Pharyngula

Ron Numbers is a very smart fellow, a historian of science, who has done marvelous work on the history of creationism. Paul Nelson is a Discovery Institute Fellow, a young earth creationist (but an amazingly fuzzy one), and, unfortunately, very long-winded. Bloggingheads has brought Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson together in a dialog. I can hardly believe I listened to the whole thing — I was working away at other stuff while it was playing in the background, so it wasn’t a total waste of time — but it was incredibly boring. Both parties were so determined to be nice to each other that they spent the whole time agreeing with each other, and never wrestled with their differences. It was an epic collision of titanic marshmallows; no one was bruised or dented, but afterwards, everyone involved was sticky and gooey. It just fills one with a desire to wash one’s hands and maybe take a shot of some good scotch to get back a little sharpness and bite. Conviviality is a fine thing in an appropriate social situation, but in a discussion of matters of substance, it can be a toxic sludge that obscures differences and impedes the achievement of any real understanding.

A few interesting comments managed to untangle themselves from the treacle. Numbers made the useful point that religion achieves compatibility with science when it recedes into the background and simply accepts whatever science discovers as what the gods have been doing. That’s fine with me; he didn’t come right out and say, though, that religion lacks any method to actually determine the truth of any statement about the world.

Nelson brought up a hypothetical (a common tactic of his): if an intelligent designer created and planted the very first cell in the ocean a few billion years ago, could methodological naturalism determine that? His point was that if it had actually happened — whether a deity conjured that cell into existence, or a passing alien spacecraft flushed its space toilets as it passed by — it would be undetectable to the tools of methodological naturalism, and therefore it is a flawed procedure.

Numbers had a couple of answers to that. One was to compare it to his field of history, in which everyone knows some information is always lost over time. That does not mean that history cannot work, but simply that we always acknowledge that we cannot possibly know everything. He also made the pragmatic argument that methodological naturalism has been eminently successful, and is a tool that allows even the most evangelical Christian to be a successful scientist, and that breaking that down is an expense we should be unwilling to pay.

What he failed to mention, though, is that Intelligent Design creationism does not fill the gap in our knowledge. They have no tools in place to detect a great cosmic space poof (or flush) that occurred 3 billion years ago, either. What is their way of knowing that succeeds where science fails? Where is their evidence? The failings of ID creationism were not brought up, however, perhaps because it would breach civility on the spot.

The only point where they got spiritedly critical, but not with each other (they still agreed entirely with each other) was — and you knew it had to be this — was in damning those damned damnable atheists. A major problem here was that Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution Is True, was made the target, Paul Nelson glibly mischaracterized the book, and Numbers obligingly accepted his mangling. They spent a fair amount of time flogging a dead horse filled with straw, or some such unholy metaphor.

Nelson claimed that Coyne’s book is “soaked in theology”, that it was one big theological argument from beginning to end, and compared it to a hypothetical (again!) situation in which aliens landed, asked us to explain evolution, and Coyne begins by telling them the Christian myth, and how it is all wrong.

I’ve read the book. Nelson was not describing any book I’ve read.

His example was to talk about the argument from imperfections, the fact that many of the points Coyne made as evidence of evolution were from sub-optimal adaptations, or historical relics. Nelson has made this argument many times before; he says that it is an attempt to judge what a rational god would do, finding differences from our expectations, and then using those to argue against religion…a purely theological plan and conclusion.

Numbers chimed in to agree vigorously, pointing out that imperfections are no argument against creationism, because creationists believe in a flawed world as a consequence of the Fall. I know this. It is irrelevant.

The argument from biological imperfections is not theological, no matter how vociferously Nelson asserts that it is, because no biologist is simply saying what he claims they are; the interesting part about imperfections like the recurrent laryngeal nerve or the spine of bipeds or mammalian testicles isn’t simply that they seem clumsy and broken in a way no sensible god would tolerate, but that evolution provides an explanation for why they are so. We can build a case that these structures are a product of historical antecedents, and have a positive case for them as consequences of common descent. Nelson is misrepresenting the argument, and Numbers just went along with it.

