Low Hanging Fruit – Coyne on the ‘Cruelty’ of Speciation

March 1, 2011

In a recent post responding to the complaint that the way evolutionary theory was being taught was ‘theological’, Jerry Coyne unintentionally proves the critics right with his description of evolution:

Evolution and selection lack any sign of divine guidance. Earlier teleological theories based on divine or spiritual guidance, such as orthogenesis, have fallen by the wayside. Natural selection is a cruel and wasteful process.  99% of the species that ever lived went extinct without leaving descendants. There is no sign that evolution always goes in a fixed direction. Do primates always get bigger brains? There is some suggestion that orangutan populations evolved smaller ones. Fleas lost their wings; tapeworms lost nearly everything when evolving a parasitic lifestyle. There is no sign that the goal of evolution was Homo sapiens (if that were true, why the virtual extinction of Neandertals or the robust australopithecines)? *emphasis mine*

It seems pretty obvious that as a process natural selection can’t be ‘cruel’ unless it is the product of intention. For example, if I get my toe chopped off by a lawnmower, the mower isn’t ‘cruel’ even if the situation is unfortunate. If someone runs me down with a car, that would be cruel because it is an act by a mind intent on harm. Natural selection then would only be cruel if it was indeed the product of a mind whose intention it was to cause undue pain or suffering. Thus calling it cruel is a theological claim.

Even putting that obvious contradiction aside, one must ask if the fact that many species are no longer extant can in fact be described as ‘cruel and wasteful’? If we think of various species as variants on living systems, then the fact that some are no longer here is probably no more ‘cruel or wasteful’ than the fact that we can no longer purchase a new Studebaker. Also we know that the organisms that exist are highly optimized and adapted to the environments in which they live, as were the organisms of the past. If the process that produced them was so wasteful, one wonders how it could produce such capable organisms? We even use selection algorithms to optimize our own designs.

But one wonders how it would be otherwise. The only way we could have species which come into existence and never leave would be world where nothing ever changed – essentially a static world. If the world in question was designed to be constantly changing and renewing, then one would expect variation in response to those changes. Speciation would be necessary in such a world.

Also I think it is important to note that ‘species’ is an arbitrary human construct. There is no reason to believe a designer would be morally constrained to maintaining a set number of species. The reality is the essential information system that is the basis for all life has been preserved for eons despite extreme changes in environments.

That Coyne would see in that cruelty and waste instead of incredible and robust design is a product of his own metaphysical biases.

Low Hanging Fruit – The Measure of Ignorance

February 16, 2011


The A-Unicornist comes back with a rejoinder of  sorts to this post. I thought this claim was revealing:

 “The reason scientific knowledge is provisional is because we know that there is a great deal about which we are ignorant.”

 Remind me again, how does one measure the depth of one’s ignorance?

 And how do believers in scientism know they are less ignorant than those who don’t adhere to scientism?

 I like to think Christians are simply ignorant of one less thing than atheists.

Low Hanging Fruit – Sensed-Presence Effect

December 20, 2010

I have been having a rather rambling discussion over at the ‘A-Unicornist’ blog with Mike (who made one brief comment here. Sort of) about whether a person could reasonably come to the conclusion that Christianity is true by an examination of the evidence. Unfortunately, like many discussions, it has quickly gone from trying to establish a few basic points clearly to a scatter-shot of considerations that are virtually impossible to consider in brief series of postings. I always love when I am accused of not being rational by someone employing an array of red herrings, strawmen, and non-sequitors.

Nonetheless, there is coherence enough there to discern a few ideas – one idea that seems to appear frequently in Mike’s responses is the idea of the ‘Sensed-Presence Effect‘. For those of you not familiar with it (Mike seems to throw it out there irrelevant to context or the particular idea being considered) it is a vaguely documented experience whereby a person seems to sense the presence of another person or entity when no one else is physically there. It may take the form of someone watching them, particularly when going through some extreme circumstance or prolonged isolation. Mike doesn’t articulate it clearly, but it seems to be his way of dealing with the Christian belief in the Holy Spirit (oddly, he even does this when no mention is actually made of the Holy Spirit).

Since it seems to be so frequent a reference there (which he apparently adopted from claims of the atheists he reads) I thought it worthwhile topic consider apart from the flak flying there.

