September 2008


There is an interesting passage in Steve Fuller’s book Science vs. Religion? where he basically explains why his testimony helped lead to the defense losing in the Dover case. (Fuller testified on behalf of the school board, but didn’t do a very good job promoting their side, and Judge Jones, in his decision, cited Fuller as providing evidence for Jones’s opinion that intelligent design is religion, and not science.) Fuller writes:

The judge cited me a dozen times in his ruling, unsurprisingly, from whenever I had said something revealing or critical of IDT [intelligent design theory]. In the judge’s mind, the case turned on whether IDT is “really” religion and not science. Indeed, this forced choice of “either religion or science” was  the one constraint to which my testimony had to conform, in the eyes of the defense lawyers. However, my own view … is that science and religion are not “separate but equal,” as the Kitzmiller verdict suggests, but rather are substantially overlapping modes of inquiry. The spirit of that position remained present in my testimony, which gave Judge Jones the opportunity to use it to bolster an exclusively religious interpretation of IDT. (p. 98)

Given that that’s Fuller’s view, the defense really made a mistake having him testify on their behalf. Given that Fuller was the only philosophy-of-science-oriented expert witness that they had, it’s not surprising that they lost.

Here, I thought, was the most insightful passage in the book Flock of Dodos (the book I talked about in my previous post):

While it’s certainly true that a majority of Americans are supporters of either creationism or creationism’s post-adolescent older sibling, Intelligent Design, this need not necessarily translate into any horrible national policy implementations. According to a recent Newsweek poll, for example, more than half of Americans believe in the Rapture, but Congress has yet to make any appropriations for a viable post-apocalypse government framework. (p. 139-140)

The authors don’t say why the fact that Americans have these beliefs hasn’t led to major national policy implementations. This is an intriguing question, and I don’t have a good answer. Is it because people say that they believe in something like creationism, but they really don’t? (This would be closely related to the recent discussion I had about whether people who say they believe in God really do believe.) Is it because the people who control the political power don’t have the same beliefs as the majority of Americans? Is it because the spirit of religious freedom in our country is such that people recognize that they shouldn’t politically impose their religious beliefs on others? Or is something else going on?

I’m reading an anti-intelligent design book currently, called Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design & the Easter Bunny. It’s meant to be an entertaining humorous book about the intelligent design debate, and sometimes it succeeds in doing so, but sometimes it just succeeds in being offensive. For example, Barrett Brown and Jon Alston, the authors, write that Senator Tom Coburn is

an Oklahoman who first gained national recognition after complaining about the rampant lesbianism that was allegedly occurring in his home state’s university bathrooms (yes, Oklahoma has both a university and bathrooms). (p. 30)

Later, in describing an 1928 anti-evolution law passed in Arkansas, they write:

In short: push evolution in a public capacity and you’ll never work in Arkansas again. This wasn’t much of a threat to anyone who’s ever had the opportunity to find themselves working in Arkansas… (p. 49-50)

I hope you agree that this is not particularly funny, and is based on all sorts of false stereotypes, and is pretty derogatory, discourteous, distasteful, and disrespectful (just to pick some “d” words). People in Oklahoma are about as educated as people from other states (see below for the statistics), and Oklahoma has some fine educational institutions. Arkansas is a beautiful state full of nice normal people. Perpetuating these stereotypes about Oklahoma and Arkansas just isn’t funny, and evidences the close-mindedness that many people accuse intelligent design opponents of having. And in addition to being prejudiced, it’s pragmatically stupid too — it’s not going to help get people from Oklahoma or Arkansas, or anyone who has reasonable opinions about Oklahoma and Arkansas, to be more sympathetic to the anti-intelligent design position that the authors are promulgating. 

