Tuesday, October 29, 2002

(A) Wonderful Life

In the past couple of years, two of the most prolific popularizers of science of our time - Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould have died - entering that state of eternal, dreamless sleep that Sagan envisioned - or not. In any event, they are gone and the world of scientific bestsellers is the poorer. Well, at least in the case of Gould. I found Sagan to often be a pompous bore and many of his 'insights' little more than the self-indulgent ramblings of a middle-aged pot-head; which in fact he was.

In many ways Gould was an outcast, disinvited from the head table of the darwinists. He was dismissed and insulted partly because he did not fully sign on to the theophobia of Richard Dawkins or the intellectual fascism of Daniel Dennett. Not that he didn't have his moments. In a 1996 interview, in answer to a question about politics, he sniffed "well, I don't like Newt Gingrich any more than other intellectuals do", and other such groaners, but overall he at least appeared to tolerate viewpoints other than his own.

Steve Gould, non-believing Jew, descended from the priestly tribe of Levi, was a profilic writer. One of his last books was Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Time. Here's an excerpt from a review of that book by an original thinker named Ross Rhodes:

But the sincere scientist always must be willing to acknowledge, at least in principle, that human knowledge is subject to constant and sometimes drastic revision. If presently there does not appear to be any serious challenge to evolutionary theory, we may take it as an excellent working hypothesis and explanation of the natural order; we may not, however, take it as an article of faith -- as many scientists appear to do -- because that would be, in Gould's phrasing, an intrusion upon the magisterium of religion. Perhaps because his own field of evolutionary biology is a relatively youthful 140 years old and is now triumphant, having swept the field, Gould may not be mindful of the broader history of science which is littered with discarded theories once thought incontrovertible. To cite one example only, physics in 1899 was thought to be a dead field because all of physics had been thoroughly and finally understood by expansion and refinement of Newton's magnificent summation; between 1900 and 1905, the entire structure of physics was overturned; by 1927, a new structure was proposed, so profoundly different from the conventional wisdom of 1899 that science has yet to make sense of it all. I do not mean to imply that the same fate awaits evolutionary theory; I mean only to caution that placing limits on God -- even based on firmly established scientific theory -- is both perilous and, at its root, contrary to the noblest traditions of scientific inquiry.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. If you're interested in quantum physics and the meaning of life, check out the rest of Ross's site.

Sunday, October 27, 2002

Darwinian Apologetics

Many, many of the objections to darwinism are of little value and easily refuted. Darwinists love this. It makes an excellent stuffing for their anti-evolution strawman. The darwinian true believer site, Talk.Origins, maintains several lists of FAQ's meant to 'debunk' these arguments and it's a great place to start if you think you've found the silver bullet against darwinism. Read all answers carefully, however. Just because there is an answer don't assume it's a good one. The issues brought up by many objections are not so much explained as they are explained away.

By the way, it is still unclear whether darwinism will die by a silver bullet or a thousand cuts.

Saturday, October 26, 2002

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of websites dedicated to darwinism, creationism, or some other aspect of the eternal question: How did we get here and why are we here? The ones I will be linking to either have something unique and compelling to say or tackle aspects and angles ignored or glossed over in the mainstream evolution debate. Darel Rex Finley has authored a very readable essay, Why I Disbelieve Evolution, that highlights some of these ignored or glossed over arguments. The first of which is available time:

On paper, the theory of evolution can assume that whatever amount of time is needed to evolve existing lifeforms was available. However, massive geological evidence exists that the environment of the Earth has been hospitable to the survival (not to mention the appearance) of life for roughly 4 billion years. That may sound like an eternity, until you start considering what has to have happened in that time. Human DNA alone (leaving aside the other complex structures of the cell) consists of about 3 billion nucleotides of genetic instruction. This means that according to evolution, they must have evolved at an average rate of about 0.75 nucleotides per year (not per generation). If the rate was not constant, then there must have periods when this rate was even faster.

