is it? I mean, if there’s an event we think might be supernatural, we still can’t classify it as one, because we don’t know how to tell if it’s a “cannot be explained by natural causes, ever” or a “cannot be explained by natural causes in any way we can think of right this moment”. We can’t predict, looking at a mysterious event, whether a natural cause will ever be put forward to explain it; the best we can say is that a natural explanation is not known to us at the present time.

    There is no (sensible) explantion for how Jesus walked on water. He either didn’t, or

    Doesn’t sound like there’s a problem here to me.

  20. #20 Gretchen
    December 15, 2006

    David,

    You can’t define something to be inexplicable– that’s basically wishing the supernatural into existence. If Jesus walked on water, then it was by some sort of natural interaction and can therefore be explained using science. If he didn’t, then….

  21. #21 Leni
    December 15, 2006

    That was a good try Gretchen, but David’s been through all this before.

    There was a discussion not too long ago wherein he defined miracles as events that are not and will never be explicable. I asked him to spell out exactly how one would distinguish a truly inexplicable event from one that is merely unexplained. Further, I asked him how one rules out potential explanations that have not yet occured and did not receive an adequate reply.

    He did concede that finding a natural explanation would pose a problem an particular miracle, he just didn’t seem to want to connect the next obvious dot.

    Sorry David, I don’t mean to talk about you as if you aren’t here. I just find your arguments odd. And given that Gretchen is telling you the exact same thing I did, I felt compelled to share my bewildering experience with her.

  22. #22 kehrsam
    December 15, 2006

    Gretchen, Leni: Perhaps it would be best if David said the cause is unknown, rather than unknowable — would that be better? A book gives eyewitness accounts of events for which we have no explanation, and those who believe call it a miracle. Had Jesus used a jetski, based upon the description left, we still have no language to call it other than miracle, unless we received a better witness report than what we have.

    But, since Heddle (and I) accept that the cause of miracles is not naturalistic, in that we posit a being who created matter and energy, therefore being beyond these things, we also posit that were a miracle to happen in front of us right now we could not explain it. How does something that is beyond matter and energy interact with them? That is the nature of the miracle.

    I will go further: If God chose to interfere in evolution, we would have no way of determining it. Since mutations are random, how could you say that any given series exhibits design? After all, how can you differentiate between a random mutation and a designed one, where the designed one was one of the random possibilities? We’ve run into the Anthropic Fallacy here and there is no escape.

    This is why ID is fraudulent: Even if there is a creator God, He used evolutionary processes to achieve His ends. Which from the outside looks exactly like evolutionary processes operating without any outside influence. Based upon their own logic, DI can’t win this argument. That’s what is so sad about the whole thing. Peace to all.

  23. #23 386sx
    December 15, 2006

    That is not correct. Supernatural means it cannot be explained by natural causes. Ever. It does not preclude it (if it exists) from detection. If the Red Sea parted, it was supernatural, but the Jews would have seen it via real photons impinging upon their eyes. Hope that helps.

    I did allow for the for “play pretend” senses like pretending that the Red Sea parted, and pretending that we have ESP, and other such play pretend scenarios. So yes, I did cover my #! on that one. But have some nice holidays though, Mr. Heddle!

  24. #24 David Heddle
    December 15, 2006

    Coin,

    In a technical sense I would agree. However, at least in terms of biblical miracles, they are not repeatable. So I would say there is a distinction. In physics I might come across something that is inexplicable (and repeatable). Some strange result that at the moment doesn’t fit any theory. I surely wouldn’t classify it as supernatural.

    Gretchen,

    Why can’t I define something as inexplicable? (although I’m not, I’m saying science can’t explain it–but I won’t quibble.) It doesn’t mean such a thing exists (although obviously I think so.) It’s just a definition. What universal truth is violated by defining the supernatural as that which cannot be explained by the natural laws? Why is the definition “not allowed?” By saying that if Jesus walked on water there must be some natural explanation is just saying there is no such thing as the supernatural.

    Leni, it’s OK, I am not offended if you find my arguments odd.

    386sx, your response makes no sense to me. It is something like Gretchen’s perhaps, which boils down to the supernatural doesn’t exist. But that’s not the point–the point was that the definition of supernatural does not preclude a supernatural event, should it exist, from being observed.

