Tag Archives: Evolution

Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, I explained atheist Dan Barker’s argument in a debate he had with Christian Matt Slick.  If you don’t remember what I said, please go back and quickly remind yourself, as this post won’t make sense otherwise.  Below I pick up where I left off.

What I don’t understand is how Barker jumped from telling us that morality consists of natural inclinations produced by a blind, purposeless, process of evolution (that is solely interested in how we reproduce) to a moral duty of doing less harm.  Barker has committed the classic faux pas of moving from an is to an ought.  He tells us what morality is – a natural inclination toward behaviors that promote human survival – and from there tells us that we ought to do whatever causes less harm.  But where does this duty come from?

If I am a person who is naturally inclined to lie about what atheists say in debates, why should I attempt to fight this inclination?  After all, maybe evolution needs some liars in the gene pool.  I am just playing my role in the survival of the species.  If Barker were to say to me, “Lying about what atheists say causes harm, so you shouldn’t do it,” I would say, “What duty do I have to follow Barker’s personal opinion about morality?”  What authority does he have to legislate my behavior?  If he answers that he is summarizing what Nature already is telling me, then I would want to know what duty I have to follow the commands of a mindless, purposeless, blind process?

Please notice that I have not even questioned Barker’s maxim of do less harm.  I am just assuming for this argument that he has correctly summarized our natural inclinations.  His maxim actually represents a utilitarian calculus which presents several major problems that philosophers have called attention to, but his idea of doing less harm can’t even get off the ground until he has provided a rational reason to accept it.  Many atheists seem to completely miss this point.  Atheists are able to rattle off dozens of moral theories which claim to summarize our natural moral inclinations.  But the question is why should anyone follow their theories?  What rational reason is there to let their moral theories dictate moral commands to anyone?

Dan Barker is a self-appointed ambassador for the periodic chart of elements (Nature).  The elements have spoken and Dan is translating for us.  But it’s even more bizarre than that.  Not only do non-intelligent and non-personal atoms have no authority to legislate, but they legislate contradictory things.  After all, the same Nature that produced Mother Theresa produced Hitler.  They both followed their natural inclinations, so how can I ever say which one was right and which was wrong?  Nature may need both of them for the species to survive so that it would actually be immoral to stop Hitler from doing what he was naturally inclined to do.

Barker’s world ultimately has no legitimate source for moral authority.  He could never tell us who is giving moral commands that has the legitimate authority to do so.  Based on his moral philosophy, I do not know why I should rationally be moral.

Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This week I’ve been listening to a debate between Matt Slick (Christian) and Dan Barker (atheist) on whether humans can be good without God.  Barker’s argument during the debate struck me as illogical, and here’s why.

Barker explained that moral values are merely natural inclinations that are built into human beings due to the long process of evolution.  These inclinations vary from person to person across a statistical distribution.  Some people feel a strong inclination to help the poor and some don’t.  Some people are strongly opposed to rape and some are not.

For every natural, moral inclination there is a statistical bell curve across humanity.  Evolution has bequeathed moral inclinations to humans, but to varying degrees.  At one point, Barker even said that it may be evolutionarily necessary for this bell curve to exist.  To give an example, it may be that if everyone was strongly opposed to murdering the innocent, this may not best advance the survival of the human race.  We can’t have everyone acting like Mother Theresa or else our species might die out.  The converse is also true: a world full of Hitler’s would also kill off the human race.

I agree with Barker that some people have stronger moral inclinations than others and that some of this variation may be genetic.  What I don’t understand is the next move he made in the debate.

He then offered his definition of behaving morally: do less harm.  For Barker, this phrase neatly encapsulates the diverse natural instincts that evolution has given us.  In essence, Barker is saying, “Nature has caused us to have these inclinations and if I had to come up with a phrase to describe what these inclinations are telling us to do, it is ‘do less harm.'”  Barker is acting as Nature’s ambassador and explaining to us in a command what she actually wants from us.  From then on, Barker repeatedly stated that humans ought to do less harm, with the situation determining how that plays out.

In the next post, I will explain why Dan Barker’s approach does not work.  See you then.

Is Intelligent Design Creationism? – #7 Post of 2010

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many journalists confuse the Intelligent Design (ID) movement with young earth creationism.  Some of this confusion is nothing more than intellectual laziness, but some of it is caused by ID opponents repeating the assertion over and over again as a rhetorical strategy.

Here is an interview excerpt from Thomas Lessl, a professor at the University of Georgia and an expert on rhetoric (see the entire interview here):

One consistent pattern in the scientific mainstream’s response to ID has been to try to identify it with scientific creationism, to paint it with the same brush so to speak.  Such allegations are still frequently made – that ID is merely “creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo”.   This is what movement scholars call a strategy of “evasion”, an institutional effort to slow the momentum of a movement by pretending that it doesn’t exist – or in this case by pretending that it is made up of merely radical fundamentalists of no account.  This strategy is still being plied in the mass media, for public audiences that remain largely ignorant about the differences between these two movements.

