Who Knew It Was All So Simple?

Yesterday’s mail brought the new issue of “Prayer News,” the newsletter of Creation Ministries International. (What can I say? I’m on several creationist mailing lists. At least it arrived along with the new issue of Free Inquiry to dilute the effect.) The lead article is called “Why Don’t They Get It?” by Scott Gillis, and opens as follows:

Most readers, at some time, have probably asked this question. “When the evidence supporting the biblical Creation and Flood account is presented in a clear and convincing manner, why is it summarily denied and dismissed by evolutionists?” In short, since Creation is so obvious, “Why don’t they get it?”

Yes, that’s a poser isn’t it? It’s all so obvious, after all. Gillis’s answer:

Not to oversimplify, but it often boils down to two main reasons: (1) Most evolutionists have never heard a clear presentation of the other side of the story, and, because of this; (2) they assume that all the evidence overwhelmingly supports evolution. Sometimes these hurdles need to be overcome before one can reach the heart and deal with the underlying spiritual issues.

So there you go. Only the saved see clearly.

Writing over at Uncommon Descent, ID proponent Granville Sewell proposes a different explanation:

For me, the real argument for intelligent design has always been extremely simple, and doesn’t require any advanced mathematics or microbiology to grasp. The video below makes this argument in the simplest, clearest way I can make it. My uncle Harry and aunt Martha like the video, and can’t understand why so many intelligent scientists aren’t impressed by this very simple argument.

Of course the problem is, the argument is just too simple, most scientists aren’t interested in arguments that their uncle Harry and aunt Martha can understand, they are looking for arguments that require some advanced technology, that show some understanding of evolutionary theory or microbiology that sets them apart from uncle Harry and aunt Martha. And indeed, most of the important scientific advances in our understanding of our world have required advanced technology and advanced degrees to achieve, but it is the curse of intelligent design that the strongest and clearest arguments are just too simple to get much traction in the scientific world.

I invite you to follow the link and go watch the video, but if you are aware of Sewell’s contributions to ID you already know there is only one thing he ever says. His argument is that evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics. Evolution is a film running backwards, you see, a fact the video dramatizes by showing a tornado reassembling a house from its component pieces.

I won’t rehash here all the many reasons that’s a stupid argument. They have all been explained to Sewell, but he doesn’t care. I would simply note that since it’s an unambiguous empirical fact that natural selection can lead to increases in the complexity of organisms, any proposed principle of thermodynamics implying otherwise is clearly mistaken. (The reality, of course, is that the second law does not conflict with evolution, and anyone who says it does is mistaken on a question of fact.)

Still, Sewell’s off-the-cuff remark about this argument being too simple for scientists to understand reminded me of something. In Among the Creationists I discuss how I reacted to my first exposure to creationist literature. At that time I knew very little about biology and paleontology, a fact that left me with no immediate answers to the arguments I was seeing. I write:

The first [of two things that bothered me] was the relative simplicity of creationists’ claims. For all their liberal use of scientific jargon, they presented little that could not readily be explained to a bright high school student. It seemed unlikely that a thriving, professional area of modern science could be undone so easily. … The portrayal of evolutionists throughout this literature was of benighted and confused scientists too blinded by their anti-religious prejudices to notice elementary logical fallacies in their theory. This was hard to accept. It is one thing to suggest that the scientists are wrong, but it is quite another to suggest that they are stupid or have overlooked simple errors.

Perhaps that’s the difference between ID proponents and more sensible people. For most of us, our inability to refute a simple argument that we know is rejected by nearly all scientists is evidence that we need to learn more about science. For ID proponents it’s evidence that scientists just can’t understand really simple arguments.

The notion that everything is just so simple for anyone who is thinking clearly seems to be a theme these days over at Uncommon Descent. In this recent post, from Barry Arrington, we get a quote from G. K. Chesterton. Here’s part of it:

The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both.

Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story.

Am I the only one reminded of the episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa digs up a fossil that appears to be an angel? Interviewed on the local news program, reporter Kent Brockman asks her, with tremendous indignation, “How can you continue to deny the existence of angels when you yourself found a skeleton that looks a lot like an angel?”

In addition to all the other problems with Chesterton’s argument, we should note precisely how full of it he really is. As a devout Catholic, he had no problem dismissing all of the miracle stories told by rival religions. His fondness for democracy did not extend to the claims made on behalf of Mohammad or of Joseph Smith.

So there you go. Ghosts are real because people sometimes claim to have had experiences of ghosts. ID is trivially obvious to anyone who is not overeducated or dogmatic.

Who knew it was all so simple?