First I think it would be important to consider a few Scriptural references to people experiencing the Holy Spirit. The first mention of this in this amongst believers is in the books of Acts – it goes as follows:

Acts 2:1-

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now I think one could question whether this event actually happened, or was made up after the fact. Or one could think that it was a group delusion of sorts, with everyone convinced they had experienced something they hadn’t. I have reasons for thinking otherwise, but what is relevant in this case is that what it couldn’t have been is a Sensed-Presence Effect. There is no isolation, no vague sense of another person being present in the room being chronicled here – it an explosive event, with an overwhelming sense of something otherworldly, not a vague sense of someone merely watching or standing by. So explaining the Holy Spirit away utilizing this argument won’t work here. Here is another instance, with the Apostle Paul’s conversion:

Acts 9:10-19

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Now again,
one might question the historical veracity of this passage. What one couldn’t sensibly do is claim this is an instance of a Sensed-Presence Effect. There is no indeterminate sense of another presence, no notion that some entity is there to guide and help. The persons in these events have a definite sense of purpose and direction, and their experience is shared between multiple individuals. So the Effect doesn’t apply here.

What about today, with modern Christians? I don’t know what every Christian experiences, but I have talked to Christians around the world, in a wide variety of cultures, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they all seem to share certain characteristics:

  1. Clarity of purpose, renewal, and a sense of peace
  2. A sense of conviction, or discernment about choices that are contrary to God’s will and God’s moral precepts
  3. An ability to understand Scripture in a way one wasn’t able to previous to having the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life
  4. A sense of personal unity with others who share the Holy Spirit

Those are a few commonalities that seemed to be shared – there are probably more I have overlooked. Nonetheless, taken as a whole these don’t seem anything like the Sensed Presence Effect described in literature. It is no mere feeling of someone watching or guiding one in isolation or under duress, but instead a specific collection of experiences with definite parameters collectively experienced in a wide variety of circumstances across cultures and history.

In short, one might have reason to be skeptical the Holy Spirit exists, but it can’t be explained away Mike and other atheists are attempting to.

Low Hanging Fruit

October 25, 2010

In piece on First Things Joe Carter briefly fisks an article by skeptic gadfly Michael Shermer on Big Questions Online titled The Biggest Big Question of All. Joe takes a few brief jabs at the essay and rightly points out its immediate flaw, but I don’t think it goes far enough – indeed, there are many flaws in Schermer’s article.

In the essay Shermer attempts to lay out a sort of overview of competing theories about the origin of the universe. He starts with the idea that God created the universe, and dismisses it as a possibility as “The theist’s answer is an untestable hypothesis” because we are, “natural beings delimited by living in a finite universe” unlike God who is a being that is “outside of space and time” and thus unsearchable. Oddly it is the only possibility he dismisses, choosing to take every other bit of scientific speculation with undue seriousness.

The problem with that dismissal though is that last I checked every person investigating the origin of the universe is delimited by living in a finite universe (unless there are some infinite and eternal physicists I don’t know about) and all the proffered causes of the origin of the universe would be outside the universe. By that measure, every alternative he considers is equally untestable. Indeed, if by testability he means the ability to recreate, measure, and observe the conditions which led to the formation of the universe then indeed all such conditions would be untestable barring some incredible technological leaps.

So his essay fails even on that preliminary basis. But it fails further as he lays out the options – he parses out a series of scenarios that in actuality aren’t that readily separated. For example he considers the multi-verse, Brane-String Universes and M-Theory as if they are separate theories when in fact they are aspects of the same set of theories. Inflationary cosmology isn’t actually a ’cause’ of the existence of the universe, but rather a description of how the universe unfolded. And the ‘Wrong-question’ point isn’t really even a theory, but rather a technical way of saying ‘just because’.

On closer inspection some of the options even ignore logic. For example the ‘Boom-and-Bust Cycle’ idea defies the fact that an actual infinite is impossible – but believing impossible theories isn’t a barrier to atheists like Shermer, provided the theory in question doesn’t allow for the existence of God.

On the whole, Michael Shermer does himself a disservice here. When laid side by side it quickly becomes apparent to anyone with an ounce of rational thought that the idea of God as the First Cause compares quite favorably to any of the scientific speculation offered to date.

McGrath Reflects on New Atheism

October 15, 2010

In a post over at Patheos, a portal blog on religion and spirituality, Alister McGrath (Chair of Theology, Religion and Culture at King’s College London and author of the excellent The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World ) reflects on the current schism within New Atheism and it effect on the movement as a whole. As with many such movements, atheism is a victim of its own excesses and inherently intolerant bent. From the article:

It’s no surprise that the backlash against the New Atheism has now begun within the American secularist movement. Many atheists are shocked at the anti-religious venom now associated with them through a public failure to distinguish between older schools of atheism and its newer and more aggressive forms. They are all being tarred with the same brush. And it hurts them badly. Media reports since late 2009 now openly speak of a “schism” within the movement, precipitated in part by a dawning realization of the darkening public perception of the movement.