Naturalistic evolution is supposed to happen so: Periodically an individual organism will be formed that has a genetic mutation, an error, in its DNA. Probably, this error will be neutral or detrimental, but it is conceivable that a very rare error will be somehow slightly beneficial. Thus, this individual creature will have a slightly better chance of surviving and procreating than its peers. If this individual survives and procreates (i.e., is not eaten in infancy), then over many (hundreds?) of generations, that slight advantage may slowly spread through the population until it is a permanent part of the species.

Is it even remotely conceivable that the naturalistic process described above could support a rate like 0.75 nucleotides per year? No. Trillions or quadrillions of years might solve this anomaly, but those timespans utterly dwarf the actual time of 4-5 billion years. Evolution fails this empirical test.

There are many subset examples. The whale, which appeared about 10 million years after the first mammal, probably has millions of nucleotides of DNA that have nothing to do with being a simple land mammal, and would have required impossible rates of naturalistic evolution to have acquired them in the time available.

What I mean by 'glossed over' is this: once a theory is considered 'fact', the scientific method gets turned on its head. Instead of using evidence to evaluate the theory, the theory is used as a filter for all evidence. "You say there's not enough time? Well, that's obviously wrong. We know that we've gone from a lifeless void to the diversity of life you see today in 4 billion years. Therefore, 4 billion years is obviously enough time".

Friday, October 25, 2002

Defects of empirical knowledge have less to do with the ways we go wrong in philosophy than defects of character do: such things as the simple inability to shut up; determination to be thought deep; hunger for power; fear, especially the fear of an indifferent universe. - David Stove, “What is Wrong With Our Thoughts?”

The late Austrailian philosopher David Stove, though an avowed atheist, found darwinian theory fairly useless as it applies to human beings. This essay should give anyone pause before they hitch their wagon to the evolutionary psychology star.

A defect that I would add to the above quote is "the simple inability to call things by their correct names". But that's another story.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

A place to start

If you've read many books by popularizers of science or the philosphy of science you've probably noticed a certain choppiness. After reading a chapter that would be appropriate for the Parade magazine insert in your sunday paper you plow into a dense swamp more suited to a graduate level textbook. That's because most authors collect various essays and other works and, when they have enough, knit them together into book length for publishing. There are few books that you really want to read from front to back. But that's ok.

Because most chapters or sections stand on their own, they are ideal for more in-depth consideration. Instead of reviewing entire books, I'll be taking, from time to time, a salient point of a book and provide my analysis of it. I'm going to start with one of the most influential philosopy of science books of the past decade - Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel C. Dennett.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

But what exactly is darwinism?

I don't like the term evolution because it can be made to mean almost anything - and often is - in various bait-and-switch tactics. 'Neo-darwinism' is the term generally used to denote the thinking of Charles Darwin on the origin and development of life on Earth updated to incorporate the latest knowledge from the various sciences, but I think the 'neo' confuses people. There are other terms for the worldview I'm talking about, but they are somewhat cumbersome and equivocal: material reductionism, philosophical naturalism, or sometimes just materialism or naturalism. So 'darwinism' is the term I prefer to use but rather than me trying to define it, I'll let darwinists do it themselves. This, from the National Association of Biology Teachers, will do:

The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Mind did not precede matter; no pre-existing intelligence was required to get things started or to keep them going. No God required. We've got everything neatly explained, thank you. Or do we?

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Darwin disciple Richard Dawkins has observed that Darwin 'made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist'. I have started this web log because I want you to know also that it is possible to be an intellectually fulfilled 'adarwinist'; that is, a darwinian infidel or heathen - a non-believer in (or skeptic of) darwinism. This is not an easy road. Expressing even the slightest doubt can be dangerous. You will be branded 'anti-intellectual', 'anti-science', 'willfully ignorant', and strip-searched for your 'hidden agenda'. It will be implied that you must also believe the earth is flat and the moon is made of cheese. If you're up for that; if you can keep an open mind; if you can allow for the possibility that the major scientific paradign (I promise, I will not use the word 'paradign' again) of the present age is seriously flawed (it wouldn't be the first time), then this site is for you.