  25. #25 Sastra
    December 16, 2006

    David Heddle wrote:

    You can argue that the supernatural doesn’t exist, but you are stuck with the definition that it includes manipulating matter by means other than the natural laws. There is no (sensible) explantion for how Jesus walked on water. He either didn’t, or, if he did, he did so in a way that cannot be explained, though it could have been witnessed.

    Saying that “the supernatural includes manipulating matter by means other than natural laws” is fine, except that it still doesn’t clarify the distinction between natural and supernatural. And as we can all see, anyone can take pretty much any phenomenom – including Jesus walking miraculously on water — and just re-classify it as a higher or hitherto unknown natural phenomenom. Using “explanable” as the cut-off point leaves the huge problem of distinguishing between what can’t be explained ever and what hasn’t been explained yet. And if God were to tell us how miracles work, are they no longer miracles?

    Look at things we generally agree are “supernatural,” and see what they have in common. Superstrings and multiverses might follow all sorts of laws different from our familiar ones, but nobody considers them supernatural. Being outside the known natural universe isn’t the critical part. On the contrary, supernatural events seem to be associated exclusively with mind-like causes, pure intention and attention — an irreducible non-material force or will which doesn’t obey the kinds of mechanistic laws which apply to inert objects. This force can only be understood through the use of psychological descriptions or connected meanings — whys, not hows.

    The sensible explanation for how Jesus walked on water was that his desire was to do so, and matter obeyed his will. In supernatural explanations, mind is not made up of anything material, built up by cranes: it works from the top down, a sky-hook which must be considered self-explanatory. Miracles would simply be a case of a special sky hook which does very heavy lifting indeed.

  26. #26 Boo
    December 16, 2006

    But if I see a starch-bearing tuber, is it a potato, or a potahto? Because if we call it a potato then by definition it can’t be a potahto, but does that affect the starch content? And if I was eating potahto chips and switched to french fries, would I then be obligated to call the whole thing off? And which one works best for exploding in a microwave?

  27. #27 Nebogipfel
    December 16, 2006

    But that’s not the point–the point was that the definition of supernatural does not preclude a supernatural event, should it exist, from being observed.

    Indeed it doesn’t. Ï think where “materialists” get stuck is when they say, do we have any actual objective evidence that such an event was, in fact, observed.

    A miracle can be a supernatural event, but it must have *some* effect on the natural world (otherwise it”s a fairly weedy kind of miracle). And *those* effects can be measured in a scientific investigation. e.g. a person who was once definately dead is now alive; an organ riddle with cancer is now free of disease, or bottle that contained only H2O now contains a solution of fermented
    grape juice and ethanol. The problem is, that as far as I know, whenever Any time such an investigation is carried out, it seems to come up empty.

  28. #28 Leni
    December 16, 2006

    I’d like to take a quick crack at this, even though I know it wasn’t addressed to me.

    David Heddle wrote:

    Why can’t I define something as inexplicable? (although I’m not, I’m saying science can’t explain it–but I won’t quibble.)

    Because you have to know with certainty that it isn’t explainable, and you have yet to explain how you’d go about determining that. Science changes and we will presumably know things in the future that we do not know now. What you are doing is no different than declaring cancer uncurable.

    The only way I see out of this is to add the caveat assuming no future explanations occur. And since you are declaring miracles to be unexplainable, I think think this presents a serious problem for your definition.

    What universal truth is violated by defining the supernatural as that which cannot be explained by the natural laws?

    The universal truth that David Heddle does not know the future :)

  29. #29 Gretchen
    December 16, 2006

    I don’t really have much to add, except that I think Sastra’s definition of the supernatural is right on the money. Defining the supernatural as “that which does not obey natural laws” really doesn’t explain anything and ends up collapsing on itself. The anthropologist Pascal Boyer defines the supernatural as constituting minimally counter-intuitive properties of things– a tree that can talk, say, or a person that can walk through walls, or a hat that only exists on Tuesdays. But I think the essence of the supernatural has to be in agency, the “top down mind” as Sastra puts it.

    And like Leni said, you can’t define something as inexplicable because definitions don’t establish properties, they simply describe them, and you can’t decide now that every event which you perceive as supernatural will remain inexplicable. The structure of DNA wasn’t supernatural even before Watson and Crick identified it. Maybe someday somebody will find that ESP (to give an example) does exist, and establish the physical means by which it happens. Will that be proving the supernatural, or “de-supernaturalizing” something material? I vote the latter.