Toleration is a cornerstone of western democratic and libertarian civilization. The New Atheism has misjudged the mood, believing that an unrestrained, aggressive, and dismissive criticism of religion will tip the balance in favour of secularism and atheism. It hasn’t. It has just persuaded people that the New Atheism is intolerant and nasty. In most western democracies, respect and toleration are seen as essential to social cohesion and wellbeing. As empirical evidence mounts of the positive role played by religious commitment and involvement in fostering social cohesion, the New Atheist intolerance toward religion seems increasingly out of place and misdirected.

If any one spends time reading atheist forums and the comments sections of Phyrangula, one quickly finds that absent a theistic enemy (especially a pacifistic one like Christianity) atheists quickly fall on each other – intolerance breeds, and feeds on itself. Less an intellectual movement than a gang of would-be bullies, a society composed of New Atheists would quickly breed dictators vying for power much as was demonstrated in previous atheistic societies.

Which is why atheists should pray Christianity doesn’t fade from the Western world any time soon.

Low Hanging Fruit

October 13, 2010

In his USA Today editorial, Science and religion aren’t friends
New Atheist author Jerry Coyne makes this claim:

I’ve never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus.

Now it is possible Jerry Coyne simply hasn’t met that many Christians. Or it’s possible that he didn’t wait around to hear an answer – or perhaps he is simply being disingenuous. Either way, the reality is he wouldn’t have to go farther than 1 Corinthians in the Bible to see that simply isn’t true. In the words of the Apostle Paul, one of the first Christians to write about his faith:

But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-19

So here Paul sets forward pretty straight forward falsification criteria – if it could be shown Christ didn’t rise from the dead then it wouldn’t make any sense to have faith in Him. In fact, someone who did would be only worthy of our pity, because they would be terribly deluded and wasting their life on false hope. In this Paul notably contradicts the notion that Christians don’t base their beliefs on that which can be neither proved nor disproved – long before Coyne got the notion in his head.

And as a Christian myself, I can think of any number of observations that would diminish my faith, if not cause me to abandon it all together. For example if life were to be shown to arise through ordinary unguided means, or to be common in the universe. Or if star systems supporting life, or universes capable of supporting life were demonstrated to arise regularly from unguided means, I would question my view of God. If human characteristics – spirituality, a self-aware personality and historical awareness were shown to ordinarily arise in nature, I would re-consider my beliefs. Like Paul, any number of facts could cause me to reconsider my fundamental beliefs in God and question my perceptions.

So it would appear either Jerry Coyne is horribly ignorant here or he is simply being deceptive to an audience that he hopes doesn’t know better – either way, like most New Atheists, he is simply wrong on the facts.

Low Hanging Fruit

September 28, 2010

I was just listening to the debate between David Berlinski and Christopher Hitchens on the question, ‘Does Atheism Poison Everything?‘ I won’t detail too much of what was said (you should watch it for yourself here) but I did note that Christopher Hitchens made a terrible blunder. At about 36 minutes into the debate he states that it is a, “filthy slander” to say that Nazism was the ‘implementation of Charles Darwin”. He further states that Darwin’s thought was, “not taught in Germany” and that Darwinism, “was derided in Germany”.

Either Hitchens was being terribly disingenuous here (something I doubt as I consider him to be a very honest person) or he was simply and profoundly ignorant of history on this count. A simple review of the relevant history will show us how.

In 1912 the 1st International Eugenics Conference was presided over by Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin. It was dedicated to Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, who studied and popularized the idea of eugenics. This spawned a worldwide Eugenics movement which had its implementation in government policies as well as the establishment of eugenics institutes throughout the world. Eugenics was in modern parlance, the reigning scientific consensus.

The 3rd and final Eugenics Conference was in 1932. At that conference Ernst Rüdin was unanimously elected president of the International Federation of Eugenics Societies. It was the very same Ernst Rüdin who was to head the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Rassenhygiene (German Society for Racial Hygiene) and who was one of the authors of the statute Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring which was the justification for Nazi sterilization laws, and later the elimination of the Jews.

So Hitchens is quite wrong on this count. While Nazi Germany was not the only country to implement the Darwin inspired eugenics ideas, the Third Reich was certainly the worst outgrowth of a movement which sprung directly from Darwin’s theories.