The statistics:

According to page 3 of this 2000 US Census report, the percentage of the US population age 25 and over with at least a high school diploma is 80.4%, and the percentage of that population with at least a college diploma is 24.4%. For the Oklahoma population age 25 and over, those percentages are 80.6% and 20.3%. The state with the lowest percentage of college graduates is West Virginia, at 14.8%. (West Virginia, by the way, is one of my favorite states in the whole country — there’s more to a state than its percentage of college graduates.)

“God-of-the-gaps” arguments are arguments for the existence of God that are based on some sort of gap in our knowledge of the world. The are typically derided, because historically, the gaps in God-of-the-gaps arguments have gotten filled in as scientific inquiry advances. But as Ratzsch carefully points out, if the God-of-the-gaps arguments had any evidential strength before the gap was filled in, then they have at least some evidential strength after the gap is filled in:

if something would constitute evidence of design in the context of some presumed gap in nature, then it will also constitute evidence of design even if the gap in question gets closed naturally. (p. 59)

I won’t try to reproduce Ratzsch’s argument for that claim here; I’ll just encourage you to look at the book (Nature, Design, and Science) if you’re interested. If I were to argue for this claim, I’d give a Bayesian argument — if some hypothesis can account for some piece of evidence, and is confirmed by that evidence, then introduction of another hypothesis that can also confirm the evidence doesn’t stop the evidence from providing some confirmation for the first hypothesis, even though the degree of confirmation would go down.

An uninformed observer who came across a Mandelbrot set would presumably think that it was the product of an intelligent designer:

But in fact, the Mandelbrot set is the product of a relatively simple mathematical equation. Ratzsch addresses this in an interesting footnote:

prior to any familiarity to their mode of generation, it might be intuitively reasonable to take Mandelbrot pictures as designed. In fact, were their structure artifactual I suspect that we would so construe them. But, of course, their structure is a result of mathematical necessity, and some would argue that necessities cannot be products of agent activity and design. (p. 185)

I take it from what Ratzsch does say that he recognizes that he doesn’t have a completely satisfying answer here. What I would (tentatively) say is that the structure (despite appearances) is not complex — it can be generated via a simple mathematical process. Ratzsch wouldn’t be happy with this complexity answer — after all, as discussed in my previous post, a titanium cube is not complex, and yet Ratzsch takes it as evidence for design — but the complexity answer fits with the answer that for example Dembski would give. (Dembski’s filter wouldn’t infer design unless the pattern had specified complexity, but the Mandelbrot set is not complex. Dembski’s filter sometimes won’t infer design even when something is designed though, so from the fact that Dembski’s filter doesn’t infer design, we can’t infer that the pattern was not designed.)

I should note that, in practice, Mandelbrot sets are produced by designers — the people who wrote the computer program to produce them. What I’m interested in is if we (somehow) came across something like a Mandelbrot set in nature — say, in the pattern of a leaf. Would that pattern provide evidence for the existence of God?

To read more about these sorts of issues, see my new book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design.

Del Ratzsch, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, published a great foundational book on design arguments back in 2001, and I’m just now getting around to reading it cover-to-cover. The book is called Nature, Design, and Science, and I recommend anyone interested in intelligent design arguments to check it out. Ratzsch is one of those philosophers who really deserves to be more famous than he is; he does solid insightful work. (And he’s a nice guy — he once told me (not completely seriously) that if only I’d convert, they’d be happy to hire me at Calvin.) 

Ratzsch gives good criteria outlining under what circumstances we would take some pattern or structure to be designed. I find his criteria plausible, but what’s interesting is that I find a couple of the particular examples that he mentions offhand of phenomena we’d take to be designed implausible. Here is one example:

if we discovered on Mars a perfect hundred-meter cube of isotopically uniform titanium, and knew that no human technology had that capability, identification of that cube as both artifact and alien would be relatively trivial. (p. 18)

In fact, this isn’t at all obvious to me. There are non-artifact cube-like objects that are found in nature (though, admittedly, they aren’t _perfectly_ cube-shaped). Consider, for example, pyrite:

 

One might initially think, if walking upon a heath and coming across a cube of pyrite, that that cube was an artifact produced by design. But in fact, that cube has the same status as any random rock one finds on the heath. Given the existence of pyrite cubes on Earth, I wouldn’t know what to think if I came across a titanium cube on Mars. 

