October 12, 2003


Benefit of the Doubt: Good questions are better than bad answers. (Fred Reed, October 6, 2003, The American Conservative)

[I] often meet a-to me-curious sort of fellow who simply cannot comprehend what religion might be about. He is puzzled as distinct from contemptuous or haughty. He genuinely sees no difference between religious faith and believing that the earth is flat. He is like a congenitally deaf man watching a symphony orchestra: with all the good will in the world he doesn't see the profit in all that sawing with bows and blowing into things.

This fellow is very different from the common atheist, who is bitter, proud of his advanced thinking, and inclined toward a (somewhat adolescent) hostility to a world that isn't up to his standard. This is tiresome and predictable but doesn't offend me. Less forgivably, he often wants to run on about logical positivism. (I'm reminded of Orwell's comment about "the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike him.")

Critics of religion say, correctly, that horrible crimes are committed in the name of religion. So are they in the name of communism, anti-communism, Manifest Destiny, Zionism, nationalism, and national security. Horrible crimes are what people do. They are not the heart of the thing.

The following seems to me to be true regarding religion and the sciences: either one believes that there is an afterlife or one believes that there is not an afterlife or one isn't sure-which means that one believes that there may be an afterlife.

If there is an afterlife, then there is an aspect of existence about which we know nothing and which may, or may not, influence this world. In this case the sciences, while interesting and useful, are merely a partial explanation of things. Thus to believe in the absolute explanatory power of the sciences one must be an atheist-to exclude competition. Atheists, of course, believe what they cannot establish as much as the faithful.

Here is the chief defect of scientists (I mean those who take the sciences as an ideology rather than as a discipline): an unwillingness to admit that there is anything outside their realm. But there is. You cannot squeeze consciousness, beauty, affection, or Good and Evil from physics any more than you can derive momentum from the postulates of geometry: no mass, no momentum. A moral scientist is thus a contradiction in terms. (Logically speaking-in practice they compartmentalize and behave as well as anyone else.)

It is that latter choice -- to not believe in morality -- that seems more daunting than to not believe in the after-life.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2003 1:07 PM

While there certainly appear to be individuals who take the sciences as an ideology, I have no idea how they do this. Godel's Theorem alone would seem to provide reason for caution--no system of knowledge can be both complete and coherent, and as such empiricism dictates that there is plenty outside the "realm" of, well, empiricism. To "believe in the absolute explanatory power of the sciences" is to make a wish on a star and then deny the wish.

Those who "genuinely [see] no difference between religious faith and believing that the earth is flat" are reacting to a similar extreme on the theological side of the coin. This is just shallow thinking, not a reflection on the ability or inability of science to explain things.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 13, 2003 11:59 AM


Darwinism, for instance, is nothing more than an ideology, incapable of meeting the basic requirements of scientific theory: predictiveness, falsifiability, testability.

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 12:12 PM

There is no hard set of criteria that would define "basic requirements" of scientific theory. But I can try to address the three you mention briefly:

Predictiveness: based on Darwinian evolutionary theory, we predict that the development of human and mouse, or even human and fruit fly, will be governed by similar sets of genes using similar mechanisms. They do. We predict that the sequences of genes in human and mouse that encode proteins that carry out the same processes in each (hemoglobins, for example) will be conserved. They are. We predict that the fossil record will show the greatest adaptive radiation during times of climatic or other environmental flux. It does. Etc. etc.

Testability: There are any number of pharmaceutical companies using the principles of Darwinian evolution via natural selection to "evolve" new drugs. Beyond this, "testability" is just a variation on "predictiveness," so see above.

Falsifiability: Show me a precambrian donkey. Show me a dinosaur with an arrowhead lodged in its spine. Show me a vestigial organ with no functioning equivalent in another species. Show me the hand of God--then again, don't. If you could, there would be no purpose in faith.

Darwinism, at least as applied to the origin of species, is science. It is ideology only to the extent that all science is ideology--we believe that our senses are telling us something about an objective reality outside of ourselves. The rejection of Darwinism as ideology on any other grounds is simply ideology. Or ignorance.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 13, 2003 12:36 PM


I missed the part in there where something evolved?

As for Darwinism explaining the origins of life:

"I don't know how long it is going to be before astronomers generally recognize that the combinatorial arrangement of not even one among the many thousands of biopolymers on which life depends could have been arrived at by natural processes here on the earth. Astronomers will have a little difficulty at understanding this because they will be assured by biologists that it is not so, the biologists having been assured in their turn by others that it is not so. The 'others' are a group of persons who believe, quite openly, in mathematical miracles. They advocate the belief that tucked away in nature, outside of normal physics, there is a law which performs miracles (provided the miracles are in the aid of biology). This curious situation sits oddly on a profession that for long has been dedicated to coming up with logical explanations of biblical miracles. "It is quite otherwise, however, with the modern mathematical miracle workers, who are always to be found living in the twilight fringes of thermodynamics. ...The notion that not only the biopolymers but the operating programme of a living cell could be arrived at by chance in a primordial organic soup here on the Earth is evidently nonsense of a high order. Life must plainly be a cosmic phenomenon."
-Sir Fred Hoyle

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 1:27 PM

Well, even if all that is so, on what grounds do you invent theology? Surely you are not claiming the Big Spook handed it down to us?