Then, of course, talking about Coyne leads into some Dawkins-bashing. Coyne and Dawkins are going beyond the conventional boundaries of science, Numbers says, and he doesn’t like theological conclusions being made from empirical work; evolutionary biology doesn’t and can’t tell us much of anything about god.

Bullshit.

When you’ve got a specific theological claim, such as that the earth is only 6,000 years old (or, in Nelson’s uselessly blurry version, is simply much younger than geology says), then science certainly can weigh in on a theological claim. It can say that that specific claim is wrong. We can whittle away at virtually every material claim that religions make, and reduce them to an empirical void — the Catholic Church, for instance, officially goes along with the scientific observations of evolution, and simply adds an untestable, immaterial claim on top of it, that there was some moment of “ensoulment” that corresponds to the literary metaphor of Adam and Eve. Science can’t disprove that, but what it means is that they are diminished to making pointless claims about invisible, unobservable entities being magically added invisibly and immaterially to people at a distant time and place that they cannot name.

It was a frustrating discussion. If either of them had been having a dialog with Dawkins or Coyne, then this would have been an interesting tack to take, because then they would be arguing over differences, and maybe some reasonable arguments would have emerged (entirely from the Dawkins/Coyne camp, of course). As it is, the two simply dodged their own deep differences to find common, non-antagonistic cause in bashing positions neither understood that were not represented by anyone in their dialog.

At the end, Numbers says one thing that really made me roll my eyes: “One thing that is not welcome in the science and religion debates is people in the middle.” It’s so true. When you are debating over straightforward questions, like “evolution vs. creation” or “god vs. no god”, the position in the middle is non-existent, and people who try to waffle about, refusing to answer the question, are definitely not welcome. They’re only there to add noise and confusion.

Comments

  1. #1 Brian
    March 9, 2010

    Seems I’m a little late for the party, but its probably worth saying anyway…

    The argument from ?imperfection? is analogous to the airline customer who constantly complains about his means of transportation.

    You know the sort: ?Don?t you hate airline food?? ?This turbulence makes me uncomfortable;? and of course, ?Ooooh, gross! I?ve got a titanic gooey marshmallow on my seat.? This, while he ignores the complex, efficient and integrated systems that enable him to safely cross continents in a matter of hours.

    The human body, by any standard, is a marvel: multiple systems of fantastic complexity, efficiency and even beauty–all fully integrated. An engineer?s wet dream.

    When confronted with this, all Coyne and Myers can manage to do is whine about… the seats being too close together.

    Of course, they have the freedom to do that if they want, but from where I sit, it does seem to miss the big picture.

  2. #2 Sastra
    March 9, 2010

    Brian #245 wrote:

    The argument from ?imperfection? is analogous to the airline customer who constantly complains about his means of transportation.

    If we’re going to use this analogy, it would have to be tweaked to be analogous.

    First, the claim would be that this particular airline has a virtually limitless budget, r & d which is light years ahead of every other airline on the market, a culinary team composed of some of the world’s best chefs, and a commitment to give every customer the perfect experience.

    Then, this must not be a given. It must be something that needs to be confirmed. It’s an assertion which should end up being the inference to the best explanation, derived from the actual experience of riding on the plane.

    Imperfections now take on a new slant. You can’t simply marvel that the plane manages to leave the ground at all. And you can’t play a game of “given that all this is true, why might the airline want to make things less than optimal anyway?”

  3. #3 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    March 9, 2010

    Of course, they have the freedom to do that if they want, but from where I sit, it does seem to miss the big picture.

    They don’t miss the big picture, you do. Every bit of the human body evolved, starting from the first replicating cells billions of years ago. Hence the similarity in genes, protiens, and developmental methods. There is no need to presume an imaginary creator, and certainly not an “intelligent designer”. Direct evidence for either is zero. Science has it all explained. IDiots have nothing but their religion.

  4. #4 Brian
    March 10, 2010

    Sastra,

    a commitment to give every customer the perfect experience.