Here’s another case where I disagree with Ratzsch’s particular example of what would count as design. Ratzsch says:

If there were processes which were only activated by energy beyond what any finite agency could generate — for example, infinite energy — such processes would thus constitute evidence that supernatural agency was involved.

Granted, Ratzsch just says that the process would “constitute evidence”, not that that process would constitute certain evidence, so perhaps I would agree with him, in that perhaps I would take such a process to constitute a tiny bit of evidence for supernatural agency. But I’m not even sure that I would do that. There are some aspects of the universe that physicists talk about, such as spacetime singularities and black holes and supertasks, where there are ways of looking at these aspects such that they involve infinities. Perhaps there are parts of the universe where the amount of energy is infinite. If I had to guess, I’d guess that that wasn’t the case, but if the physicists told me that that was the case, I don’t think I would take that as evidence for the existence of God; I’d just say that that’s another interesting fact that we’ve learned from physics.

However, I agree with Ratzsch’s overall point, that one can in principle get evidence for the existence of God. I argue for that a bit in this paper.

On a different topic than usual, here are the blogs of some friends of mine.

Jeff Miller has lots of insightful thoughts about politics, among other matters. 

Jessica Wittmer participated as a delegate for Obama in the DNC Convention. 

Brian Kierland is running for President.

The Beautiful Kind blogs about sex. (Not safe for work.) 

The Beautiful Kind blogs about her cute kid. (Safe for work.)

In the second comment to this post at Thinking Christian, Jospeh A. writes:

On the flipside, I can say that I often come across atheists who tend to display a systematic disconnect with what their beliefs naturally demand, or at least lead to. … Watch how often you’ll come across atheists who talk about good and evil, or even right and wrong with regards to morals as if there were really an objective, ultimate standard in play. 

I’m willing to admit that there are atheists who display a systematic disconnect with what their beliefs naturally demand. But I don’t think the existence of atheists who believe in objective morality is necessarily a good example of atheists having a disconnect. I am an atheist, and I believe in objective morality, and I don’t think I’m being incoherent in doing so.

This gets at a standard Philosophy 101 topic, the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is killing an innocent person wrong because God says that it’s wrong, or does God say that killing an innocent person is wrong because it really is objectively wrong? Some people, like Joseph A., believe that God determines what is objectively morally wrong or right. If God says that it’s morally permissible to rape children, then it’s morally permissible. In contrast, I say that, even if God exists, the objective moral standards aren’t set by God. If God were to say that raping children is morally permissible, that wouldn’t make it morally permissible; it would just mean that God is incorrect. 

Most theists think that it’s impossible for God to be incorrect, so in practice God would always prescribe the correct moral view. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that God always prescribes the correct moral view that God is the source of morality. 

Of course, I haven’t conclusively argued for this, and I don’t have such a conclusive argument — nor, in my opinion, does the other side. This is one reason that it’s such an enduring philosophical dilemma. I raise the issue here mainly because I don’t want theists to just assume that all atheists think, or have to think, that there’s no objective morality.

Tom at Thinking Christian has responded to my posts about Christians (and others) living up to their beliefs with this:

when a thoughtful, friendly (shall I say?) critic speaks to us like this, we need to pay attention. We need to let it bother us.

Because far more than we would want this to be the case…. he’s right.

See also his insightful follow-up post. He correctly points out that the fact that many Christians aren’t living in accordance what they claim to be the God-given value system doesn’t provide much evidence against the truth of Christianity:

What do our inconsistent practices say about us and about the faith? They show that we’re human, we have habits, we are not perfectly consistent creatures, we’re influenced by what’s most present to our awareness. They show that we need God and his grace. All of this is entirely consistent with what Scripture says about us.