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew
    January 9, 2013

    ” The portrayal of evolutionists throughout this literature was of benighted and confused scientists too blinded by their anti-religious prejudices to notice elementary logical fallacies in their theory. This was hard to accept. It is one thing to suggest that the scientists are wrong, but it is quite another to suggest that they are stupid or have overlooked simple errors.”

    Aren’t you saying that ID proponents are stupid and have overlooked simple errors?

  2. #2 JimR
    January 9, 2013

    The difference between an open vs. a closed system in thermodynamics seems apropos. Only evolution has new energy (ideas) coming in, while ID is a tightly closed system. It does not make ID proponents stupid, just caught in a system shielded from energy.

  3. #3 G
    January 9, 2013

    I found this amusing: “The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”

    Both believers and disbelievers have doctrines that have reciprocal relationships with their beliefs (or disbeliefs as the case may be). To assert that believers don’t have doctrines is absurd. Though we should be careful to not assert that disbelievers don’t have doctrines, since that proposition can also be falsified.

    The “peasants and ghosts” arguement can be easily defeated by asking its proponents how often they have accurately diagnosed their own illnesses, or cases of trouble in their automobiles, computers, etc. etc.

    The fact that an average person can report an observation accurately (e.g. “when I step on the gas too quickly, the engine stalls”, or “I see odd shapes moving through the house at night”) does not mean that they can make accurate inferences as to the mechanism behind the observation (“it must be the fuel pump” or “it must be a ghost”).

  4. #4 Steven Carr
    January 9, 2013

    CHESTERTON
    Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story.

    CARR
    I guess all that Christian testimony in Africa about child witchcraft is true, and the only thing left to do is burn the kids.

  5. #5 Neil Rickert
    January 9, 2013

    Scott Gillis: Most readers, at some time, have probably asked this question. “When the evidence supporting the biblical Creation and Flood account is presented in a clear and convincing manner, why is it summarily denied and dismissed by evolutionists?”</blockquote.

    That already had me laughing. In my experience, the evidence for creation is always presented with lots of attempted misconstrual and other forms of sleight of hand. Are they really surprised that scientists can see that? Or is Gillis mainly designing his argument for the gullible?

    Granville Sewell is a puzzle. That he is wrong is so obvious to scientists, including to scientists who are theists. Yet Sewell just fails to get it.

    I'm still shaking my head over that Arrington thread at UD (quoting Chesterton). Arrington is supposely a lawyer. I'm wondering what standard of evidence he thinks appropriate in court trials. The comments on that thread are amazing, in terms of the amount of nonsense spewed.

  6. #6 eric
    January 9, 2013

    This was hard to accept. It is one thing to suggest that the scientists are wrong, but it is quite another to suggest that they are stupid or have overlooked simple errors.

    Is it that hard to accept? Really? Think about this: almost every Christian sect is confronted with the problem of how to accept two seemingly contradictory things: (i) thefact that other sects disagree with them about important theological points, and (ii) the common theological claim that the biblical message is divinely inspired by a clearly-communicating god who has given us a salvatation message so clear that anyone can understand it.

    “The message IS clear, everyone else is just stupid or intentionally getting it wrong” is a very standard and typical sectarian response. It predates Darwin by probably over a thousand years. As crazy as their explanation might be, they are just explaining scientific disagreement the same way they’ve almost always explained theological disagreements. Since, well, probably the beginning of the church.

  7. #7 eric
    January 9, 2013

    OT, but just to throw some chum into Jason’s pool…

    Ken Miller has an article out today in the Huffpo talking about the compatibility of science and religion. Link. Maybe you’d like to take a go at it?

  8. #8 mikel
    January 9, 2013

    Aren’t you saying that ID proponents are stupid and have overlooked simple errors?

    Not all of them are stupid, some overlook simple errors on purpose.

  9. #9 RBH
    pandasthumb.org
    January 9, 2013

    BTW, Jeff Shallit also takes on the DI’s Chesterton gambit here.

  10. #10 Michael Fugate
    January 9, 2013

    That Kenneth Miller post was so shallow that I am not sure the soles of my shoes got wet wading through it. We do know that western science arose in a Christian culture and Christianity provided many of the early hypotheses for explaining nature. The problem is that when tested, they were all wrong. For Christianity to be compatible, it needs to do something other than just changing its doctrines with every new scientific discovery. It needs to be able to offer something to science, but once we used up the hypotheses generated by the Bible what is left for it to do?

  11. #11 Deepak Shetty
    January 9, 2013


    For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

    H. L. Mencken

  12. #12 MNb
    January 9, 2013

    “Why don’t they get it?”
    Well, because I have the nasty inclination to google on “unintelligent design” – and to actually read the articles I find. Then I ask some creationist – usually a Dutch one – and am baffled by their crazy answers. Sewell is a fine example. Or this one:

    “just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder”
    Eeehh, the good old Romans also knew the principle Testis unus testis nullus.