  30. #30 Sastra
    December 16, 2006

    Gretchen wrote:

    Maybe someday somebody will find that ESP (to give an example) does exist, and establish the physical means by which it happens. Will that be proving the supernatural, or “de-supernaturalizing” something material? I vote the latter.

    I vote the former. Since the supernatural MIGHT exist, naturalism should be a working theory only, and falsifiable. I think constantly moving the goalposts on what defines the natural is a bad idea. If ESP exists, that kind of “intention force” capable of acting on (or even creating) matter would be such a radical departure from current theories that continuing to describe the world as completely “natural” would sound forced.

    Parapsychology has been called the search for the soul. ESP is one rung on the ladder of supernaturalism, and a critical one. Take any form of ESP and PK abilities away from God, and no more miracles. No Creative Intelligence acting to bring things into being or move things around through its intentions. No walking on water, no water into wine, no faith healing or prayers that are both heard and answered. Scrap special creation, guided evolution, and God somehow working through evolution. And no more sensing anything through mystical awareness. The sense divinus which allows you to know God is there internally is gone bye-bye.

    Don’t underestimate the radical nature of claims for Extra Sensory Perception and Psychokensis. Sucessfully guessing cards and bending spoons is only the tip of a really big iceberg.

  31. #31 Leni
    December 16, 2006

    Kehrsam wrote:

    Gretchen, Leni: Perhaps it would be best if David said the cause is unknown, rather than unknowable — would that be better?

    It might be better in that it’s more accurate, but it doesn’t give us a platform from which we can then make statements (that we claim to be true) about how the world is.

    Imagine that I said “The cause of autism is unknown, therefore I propose we define it as the inexplicable activity of demons”. I trust you see how that gets us precisely nowhere, and amounts to nothing more than an argument from ignorance. If we don’t know the cause, then we don’t know the cause. There just isn’t much more to say.

    A book gives eyewitness accounts of events for which we have no explanation, and those who believe call it a miracle. Had Jesus used a jetski, based upon the description left, we still have no language to call it other than miracle, unless we received a better witness report than what we have.

    Now this is closer to how I think miracles ought to be defined. An event that may or may not have occurred, and for which I have no explanation. I therefore choose to believe it is a work of God because I want to.

    Of course, we aren’t really talking about personal preference, as I think your statement suggests. We are talking about descriptions of reality that claim to be true.
    After all, people generall believe things because they think they are true.

    And yes, we do absolutely have language to describe past events that may or may not have happened. We are not reduced to calling them miracles any more than we are reduced to calling any other unexplained event a miracle. We have millions of descriptive words and tools at our disposal. Sadly, ‘miracle’ is probably the least accurate and useful among them.

    But, since Heddle (and I) accept that the cause of miracles is not naturalistic, in that we posit a being who created matter and energy, therefore being beyond these things, we also posit that were a miracle to happen in front of us right now we could not explain it. How does something that is beyond matter and energy interact with them? That is the nature of the miracle.

    You realize that you are positing all of this from ignorance? It’s a textbook example: “I don’t the cause of X, therefore I believe Y must be the cause”. You simply aren’t justified in asserting anything.

    You of course may assert and believe whatever you like. But this is no more viable an explanantion or justifiable belief than asserting demons to be the cause of disease.

    I will go further: If God chose to interfere in evolution, we would have no way of determining it.

    I wholeheartedly agree and I liked your description. I’m not sure how it’s different from miracles though.

    In any case, all of this is terribly off topic and I imagine Ed will be along shortly to tell us how exasperating he finds this topic :)

    (Quick, someone pretend to be talking about the DI!)

    William Dembski…. stinky bastard… no research… not science… unconstitutional… blahdee blah blah blah. =D

  32. #32 Gretchen Koch
    December 16, 2006

    Raging Bee may well jump all over me for bringing up Dawkins, but I think his comment on miracles here is actually quite apt:

    If ever there was a slamming of the door in the face of constructive investigation, it is the word miracle. To a medieval peasant, a radio would have seemed like a miracle. All kinds of things may happen which we by the lights of today’s science would classify as a miracle just as medieval science might a Boeing 747. Francis keeps saying things like “From the perspective of a believer.” Once you buy into the position of faith, then suddenly you find yourself losing all of your natural skepticism and your scientific–really scientific–credibility. I’m sorry to be so blunt.