Let’s look again at what the actual proponents of ID say about this issue.  Answering the question as to whether ID and creationism are the same, the Discovery Institute says:

No. The theory of intelligent design is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism typically starts with a religious text and tries to see how the findings of science can be reconciled to it. Intelligent design starts with the empirical evidence of nature and seeks to ascertain what inferences can be drawn from that evidence. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural.

Maybe you still aren’t convinced, though.  Well, let’s also look at what one of the largest young earth creationist organizations in the world says about whether ID is the same as creationism.  Below is an audio podcast from Ken Ham, the president of Answers in Genesis.

There you have it.  Creationists claim that ID is not creationism and ID proponents claim that ID is not creationism.  For anyone that has studied these two different movements, the differences are obvious.  The only reason why the two are confused is due to ignorance or a rhetorical strategy used to confuse the public and marginalize ID without having to confront its ideas.  I think it’s time for the rhetorical strategy to be put to rest – let’s focus on the actual arguments.

Is Junk DNA Evidence for Darwinian Evolution?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

One of the most common arguments you will hear that Darwinian evolution must be true is the “Junk DNA” argument.  It goes like this:

There are significant stretches of the human genome that appear not to code for any biological function.  This is what you would expect if millions of years of random genetic mutations occurred in the genome.  This junk DNA is simply left over from evolutionary history and is serving no purpose any more.

The argument makes sense, but there is only one small problem.  Every year that goes by scientists are discovering more and more functions for this junk DNA.  It turns out that it’s not junk after all.  If the junk DNA is coding for biological function, then this particular evidence for Darwinian evolution falls by the wayside.  Not only that, but this becomes positive evidence for the Intelligent Design community, as they have been predicting this very finding.

Take a look at this video where ID scientists discuss Francis Collins’ use of the “Junk DNA” argument in his book The Language of God.

Science as a Religion?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I just finished reading a book called Evolution by Donald Prothero, a paleontologist.  The book’s main purpose is to chronicle the fossil evidence for the evolution of animal life.  Prothero, as an expert in this field, seems to do a reasonable job of this throughout the book, although every tenth sentence seems to be a dress down of creationist, religious fundamentalism (back to that point at the end).  Still, he is extremely knowledgeable about fossil evidence, no doubt.

One thing that bothered me about the end of the book, however, is Prothero’s wholehearted and devoted worship of science.  I can almost imagine him bowing at an altar, it’s so overdone.  Read on to see why.

At the very beginning of his volume, he gave me hope that he understood the limits of science when he explained, “Science helps us understand the natural world and the way it works, but it does not deal with the supernatural, and it does not make statements of what ought to be, as do morals and ethics. . . . When science tries to proscribe morals or ethics, it falters.”  Sounds good.

But then we fast-forward to the conclusion, literally the last 2 pages, where he quotes three of his favorite science prophets.  First we hear from the Prophet Michael Shermer, who testifies, “Darwin matters because evolution matters.  Evolution matters because science matters.  Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”  Science, it seems, is an epic saga.

Next Prothero quotes from the Gospel of the Prophet Carl Sagan: “The universe is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.  Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us.  There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height.  We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”  Tingling in the spine?

And finally, a reading from the Book of Darwin, speaking on his theory of evolution.  “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.”  Evolution is full of grandeur.

After having heard from the Holy Trinity, I almost expected Prothero to burst into a hymn of science thanksgiving.  What place does all of this have in a book about fossils?  When all is said and done, Prothero is not just trying to teach about fossils; no, he is all about recruiting us to his religion, the religion of science.  After all, religions tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.  This, according to Prophet Shermer, is what science does for us.

For Prothero, it seems that science is the answer to every question worth asking.  After 358 pages of berating religious fundamentalists, it turns out he is one, too.

What is Historical Science and Who Cares?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A recurring misunderstanding I have seen in the intelligent design (ID) debate is the ignorance that many on the anti-ID side have of historical science.  So, what is historical science and how is it different from the sciences which study currently operating phenomena?

Philosopher of science Stephen Meyer lists four criteria of historical sciences that differentiate them from non-historical sciences in his book Signature in the Cell .  Take particular notice of the fact that these same four criteria apply to portions of evolutionary science as well as ID.

A Distinctive Historical Objective

Meyer explains that historical sciences ask certain kinds of questions like, “What happened?” or “What caused this event or that natural feature to arise?”  Non-historical sciences tend to ask questions like, “How does nature normally operate or function?” or “What causes this general phenomenon to occur?”  According to Meyer, “Those who postulate the past activity of an intelligent designer do so as an answer, or a partial answer, to distinctively historical questions.”