  13. #13 Lenoxus
    January 9, 2013

    It’s telling that that Sewell would use his thermodynamics bit as the go-to example for ID being “simple”. The truth about thermodynamics is that it’s not simple at all. It’s complicated. By comparison to thermodynamics, rocket science is simple.

    With thermodynamics, it’s like the IDists all got to the part about the messy room and said “Oh, I get it!” when that’s just a lie-to-children, like the solar system model of the atom, meant to simplify something more abstract and detailed. To be fair to the IDists who aren’t Sewell, they may feel no need to reasearch the subject beyond what ID tells them they need to know. But the “simple” truth is that the second law is not just the intuitive idea that everything goes from complex to simple (but minds can magically subvert this process of decay). It involves numbers and stuff. In fact, that’s about where my own understanding stops.

    The other issue here is that Creation Ministries is conflating the argument for ID with the one for YEC, a concept which is exponentially more inaccurate, fallacious, and (I would argue) more complicated than ID. The real question is, why do all these scientists accept the same basic narrative which is inconsistent with YEC? If they’re just ignorant or biased, then how are they able to maintain such consistency in their views?

  14. #14 MNb
    January 10, 2013

    @Len: because conspiracy.

    “like the solar system model”
    Yeah, I always feel a bit like a deceiver when I tell my pupils about it.

  15. #15 G
    January 10, 2013

    YEC is arguably paranoid ideation, because it entails the belief that a deity planted false evidence everywhere we look: the red shift, the fossil record, stellar nuclear fusion, observable changes in species over time, etc. All of this for the purpose of convincing humans to believe in said deity’s existence.

    Re. Michael Fugate, “what is left for [Christianity] to do?”: Stand up for civil rights, stewardship of the Earth, and the dignity of each individual person. Not to mention hide Jews from the Gestapo and protest against war. All of these things in response to straightforward injunctions such as “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” which stand on their own two feet regardless of whether one believes in any form of supernaturalism.

    So let’s be careful to not throw out the proverbial baby with the bilgewater, lest we have our noses rubbed in “scientific race theory,” eugenics, the epidemic of frontal lobotomies in the mid 20th century, and similar evils committed in the name of science and rationalism. Bottom line: Any belief system, any philosophy, can be used to rationalize doing good or doing evil. The emotional traits that make for good and evil behavior come first, the rationales come from whatever philosophical system is locally available.

    I would argue that YEC is a debasement of the real value of religion, which, when divorced from fanatical fundamentalisms, and detached from specific supernaturalisms, is to urge humans to think deeply about their goals and purposes and actions. Admittedly most adherents of most of the world’s religions (and arguably, philosophies in general) don’t think deeply about their beliefs (devotionalism != contemplation), but the absence of thinking deeply is a normally-distributed trait in our species.

  16. #16 Blaine
    January 10, 2013

    The thermo argument neglects Gibbs free energy. That why evolution works…Boom!

  17. #17 Michael Fugate
    January 10, 2013

    You don’t need religion to stand up for civil rights.

  18. #18 johnny
    January 11, 2013

    “As a devout Catholic, he had no problem dismissing all of the miracle stories told by rival religions. His fondness for democracy did not extend to the claims made on behalf of Mohammad or of Joseph Smith.”

    Well, apparently, your fondness for complexity did not extend to being careful about bashing Chesterton, because this remark is simply false. It’s one thing to disagree with a dead man ; it is another to utter irrational falsehood about him. See below :

    http://www.chesterton.org/discover-chesterton/selected-works/the-theologian/miracles-and-civilisation/

  19. #19 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 11, 2013

    johnny –

    Thanks for the link. You’re right, on this point I was unfair to Chesterton. I think he’s making a colossally stupid argument, but apparently he was, at least, consistent.

  20. #20 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 11, 2013

    eric –

    That Ken Miller article was actually posted in March of last year. It still might be worth replying to, though.

  21. #21 G
    January 11, 2013

    (Yo Jason- clever edits there; only thing is, why take out the references to neurophysiology?;-)

    Re. Michael Fugate: “You don’t need religion to stand up for civil rights.” True, and in fact you don’t need any kind of belief system at all to stand up for civil rights or hide Jews from the Gestapo: the mammalian brain hardwiring for the emotional trait of “fairness,” experimentally verified in various primates and also in dogs, is quite sufficient.

    So here’s an experiment that really needs to be done:

    Background: a “differential rewards” experiment supported the hypothesis that dogs have a sense of fairness: Dogs ceased to perform an experimental task when they saw other dogs getting greater rewards than they did for performing the same task.

