My man, Dan

August 26, 2009

Not-blind watchmaker

The latest pseudo-intellectual sally to save the “God hypothesis” published on the NYTimes OpEd page brought forth some good responses from letter writers.  Among them, was this pithy observation:

…While personal revelation is an excellent way to know whom we love, it is an abysmal way to seek knowledge about the universe. It becomes an excuse to believe what one wishes to believe.

Paul L. LaClair   Kearny, N.J., Aug. 23, 2009

My hat’s off to Dan Dennett for his great response, quoted in full here (my emphasis):

To the Editor:

Robert Wright notes that the speculations he outlines on how a moral sense could evolve are “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.” Indeed, these speculations — actually rigorous abstract arguments — have been developed by evolutionary theorists who, like Mr. Wright, see our moral intuitions as real phenomena in need of an explanation.

But the point of these arguments is to demonstrate that there can be a traversable path, an evolutionary process, from, say, bacteria, to us (with our moral intuitions) that doesn’t at any point require that the evolutionary process itself have a purpose. In other words, their implication is that our moral sense would evolve even if there weren’t a creative intelligence in the background.

So the compatibility that Mr. Wright finds is trivial.

Go ahead and believe in God, if you like, but don’t imagine that you have been given any grounds for such a belief by science.

Daniel Dennett     Medford, Mass., Aug. 23, 2009

Dennett is the author of Consciousness Explained, one of the best books I have ever read on the mind-body problem.  I am tickled to see that the Wiki article cites T. Nagel’s criticisms of the book in its summary – one of my favorite parts of Dan’s book is his dissection of Nagel’s famous article, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”

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Crusoe’s Query

March 5, 2007

r_crusoe.jpg

“As I sat here some such thoughts as these occurred to me: What is this earth and sea, of which I have seen so much? Whence is it produced? And what am I, and all the other creatures wild and tame, human and brutal? Whence are we?Sure we are all made by some secret Power, who formed the earth and sea, the air and sky. And who is that? Then it followed most naturally, it is God that has made all. Well, but then it came on strangely, if God has made all these things, He guides and governs them all, and all things that concern them; for the Power that could make all things must certainly have power to guide and direct them. If so, nothing can happen in the great circuit of His works, either without His knowledge or appointment.”

So muses Robinson Crusoe one day on his deserted island, and in so doing, he reveals the central thinking of theistic belief. Note the assumptions:

“Sure we are made by some secret power.”

Why sure? Only because this book was written at the beginning of the 18th century when scientific explanations of the why and the how were still being tentatively formed.

“Then it followed most naturally, it is God that has made all.”

Follows naturally only if the notion of God is already to hand. No need to explain the God part of it? Who made God? How did God make all? Here is the fill-in explanation for all that cannot or is not explained.

“…for the Power that could make all things must certainly have power to guide and direct them.”

Well, the Deists of the 18th century would explicitly reject this notion, so it’s not even necessary for the concept of God.


Design De-Signed

February 7, 2005

The intellectual confusion that is at the core of the so-called Intelligent Design Theory was on display once again in this mornings’ NYTimes in the opinion piece, “Design for Living” by Michael J. Behe. Let’s do him the favor of assuming he’s honest, and not some stooge for the religious right, and examine his ‘arguments’ such as they are.Okay, so according to him, the proponents of ID do not doubt that evolution and natural selection occur, simply that they are not sufficient to explain the organisms we see. Lets say right off that that ends the argument. If they can show that current theories are inadequate, and they can propose a new one that can be proved to fill in the gaps, good for them! But what does that have to do with ID? Asserting that complexity theory or the permutations of cellular automata may be a crucial element in explaining evolution does not contradict Darwin’s theory (if the assertions are ever proved) any more than Mendellian genetics did. And it certainly does not support the notion of ID.