A Distinctive Form of Inference

Meyer describes the kinds of inferences that historical sciences usually make.  “Unlike many non-historical disciplines, which typically infer generalizations or laws from particular facts (induction), historical sciences employ abductive logic to infer a past event from a present fact or clue.”  The paleontologist Stephen Gould once said that the historical scientist infers “history from its results.”  ID, in particular, infers a “past unobservable cause (in this case, an instance of creative mental action or agency) from present facts or clues in the natural world, such as the specified information in DNA, the irreducible complexity of of certain biological systems, and the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics.”

A Distinctive Type of Explanations

“Historical sciences usually offer causal explanations of particular events, not lawlike descriptions or theories describing how certain kinds of phenomena – such as condensation or nuclear fission – generally occur.”  With respect to ID, “Theories of design invoke the act or acts of an agent  and conceptualize those acts as causal events, albeit ones involving mental rather than purely physical entities.”  Further, “Advocates of design postulate past causal events . . . to explain the origin of present evidence or clues, just as proponents of chemical evolutionary theories do.”

Use of the Method of Multiple Competing Hypotheses

“Historical scientists do not mainly test hypotheses by assessing the accuracy of the predictions they make under controlled laboratory conditions.  Using the method of multiple competing hypotheses, historical scientists test hypotheses by comparing their explanatory power against that of their competitors.” In other words, historical scientists posit several explanations of the cause of an event in the past, and they then evaluate which of the several explanations best explains all the available evidence.  In the case of ID, the explanation of an intelligent mind best explains the presence of complex specified information in biological structures.

Any science which tries to explain singular or rarely occurring events of the past is a historical science.  Sciences which are trying to explain currently recurring or repeating phenomena are non-historical.  A failure to understand this distinction is a failure to grasp how science works.  Without historical science, any attempts at explaining the history of the evolution of life could not be done, which is why I find it so ironic that evolutionists attack ID on the grounds that it is historical.  They are sawing off the very limb that supports them.

What is Intelligent Design?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I’ve been reading Donald Prothero’s book Evolution, which is a book meant to show how powerful the evidence for evolution is.  Prothero, a professor of geology, certainly seems to know a lot about fossils, but he seems to know remarkably little about intelligent design (ID), a theory he maligns early in his book.

Here is Prothero’s take on ID: “Reading the ID creationists closely, you find that they don’t offer any new scientific ideas or a true alternative theory of life competing with evolution.  All they argue is that some parts of nature seem too complex for them to imagine an evolutionary explanation.”

Really?  Is that what ID is?

Perhaps a better way to answer this question would be to ask ID proponents themselves to define ID, since they are the ones proposing the theory.  I know it sounds crazy and Prothero certainly doesn’t think it’s a good idea, but let’s try any way.

According to the website of a leading ID organization, the Discovery Institute, below is a definition of ID.  I will copy the entire definition here for your convenience, although you can go to the site yourself and read it there.

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.

This definition is quite different from Prothero’s definition because it claims that ID is a positive scientific program that is studying the informational properties of certain features of the natural world.  To say that ID is merely arguing that “some parts of nature are too complex to imagine an evolutionary explanation” is a gross distortion.  The first thing one should do when debating an idea is to correctly define that idea.  Let’s hope other writers who participate in this debate take a little more care than Prothero.

California Science Center Settles Lawsuit with Pro-Intelligent Design Group

Post Author: Bill Pratt

You may recall that in January of this year, we posted about the California Science Center, a public institution, reneging on the screening of a pro-intelligent design (ID) movie.  The Discovery Institute, a pro-ID organization, filed a lawsuit when the Science Center refused to turn over all documents related to the cancellation of the screening.

On June 14, the Discovery Institute reported that the Science Center has settled the case, agreeing to pay all attorneys’ fees, and releasing all of the documents that should have been released in the first place.

All I can say is that the California taxpayers should be furious at the leadership of the Science Center for wasting their money over something so silly.  If they had just gone ahead with the screening, all of this could have been avoided, but the pro-Darwin side is so angry with anyone who disagrees with the Darwinian story that all kinds of pressure was placed on the Science Center to shut down the screening.

As I asked before, what are they afraid of?  Let everyone make their case and stop censoring those who disagree with you.

Can Science Test for the Supernatural?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Christians believe that a supernatural being can be reasoned to by working backward from effect to cause.  We observe ourselves and we observe the world around us (those are the effects) and we reason that a supernatural cause is the best explanation for the things we observe.  This is how almost all arguments for God’s existence work.

Science can shed additional light on what we observe in the world around us, so in that sense science can be employed in arguments for God’s existence.  For example, science seems to have shown that the universe had a beginning and that the physical laws and constants that govern the universe are fine tuned for advanced life.  Both of these scientific finds are often used in arguments for God’s existence.