Or, if you do, then you are hoist on Jeff's petard which no one here has ever dared to touch: which revelation is the right one? How can you be sure?

I like science because it is useful and I like scientists because they are modest people.

That does not prove anything, but it satisfies.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 5:55 PM

Yes, the Big Spook handed it to us and the other religions are wrong.

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 6:27 PM


The Theory of Evolution says not word one about the origin of life.

When did Sir Alfred Hoyle write that quote? Before the discovery of DNA, perhaps?

Quantum mechanics is nonsense of the highest order, or at least it would be if it weren't true. So similar a priori claims, absent evidence of some barrier, are just guesses.

Particularly given trials enough and time. 500+ million years and a laboratory the size of earth? I'm thinking that if every link in the chain of probabilities required is so small as to have a limit approaching zero, that is still big enough to guarantee the outcome.

OJ rests quite a bit of his argument against evolution on the fact that no new species have happened in recorded history. Oddly, he doesn't seem perturbed by the utter lack of Intelligent Design during that period.

The other thing that is odd about this whole Intelligent Designer thing is how stupid and/or malevolent the Designer must have been. How else does one explain the pain and mortality involved in child birth, pre-modern medicine?

Well, evolutionary processes forced to work with what is at hand only so long as it takes to attain adequate survival.

Or incompetent, mean, designer.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 9:24 PM

On what grounds, though, do you know that, Orrin?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 10:03 PM

Faith, same as you yours.

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 11:27 PM


No, Hoyle just died two years ago. Since you bring it up though, Francis Crick too believes that life could not have arisen here on Earth: http://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/jun2000/961010399.Ev.q.html

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 11:49 PM


Thanks, I really didn't know when Hoyle wrote that.

But believing life couldn't have arisen here doesn't answer anything. It arose somewhere, somehow.

Your faith really isn't quite the same as Harry's, because as soon as someone finds an arrow point in a dinosaur, Evolutionary theory will fall faster than a greased safe.

What evidence can you cite that all the other religions are wrong?

Or that your intelligent designer isn't mean and/or incompetent?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 14, 2003 8:31 AM


I took a look at the link. Not wishing to be harsh, but it is not nearly up to your usual high standards.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 14, 2003 8:36 AM


If there are arrows in dinosaurs it will just mean a dinosaur lasted longer or a hominid rose faster than previously believed. Or aliens landed and hunted with Stone Age weapons. I have great faith that folks who need no evidence won't be swayed by contradictory evidence.

Your point "believing life couldn't have arisen here doesn't answer anything. It arose somewhere, somehow." is precisely right. That's not an argument for either Darwin or God though.

Your other point, that God seems mean, is pretty childish and suggests a psychological basis for atheism, rather than a serious one.

Posted by: OJ at October 14, 2003 8:51 AM

Fred Hoyle is one of several astronomers and physicists who have questioned the theory of evolution by natural selection, but it's been about fifty years--roughly congruent with the discovery of DNA and the fusion of genetics with molecular biology--since any biologist took them seriously. Fred Hoyle never knew much biology. These days, there are biochemists (Michael Behe comes to mind) who don't know much biology, although even Behe admits that evolution has taken place. So if you want to put forward an argument from "authority," there are better sources than a know-nothing like Hoyle. His "mathematical miracles" are rather commonplace in the "hard sciences" these days anyway. They go under a lot of different names, including "complexity theory."

As for missing the part where something evolved, you missed a lot. The usual examples are worth mentioning--the acquisition of new traits in bacteria and viruses (viral evolution is particularly rapid, but then there is a controversy as to whether they should be considered "alive"), various other known occurrences of microevolution. Speciation, unfortunately, takes place on a timescale rather longer than modern science has existed, but very clear evidence for the phenomenon is known to exist. Look up so-called "ring species" on the web, for one.

I'm not sure what the panspermia hypothesis has to do with anything on either side of the Darwinism vs. creationism debate. Positing that life or its precursors have an extraterrestrial origin only postpones the issue of how it arose originally. The questions are identical; only the location changes.

OJ is probably correct in his assertion that this argument all boils down to faith. Scientists have faith that their senses, and their extension through empirical science, tell them something meaningful about the world. Evolution (like quantum mechanics or any other field) is a reasoned deduction from the available evidence. It has predictive value and contradicts no tenet of physics or common sense.

While Jeff's accusations of "meanness" or "incompetence" are a bit immature, there is good reason to wonder at the motives of a trickster God who would plant so much evidence for a process that supposedly never occurred. Dinosaurs never made it into the Bible; why not evolution by natural selection? What, exactly, is the obstacle to putting God's hand behind materialistic processes?