  33. #33 Ed Brayton
    December 16, 2006

    Leni wrote:

    In any case, all of this is terribly off topic and I imagine Ed will be along shortly to tell us how exasperating he finds this topic :)

    (Quick, someone pretend to be talking about the DI!)

    William Dembski…. stinky bastard… no research… not science… unconstitutional… blahdee blah blah blah. =D

    LOL. Actually, I think this is a very interesting discussion and I’m not about to try and shut it down.

  34. #34 Sastra
    December 16, 2006

    (Quick, someone pretend to be talking about the DI!)

    Ok. If the Discovery Institute is serious about doing research on Intelligent Design, they would not go about doing it the way Jason and Ed (no doubt correctly) predict they will — looking for things that they think couldn’t have evolved naturally and claiming that supernatural ID therefore wins by default. Irreducible complexity is an Argument from Ignorance, and even if it could ever be successful, tearing down one particular theory wouldn’t “scientifically” support another.

    No, a scientific approach means they would be trying to establish the existence of the MECHANISM by which the supernatural works. How does desire directly impress itself upon matter and energy?

    If the Biologic Institute were honest, they wouldn’t fool around pretending to do biology. They would be doing serious tests in the realm of parapsychology.

  35. #35 David Heddle
    December 16, 2006

    Leni,

    It seems to make you are making the observation that some natural phenomenon might be misidentified as supernatural. Nobody would dispute that. But I don’t see that can then be used to rule out the definition of supernatural. It doesn’t matter that I could never be certain that something I described as a miracle would not, at some point, yield to a naturalistic explanation–the definition of what a miracle is still stands. Furthermore, when I say I believe the parting of the Red Sea was supernatural (or a miracle)–the word conveys exactly what I intend it to convey, regardless of whether I am right or wrong.

    Just redefining the supernatural as something for which, at the moment, we have no explanation is begging the question. It’s simply stating that the supernatural doesn’t exist. Such things are better described as mysteries or puzzles.

    Even your point that “it gets us nowhere” is not relevant. The purpose of the definition of supernatural is simply to define a concept. Whether it gets us somewhere, in terms of advancing our knowledge, is not the issue.

    I don’t think Dawkins’ comment that Gretchen quoted is very intelligent–it’s sort of a slippery-slope ad absurdum argument. Once you admit to miracles you lose you natural skepticism. Hogwash–I have never, not once in my career as a scientist, suggested that something that is a scientific mystery–including my beloved cosmological fine-tuning–should not be investigated scientifically with no holds barred. I am willing to bet that Collins thinks the same.

  36. #36 Gretchen
    December 16, 2006

    David, that is not what I actually read him as saying (perhaps seeing the quote in actual context of the discussion would help). I see him as making two points: A) that the term “miracle” effectively translates as “point at which I am willing to stop being curious,” and B) that faith (faith, not miracle-belief) is a position of being willing to accept things without sufficient evidence, and is therefore an inappropriate place from which to conduct a scientific inquiry. You cannot, in other words, be a faith-based scientist.

    You can, of course say “I compartmentalize– my faith and my scientific rigor are two different realms entirely.” But Dawkins would object, and I think rightly, that there is no obviously apparent good reason for doing so.

  37. #37 386sx
    December 16, 2006

    Even your point that “it gets us nowhere” is not relevant. The purpose of the definition of supernatural is simply to define a concept. Whether it gets us somewhere, in terms of advancing our knowledge, is not the issue.

    Thank you for admitting that. But like he said, it amounts to nothing more than an argument from ignorance. By the way, if whether it gets us somewhere in terms of advancing our knowledge is not the issue, then I guess anybody could define the supernatural to be pretty much whatever they want it to be. Whether or not it gets us anywhere is not relevant. So it doesn’t matter. Because that is beside the point. Since the purpose is simply to define a concept. People should probably care a little more about their definitions. But noooo…….