Those who hold a naturalistic worldview (the natural world is all that exists) seem to be divided on this subject.  Some naturalists deny that science can ever be used to test the existence of God and others affirm that science can test for the supernatural and that those tests have all turned out negative.  Still others, like evolutionary scientist Donald Prothero, appear to hold both views at the same time.  Consider the quotes below from Prothero’s book Evolution.

Prothero first suggests that scientists “cannot consider supernatural events in their hypotheses.”  Why? Because “once you introduce the supernatural to a scientific hypothesis, there is no way to falsify or test it.”  He adds that scientists are not allowed to consider God or miracles (i.e., the supernatural) because they are “completely untestable and outside the realm of science.”  All right, it seems that Prothero is firmly in the camp of those who say that science cannot say anything about the supernatural.

But in the very next paragraph in his book, he completely reverses course.  Prothero explains, “In fact, there have been many scientific tests of supernatural and paranormal explanations of things, including parapsychology, ESP, divination, prophecy, and astrology.  All of these non-scientific ideas have been falsified when subjected to the scrutiny of scientific investigation. . . . Every time the supernatural has been investigated by scientific methods, it has failed the test.”

Huh??  Is your head spinning like mine?  Prothero first claims that science cannot test the supernatural and then he says that science has tested the supernatural.  Which is it?  It can’t be both.

I am not pointing this out to poke fun at Prothero, but because I see some skeptics making this mistake over and over again.  They want to desperately cling to the claim that science can say nothing about the existence of God (so that they can remove science as a tool in the Christian’s evidential toolbox), but they also desperately want to tell people how science has shown that God doesn’t exist (they retain science as a tool for skeptics to nullify the supernatural).  Unfortunately, holding both of these positions at the same time is flatly contradictory.  The skeptic must choose one or the other. Either science can test for the supernatural or it cannot.

I have seen this same mistake made in the intelligent design/evolution debate.  Evolutionists will claim that Michael Behe’s idea of irreducible complexity is non-scientific or scientifically untestable, but these same evolutionists will then produce scientific research they claim scientifically disproves irreducible complexity!  If it’s not scientifically testable, then how are they producing research which scientifically disproves it?

If you’re a Christian talking to a scientific skeptic, watch out for this skeptical two-step.  If you’re a scientific skeptic or naturalist, make up your mind which it is, because you are really confusing me.

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When Should We Doubt Expert Consensus? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Continuing from part 1, below are 5 more reasons you should doubt a scientific consensus, taken from Jay Richards’ article on the topic.

8. When the subject matter seems, by its nature, to resist consensus. An an engineer, this point has always bothered me about both evolution and climate change.  Richards explains:

It makes sense that chemists over time may come to unanimous conclusions about the results of some chemical reaction, since they can replicate the results over and over in their own labs. They can see the connection between the conditions and its effects. It’s easily testable. But many of the things under consideration in climate science are not like that. The evidence is scattered and hard to keep track of; it’s often indirect, embedded in history and requiring all sorts of assumptions. You can’t rerun past climate to test it, as you can with chemistry experiments. And the headline-grabbing conclusions of climate scientists are based on complex computer models that climate scientists themselves concede do not accurately model the underlying reality, and receive their input, not from the data, but from the scientists interpreting the data. This isn’t the sort of scientific endeavor on which a wide, well-established consensus is easily rendered. In fact, if there really were a consensus on all the various claims surrounding climate science, that would be really suspicious. A fortiori, the claim of consensus is a bit suspicious as well.

9. When “scientists say” or “science says” is a common locution. Which scientists?  The ones that agree with the theory?  Since when does science speak for itself without human beings interpreting?

10. When it is being used to justify dramatic political or economic policies. Always be suspicious when politicians and ideological activists are wielding the sword of science to further a particular agenda.  As Richards notes, that is happening in spades in the global warming debate.

11. When the “consensus” is maintained by an army of water-carrying journalists who defend it with uncritical and partisan zeal, and seem intent on helping certain scientists with their messaging rather than reporting on the field as objectively as possible. In the last few years, I can recall weeks where our local newspaper was running story after story about global warming, and none of them critical of it.  When the supposedly unbiased media line up and promote one viewpoint with little dissent, be suspicious.

12. When we keep being told that there’s a scientific consensus. Richards captures the essence of this point:

A scientific consensus should be based on scientific evidence. But a consensus is not itself the evidence. And with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that light travels about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. The very fact that we hear so much about a consensus on catastrophic, human-induced climate change is perhaps enough by itself to justify suspicion.

Some food for thought.  I think Richards has done a wonderful job putting into words some of the intuitions we have about science and its reported results.  In fact, most of his 12 points apply to other non-scientific fields where we’re told there is a consensus.  There is nothing wrong with consensus, inherently, but we just need to be vigilant and do our homework before concurring with an alleged “consensus.”