At the core of his position is a deep prejudice which he makes clear with his statement, “…we often recognize the effects of design in nature.” NO! That was precisely what Darwin showed to be false. Are we back in the 18th century when we must listen to pontificating natural theologians rambling on…”Notice, we have two feet, perfect for shoes, and noses, perfect to hold our glasses…” I suggest that an alien visiting earth from another galaxy (where are those guys when you need them?) might have difficulty recognizing Mt. Rushmore as ‘designed’, especially if their life forms were radically different from ours. Anthropologists often have trouble distinguishing ancient tools from randomly chipped shards found in their digs – is design really so obvious? I think not, unless you have already decided it is prevalent.

Mr. Behe never explains what design is, because he doesn’t know or care. It just explains everything he can’t easily explain now. Sounds like a religious idea to me. If you stop assuming design is present everywhere, you stop seeing it…if you have another explanation, which we do have.

I truly enjoyed his comment that scientists are probably gritting their teeth and muttering, “It wasn’t designed, not really,” despite their ‘common sense’ knowledge that it ‘obviously’ is designed. Yes, reminds me of a Polish astronomer I once knew who looked at the heavens and said, “It’s not really spinning around the earth, not really. It goes around the Sun.” He said that even though his eyes suggested that the solar system did revolve around the earth. Hadn’t people noticed it for centuries? We have to believe our eyes, but we also have to know that sometimes we just don’t know what we’re looking at. Alas, the world may look like the toy ground on the lathe of the Great Toymaker in the sky, but it ain’t.

Some of Behe’s arguments are simply rehashes of anti-Darwin screeds from the 19th century, such as his claim that “no research studies indcate that Darwinian processes can make molecular machines of the complexity we find in the cell.” Seems to me that the entire thrust of biological research over the last hundred years, including micro-biology and physiology, all of which employ Darwin as a foundation element, are just that. There is nothing so far that CANNOT be explained with Darwinian mechanisms. We are back, once again, to the Bishop Wilberforce pseudo-arguments about the eye being too complex for it to be the product of ‘random’ evolution. (Of course, we know that evolution is not random.)

The circular arguments of this pathetic exposition are capped by his fourth argument in which Behe asserts that the “strong appearance of design” is a simple and strong argument in favor of ID. That which we desire to prove is the proof of what we desire to prove. Great logic! And I have to disagree that Darwin was “laboring to explain” the profound appearance of design in biological life. He was working to explain how species came about, and the resolution of the false appearance of design is simply an after affect. And how do species come about, Mr. Behe?

Finally he appeals to a vox populi argument: most people don’t accept Darwin’s theory, therefore it’s justified to discard it. We won’t settle the issue by arguing over definitions – especially when he won’t define any of his terms. And science should “keep looking for another explanation in case one is out there.” Yup, go to it, Mr. Behe. Do your theorizing, publish your experimental results, and good luck to you. If you can disprove Darwin, you will be hailed as a great man, but the fact that you are on your quixotic quest for ID does not prove that it is valid.

Mr. Behe says it doesn’t seem useful to search for non-design explanations of Mt. Rushmore. He takes the humanly created and the natural world to be all of a piece, no distinctions. Ah, yes, those Alps, so beautifully designed, surely there must be a supreme artist…The marvelous thing about culture is that it is created by us, the thinking ones. Do we have evidence that the raw material of the world was similarly created, other than an intellectual weakness to assume that what’s good for the goose is always good for the gander?

But, you know, I’m tired of this. I give up. Let’s grant Mr. Behe his argument. Intelligent Design rules! Yahooo! Now, please explain to me: who or what is the intelligent designer; if it’s not a superhuman god, then how is it different from unintelligent design? If you don’t know, what on earth does your theory add to our knowledge of the world?

Much of the confusion and delusion of this piece stems from one basic idea. ID advocates think that because Darwinians have not explained every element of every complex organism of interest, they cannot explain anything. But when they do attempt to explain organisms’ evolution, they succeed. But to explain the details of complex organisms that have evolved over tremendous reaches of time…that’s a work in progress. But there is only one path to the end as of now, and each small step it takes is solid. This explains the confusion, but it doesn’t excuse it. Fact is, Newton’s laws of gravitational attraction are pretty simple and straighforward, but last I heard, it still isn’t possible to accurately solve for the motion of three bodies that are mutually attracting one another simultaneously. It’s too difficult for us now. Does that mean Newton was wrong?