    OK. So, the argument goes something like this: Each person on the globe doubtless has a unique vision of what perfect means: ?I want a medium rare steak to materialize in my dining room each evening when I come home from work.? ?I want a swimsuit model to materialize in my bedroom every evening when I come home from work,? ?I want three more wishes.? Or even something as pedestrian as, ?I don?t like the way the pharyngeal nerve looks.? Until my conditions are met, I will not even consider the possibility that God exists.

    Alternative way to express it: If God existed, he would be not unlike a huge cosmic valet: totally committed to give me ?the perfect experience?–what I want, when I want it. Since that hasn?t happened, God doesn?t exist.

    Don?t you just hate the movies they show on those transatlantic flights…?

  5. #5 a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    March 10, 2010

    Brian, Methinks you have not comprehended the argument. The question posed by the argument is this: Whence does imperfection creep into the creation of a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent creator?

    So you can posit that maybe he ain’t perfect and just screwed up on occasion.

    You can posit that maybe he ain’t omnipotent and couldn’t help screwing up now and again.

    You can posit that he ain’t omniscient and didn’t know he screwed up.

    You can posit that he’s an almighty bastard who took relish in creating things like birth defects and sickle-cell anemia.

    You can take E)all of the above.

    You can take F)he doesn’t exist.

    Choose wisely.

  6. #6 Sastra
    March 10, 2010

    Brian #248 wrote:

    OK. So, the argument goes something like this: Each person on the globe doubtless has a unique vision of what perfect means:

    No, that is not how my argument would go. It would instead put the emphasis on a common vision of the basic “good.” If that is not met, then there would be no reason to go beyond it, to argue for perfection.

    If the food on a flight is cold and unpalatable, it is reasonable to conclude that this is probably because something went wrong with the ovens, or with the scheduling, or some other reason which naturally falls out of the assumption that an airline is composed of people who have good intentions, but can make mistakes. This working hypothesis, regarding the flawed humanity of the airline employees, helps make sense of why the food is inedible.

    The excuse that no, there is nothing wrong anywhere with the airline — the chefs deliberately chose to give you cold food because there’s something wrong with you — and this is your lesson — would be a strained attempt to find an excuse to keep the hypothesis that the airline never makes any mistakes.

    It’s not that this couldn’t be the case. It’s that it’s an obvious rescue attempt. It is not what one would normally conclude.

  7. #7 Owlmirror
    March 10, 2010

    Or even something as pedestrian as, ?I don?t like the way the pharyngeal nerve looks.? Until my conditions are met, I will not even consider the possibility that God exists.

    Why should we consider the possibility that God exists if God can’t be bothered to tell us of his own existence himself?

    If God existed, he would be not unlike a huge cosmic valet: totally committed to give me ?the perfect experience?–what I want, when I want it.

    Actually, if God existed, and honestly cared about telling people that he existed, he would speak for himself and tell people that he existed.

    Since that hasn?t happened, God doesn?t exist.

    Since that hasn’t happened, it’s reasonable to conclude that God doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care about telling us that he exists. But the first conclusion is more parsimonious, especially since we have additional parsimonious explanations for what we see in the universe that don’t require a God.

  8. #8 Brian
    March 11, 2010

    Ray et al:

    Methinks you have broadened the scope of the discussion. My initial point was fairly simple: listening to Coyne and Myers make the argument, you?d think they can?t breathe, walk or feed themselves. There?s even a fair amount of irony involved when you think about it: they?and you too?can only make the ?bad design? case by posting to a blog by means of nervous, muscular and skeletal systems which are so well integrated that it all happens virtually without any conscious effort at all.

    So what DO they hang their hat on? There?s even more irony here, as I?m willing to bet that in both cases, their ?poorly designed? laryngeal nerves and mammalian testicles work just fine.

    So, I was wrong: its not even that the coffee?s cold, its that they don?t like the configuration of the cup that it is served in, as they cruise along at 30,000 feet. Is this really the parcel of ground they want to try to defend? Is it what you want to defend?

    The answer seems to be no, since what all of you did was retreat from imperfect design to the problem of evil, which is a much more formidable issue, about which volumes and volumes have been written.