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 14, 2003 12:47 PM

Dog breeds acquire new traits--they don't "evolve" in any serious sense. Has a bacteria evolved into something other than a bacteria that we've observed? Doesn't Darwinism predict that the sheer number of generations of it we can force would eventually produce some fundamental change?

But you're right about the last. There's no reason God wouldn't have chosen Darwinism as His means of Creating us. The quarrel is not that Darwin refutes God, but that Darwinism seems false on its face. Something else seems to drive Evolution--I've no idea what.

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 2:31 PM


You seem to keep invoking intelligent design, rather than natural selection, as the source of change in natural history.

Rather than continuing to try and explain evolution, my point was to get you to explain your intelligent designer. For if there is one, on the whole the results seem pretty shabby. The agony and appalling mortality women suffer in childbirth (cause of death for upwards of 20% pre-modern medicine) being but one example.

That has nothing to do with the existence or not of God.

That sort of just barely good enough outcome is precisely what one would expect from a catch-as-catch-can process such as evolution.

But from an Intelligent Designer? How intelligent--or competent--could the designer be to produce such a pointlessly awful outcome?

The point is not to paint God as incompetent or mean, but rather to note that if God is not those things, then God may not have played a particularly guiding role in natural history.

Arrows in dinosaurs would be important because that would mean the whole dating process upon which paleontology rests would be destroyed, and along with it, the painstakingly worked out patterns of descent and speciation.

According to you, absent the odd extinction, since there has been no change in any life forms in all of human history, evolution doesn't exist. By that standard, neither does intelligent design.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 14, 2003 8:59 PM


Life forms have changed considerably, but we have no idea by what mechanism, whether simple Darwinian adaptation, cosmic ray bombardment, alien contact, Intelligent Design, etc. I'm agnostic on the question of how speciation occurred, I just don't think any of the proferred explanations are scientific.

Our society is intelligently designed by us at least and we're miserable louses to one another. Who's to say a God would do any better?

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 9:04 PM

Where's your evidence that our (or any other) society is intelligently designed?

It's a ramshackle contraption of compromises, evasions and makeshifts.

We ought, in respect to the theorists, who are as entitled to have their staements taken as seriously as I, for example, take the statements of theologians, at least to debate their theory of evolution, and not Orrin's.

According to the definition used by the modern synthesists, speciation is simply and definitely defined. And it has been observed among complex animals in one human lifetime.

In fact, in as little as 20 years. I did not do it myself, but I know a person who did.

What Orrin is taking about is not speciation, a concept he appears not to accept, but macroevolution.

Macroevolution occurs infrequently and does not seem to have happened during the past 100 million years. That's the theory. That a rare event has not happened in Orrin's lifetime is not an objection to the theory.

The undersea volcano Loihi hasn't appeared above the ocean surface yet, either, nor will it in Orrin's lifetime. But it will and the evidence for it is overwhelming.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 14, 2003 9:57 PM

So did Homo Sapiens Sapiens originate 100 million years ago?

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 11:07 PM

One question for the Intelligent Design crowd:

What does the universe do?

Seriously. What function does it perform? What is it's utility function?

You can't say that something is designed unless you know for sure that the designer exists, and you know what the designed object does for the designer. You can't back into a designer with only an object that "looks" to be designed. A potato chip might look like Richard Nixon, doesn't prove that the chip was designed.

Posted by: Robert D at October 14, 2003 11:29 PM


You may as well ask a lab rat what a maze does as try to figure out the purposes of such a Designer.

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 11:39 PM


For you to say our society is intelligently designed means there is a designer and a plan.

I have decided to take your point of view, and after careful examination, I have found both:

Sh[stuff]t Happens.

I'm keeping my phone line clear for the inevitable Nobel Committee call.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 15, 2003 8:02 AM

Every time we vote we design and plan, every time you buy something, every time you marry or have a kid, etc., etc., etc.

Posted by: oj at October 15, 2003 8:11 AM

But what is the overall plan?

Cars get made according to a plan.

Societies happen.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 15, 2003 9:38 PM


Yes, but the guy who bolts on the bumper has no idea what the plan is.

Posted by: OJ at October 16, 2003 12:36 AM

But if he wanted to know, he could obtain it in just about any detail he wanted.

And, if he decided to start bolting bumpers on upside down, he'd get fired.

Because the plan doesn't allow for variation.

But the lack of a plan sure does.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 16, 2003 7:48 AM

Perhaps that's why you perceive God to be "mean". Like the fellow bolting bumpers on wrong you're being punished, but the car is still headed to completion.

Posted by: oj at October 16, 2003 8:04 AM

God IS mean, from a human standpoint.

I don't quite understand the comments about Jeff's characterization of God as mean. It's childish and immature ?
Agony and random death during childbirth are proof of benevolence ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 16, 2003 9:32 AM

Man is mean from an animal's standpoint. So what? They're animals.

Posted by: oj at October 16, 2003 9:44 AM