    Now let’s run this with dogs who have their humans with them (humans bring in their family dogs for the experiment), where the dogs observe their humans performing a task and getting differential rewards. Are there observable signs of distress on the part of the dogs whose humans get the lesser rewards? In other words, do dogs also recognize and react when their humans are being treated unfairly?

    I’m inclined to believe that dogs will react to situations that are unfair to their humans, because dogs are very tribal animals, and an insult to a tribe-mate is an insult to oneself. From this one could make an inference that the dogs have at least a rudimentary sense of empathy: one more trait to remove from the category of variables that are dependent on “uniquely human” (heh!) belief systems.

  22. #22 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 11, 2013

    G –

    What are you talking about? I didn’t edit anything.

  23. #23 Michael Fugate
    January 11, 2013

    G???????

  24. #24 G
    January 12, 2013

    Jason: This was re. here or some other religion debate that had devolved into the usual polarization between theists and atheists. It appeared that a bunch of the “thrash” had been edited out by the blogger, including some of the stuff in my comment about the neurophysiology of belief/disbelief. Must have been elsewhere; sorry for the confusion.

    Michael: You asserted that religion is not necessary for altruistic behavior (such as helping individuals who are members of persecuted minorities). I agreed and went a little further by asserting that altruistic behavior that is based on empathy (the ability to accurately infer the emotional states of others) is arguably not unique to humans. I proposed an experiment to test that assertion, based on a recently published experiment with dogs.

    In the original experiment, dogs got rewards each time they performed a task. The dogs could see each other and could see the rewards that all of them were given. Dogs who got lesser rewards behaved in a manner that indicated they felt they were being treated unfairly.

    My extension of the experiment involves humans and their family dogs, where the humans perform the tasks and get the greater/lesser rewards each time, while their dogs are watching. I hypothesize that if the humans show behaviors that indicate they feel unfairly treated (for example by saying “hey, my reward was less than his for the same task”), the dogs will show detectable behaviors indicating that they recognize this (as if to say “yeah, my human just got a crappy reward compared to that other human over there!”).

    Conventional religious interpretations of altruism typically group it together with “self sacrifice” and contextualize both as uniquely human attributes that are God-given. Conventional nonreligious scientific interpretations of altruism often focus on natural selection (e.g. sacrificing one’s own genetic propagation for the sake of improving the group’s genetic propagation).

    I believe that altruism is mediated by direct emotional responses to conditions (e.g. empathy for the suffering of others), and that these responses are not unique to humans. I don’t believe it’s necessary to invoke natural selection to explain most forms of altruistic behavior. For example Germans who helped Jews hide from the Nazis didn’t reason, “we need to do this in order to protect the genetic lineage of Jews” or even “…the genetic lineage of our friends in the neighborhood who happen to be Jewish” etc. They typically reasoned, “that family will face unspeakable horrors if we don’t help them,” which is an example of emotional empathy as a motive for altruism.

    However, empathy need not be a God-given trait: I also believe it’s hardwired in the brains of at least a few other species of mammals, and it probably occurs in many more species of animals than we expect. The more we look, the more we find that traits once considered “uniquely human” are found in a wide range of other species. These types of findings erode fundamentalist religion, and they also erode certain secular attitudes that have produced undesirable consequences such as the relentless destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity.

  25. #25 Birger Johansson
    January 14, 2013

    Didn’t Einstein say that theories should be a simple as possible, but not simpler? The kooks skip the last three words.

  26. #26 Anton Mates
    January 15, 2013

    You’re right, on this point I was unfair to Chesterton. I think he’s making a colossally stupid argument, but apparently he was, at least, consistent.

    I think it’s a colossally dishonest argument as well. Chesterton was far too well-educated to pretend that Christians don’t attack accounts of miracles from competing faiths (including other sects of their own faith.) Yes, sometimes they have accepted that such miracles occurred but were “devilry” rather than the work of God. But Christians have also frequently rejected those accounts as due to trickery, lies or honest (if Satanically-inflicted) ignorance and stupidity. The early church fathers condemned pagan and heretical prophets and mystics as frauds. The Catholic church rejected belief in the supernatural powers of witches as superstition–sometimes even heresy–until the 14-1500s. Martin Luther and other Protestants held that divine miracles ceased occuring after the Apostolic Age, so any Catholic accounts of such were either due to devilish powers or to ordinary trickery.

    People, peasants or otherwise, generally aren’t infinitely credulous; even if they believe in the general existence of ghosts, they’re also aware that sometimes people who claim to see ghosts are simply drunk or lying or mistaken.

    Chesterton himself, so far as I can see, rejected Christian Scientist accounts of miraculous self-healing. He didn’t think they could cure all disease and injury by the power of Satan; he just thought they couldn’t. So, again, his position here may be consistent but it’s not honest.

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