  38. #38 Uber
    December 16, 2006

    Does anyone else see even a little humor in heddles comments here:

    I don’t think Dawkins’ comment that Gretchen quoted is very intelligent–it’s sort of a slippery-slope ad absurdum argument.

    and then

    I have never, not once in my career as a scientist, suggested that something that is a scientific mystery–including my beloved cosmological fine-tuning–

    He insults Dawkins statement as not smart and then embraces something that is, well, not smart. I don’t see any rational position in his argument about miracles whatsoever. It appears to boil down to ‘I accept it because I wish to believe it’.(which I support by the way but think it’s just silly to argue for as a decent position). As 386x said above it is simply an argument from ignorance and thats at best.

  39. #39 Leni
    December 16, 2006

    David Heddle wrote:

    It seems to make you are making the observation that some natural phenomenon might be misidentified as supernatural.

    No, I’m making the observation that you have no way of distinguishing between misidentifications and actual miracles.

    But I don’t see that can then be used to rule out the definition of supernatural.

    I’m not ruling out the definition of supernatural. I’m ruling out your definition of miracle.

    An event is a miracle if and only if it is never explained. When is that condition met? Never, because at any moment it might be explained. If it is met, how would we know?

    So when are we justified in using this definition? Never, because it doesn’t apply to anything we can even describe.

    It doesn’t matter that I could never be certain that something I described as a miracle would not, at some point, yield to a naturalistic explanation–the definition of what a miracle is still stands.

    All you’ve said is that a miracle is anything not a not-miracle. How does this still stand?

    Suffice it to say that you are making the claim that miracles exist, so it’s your job to suss them out from the non-miracles. Or at least to explain how in theory that might be accomplished. If you can’t even describe them accurately, don’t care if you do or not, and can’t ever be certain you are, then what’s the point of defining them at all?

  40. #40 386sx
    December 17, 2006

    But, since Heddle (and I) accept that the cause of miracles is not naturalistic, in that we posit a being who created matter and energy, therefore being beyond these things, we also posit that were a miracle to happen in front of us right now we could not explain it. How does something that is beyond matter and energy interact with them?

    Why create matter and energy in the first place? What’s the point? Why not just make a bunch of other supernatural beings. I don’t see what the point is. It sure would save a whole lot of “positing”. Not that positing is all that difficult. Posit, posit, “poof”, posit, “poof”, “poof”!

  41. #41 Southern Fried Skeptic
    January 12, 2007

    Maybe we should be a bit more pragmatic about the term supernatural. Any event that that seems to violate known natural laws or appears “miraculous”, especially in conjunction with apparent significance for sentient organisms, shall be considered supernatural until such time as a natural cause can be identified, if such a time is forthcoming.

    My working definition of “miraculous” is an event that while not violating natural laws, is an event with such a low probability of occurance as to be unreasonable in expectation within the time frame of possible occurance.

  42. #42 doctorgoo
    January 12, 2007

    I think I know what you mean about your definition of miraculous.

    For me, I consider there to be two definitions:
    1. Something that’s surprisingly unlikely.
    2. Something that’s not only unlikely, but could is described in only religious terms.

    For example… a cancer patient recovering on his own… I have no problem calling this a miracle, but I certainly wouldn’t credit God for it. In fact, I would be seriously motivated to figure out why he recovered without treatment, and whether or not his particular genetic makeup could lead to treatments for others.

  43. #43 Southern Fried Skeptic
    January 12, 2007

    Maybe we should be a bit more pragmatic about the term supernatural. Any event that that seems to violate known natural laws or appears “miraculous”, especially in conjunction with apparent significance for sentient organisms, shall be considered supernatural until such time as a natural cause can be identified, if such a time is forthcoming.

    My working definition of “miraculous” is an event that while not violating natural laws, is an event with such a low probability of occurance as to be unreasonable in expectation within the time frame of possible occurance.

  44. #44 Southern Fried Skeptic
    January 12, 2007

    Maybe we should be a bit more pragmatic about the term supernatural. Any event that that seems to violate known natural laws or appears “miraculous”, especially in conjunction with apparent significance for sentient organisms, shall be considered supernatural until such time as a natural cause can be identified, if such a time is forthcoming.

    My working definition of “miraculous” is an event that while not violating natural laws, is an event with such a low probability of occurance as to be unreasonable in expectation within the time frame of possible occurance.