It still strikes me that, if God were to exist, it would be much more apparent to everyone that God does exist. But obviously that isn’t the way the world works, and Christianity has a story to tell about why the existence of God isn’t transparently apparent to everyone. 

Tom does recognize that, even though Scripture can account for why Christians aren’t living up to their beliefs, they should nevertheless strive to:

Our message is a lot more convincing when delivered with true Christian character behind it. We have to give ourselves grace for our failures, but we can never stop striving for growth.

For more positive feedback, see these posts from aldenswan.com; he calls me his “new favorite atheist”.

Tom at Thinking Christian wrote a thoughtful post inspired by my previous post on whether people really believe in God. Tom picked up on this claim of mine:

That said, there are real issues about how to reconcile people’s behavior with their professed belief in God…

Tom agreed that there are real issues here:

How can we Christians reconcile our behavior with our professed belief in God? Are we as loving, as just, as devoted to truth, as worshipful toward God, as humble as our beliefs call for us to be? Of course not. We’re all on a path, at different places and moving at different speeds, and often our behavior is at odds with our beliefs. … The truth is, we mess up. Our one hope is the loving grace of God through Jesus Christ.

I appreciate Tom’s honesty and humility here. (In fact, this is something that I appreciate about many thinking Christians.) Setting aside the philosophical arguments, it’s this sort of honesty and humility that helps make me sympathetic to Christianity. It’s the actual behavior of many Christians, in contrast, that helps make me unsympathetic — and helps make me think that many Christians don’t actually believe what they profess to believe. 

The example I gave before was that of grieving death, and Tom pointed out that perhaps there are real differences between how believers and unbelievers grieve. He may be right about that — it’s hard to get into the inner mental state of someone who is grieving. So here’s another example instead — if Christians think that some people are saved and some are not, and there is something really worthwhile in being saved, and those who aren’t saved are really missing out, then why aren’t they spending more energy encouraging people to be saved? (One standard account is that the saved people go to heaven, while the unsaved don’t, but I recognize that different Christians differ on these details.) Yes, there are people who devote their lives, or at least significant portions of their lives, to missionary work and evangelism, and I admire them for following their convictions. It’s the Christians who don’t do this that I have trouble understanding. I know people who profess to be Christian and yet who live their lives pretty much like atheists do, except for the occasional trip to church, or prayer over dinner. For these people, their behavior is deeply at odds with their professed beliefs, and it makes me wonder if they really believe what they say they believe. 

Tom’s line that Christians “mess up” only partially accounts for the apparent disconnect between these sorts of Christians’ beliefs and actions. To focus on a timely example, I put what happened to Bristol Palin in the “messing up” category, and it’s nice to see that her community is forgiving her. But it’s the systematic behavior that concerns me — the systematic lack of evangelism in many Christians’ lives, the systematic acting as if God is not watching and judging their every behavior, the systematic living as if life is not spiritually sacred. 

Since I’m throwing stones, it’s only fair that I target my own glass house too. I’m sure there are atheists who don’t live in accordance with their own principles — and probably I don’t either, though it’s hard for me to identify systematic behavior along these lines. But here is one concern I have about how I live my life. I am vegetarian for ethical reasons, and I am especially opposed to how animals are treated in the factory farming process. I think that those who causally participate in this process, by for example eating factory farmed animals, are doing something morally wrong, and innocent animals are living horrible lives as a result. Nevertheless, I eat at restaurants that serve dead animals, and I am friends with meat-eaters, and I don’t do that much to actively try to encourage people to become vegetarian. Perhaps, for me to live in accordance with my principles, I should do much more to try to prevent this needless suffering. But I don’t — I take the easy way out, and pretty much live in accordance with society’s expectations for normal behavior. In this limited way, I identify with the Christians who choose to live a normal life, instead of spending their time evangelizing and going on missions.

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