    On this subject, I?d recommend Anthony Flew?s There is a God, for starters.

  9. #9 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    March 11, 2010

    Yawn, why would we read sophist philosophy? All philosophical proofs of dog are false. So, where is your conclusive physical evidence for your deity? Where do you hang your hat? Obviously not with the physical evidence. Your attempt to play superior in the argument is noted and rejected.

  10. #10 a_ray_in_dilbert_space
    March 11, 2010

    What, Brian, no response? Maybe you missed the question.

    It is not whether or not the biology of an organism works pretty well or not–if it did not, they would become extinct pretty rapidly. Evolution has no trouble explaining either the fact that things work pretty well or the imperfections. Perfection is expensive and rarely “optimal”.

    No, Brian, the question is how does a “perfect” designer fuck up. Or does he intend the imperfection to be there, in which case he’s an almighty bastard.

    Can you think of an explanation other than the ones I proposed, or are you just going to ignore our arguments and keep spamming us with your “every-day’s-a-happy-day-with-jeebus” crap?

  11. #11 Sastra
    March 11, 2010

    Brian #252 wrote:

    So, I was wrong: its not even that the coffee?s cold, its that they don?t like the configuration of the cup that it is served in, as they cruise along at 30,000 feet. Is this really the parcel of ground they want to try to defend? Is it what you want to defend?

    No, your analogy is a poor one to begin with, because it misses the point that Myers and Coyne are making. You’re approaching the argument as if someone was complaining because service is bad. That’s not the situation.

    Instead, the less-than-optimum service is something to be expected if the server is not optimum, and something which needs to be explained if the server is perfect. Look at the kinds of problems, and the kinds of explanations. Naturalism has a perfect fit for what we see: theism doesn’t, so it has to make up stories about grateful and ungrateful children — as if that fills in the blanks in the pattern.

    There is no reason to look at the evidence, and infer a Perfect Designer who CHOOSES to add in flaws to teach us a lesson. On the contrary, the flaws can be traced to the direct results of a sub-optimum process which never had all our particular needs in mind. Evolution builds on what’s there. God presumably designed it all from the beginning.

    Contrary to what you imply, the arrogance is on the other side. The New Atheists are drawing the rational inference and accepting their insignificance in the cosmic picture. The theists, on the other hand, are the ones insisting that every single damn thing was done with a purpose and plan focused on humanity: God has served them only well enough, because the Star Treatment would make his children too big for their britches.

    It’s like getting a cup of cold coffee, and inferring that the airline must have thought you were soooo important that it flew in a Master Chef. Of course they did, because the plane is only there for you to fly in it in the first place. The coffee is cold because the Master Chef wanted you to appreciate the plane even more.

  12. #12 Owlmirror
    March 11, 2010

    My initial point was fairly simple

    Your initial point was incoherent and illogical, since it assumes its conclusion.

    There?s even more irony here, as I?m willing to bet that in both cases, their ?poorly designed? laryngeal nerves and mammalian testicles work just fine.

    They work exactly as well as something that evolved from earlier systems.

    Is this really the parcel of ground they want to try to defend? Is it what you want to defend?

    You are the one claiming that their bodies were designed ex nihilo especially for them by an omniscient and omnipotent designer.

    They are pointing out that their bodies do not have the hallmarks of having been designed by an omniscient and omnipotent designer, since there are obvious flaws in the design.

    So please make it explicit exactly what you want to defend: Is your purported “designer” incompetent or indifferent to good design principles, or so modest and shy that he does a bad job just to make it look like something that evolved, or what?

    The answer seems to be no, since what all of you did was retreat from imperfect design to the problem of evil,

    That’s because it’s an alternative to the “incompetent/shy designer”. Is that what you want to defend? Is your purported “designer” malicious?

    Evolutionary biologists don’t have to defend any of those alternatives, because evolution is not proposed as being either omniscient nor omnipotent, or even aware of what it is doing.

    Defending your thesis is your problem. Deal with it, or find something else to do.