Where I Cram My Ideas

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More about science/atheism

This is a response to Rhology's comments here.

After Rhology's most recent post, I realized there are some very big elephants in the room. They should be brought to the forefront of my attention on this blog. Our conversation meandered a lot, so I will try to separate piles of topics.

Science and God:

At the outset, Rhology and I agreed that science - being a study of physical laws and theories explaining physical phenomena - cannot really talk about "God." Then Rhology complained that science "oversteps its bounds" in assuming that naturalistic explanations can account for everything. The theory of evolution is described as ad hoc and "desperate."

If science just concerns itself with physical phenomena, then seeking any explanations other than naturalistic ones would be overstepping boundaries. If even the possibility of a naturalistic explanation exists for phenomena, science should be expected to seek it - even to assume it exists.

Consider an example of a murder investigation. A theist might approach a particularly puzzling case and trumpet the folly of "assuming" a naturalistic explanation exists. His supernatural alternative - whatever it may be - can be made to seem much more simple and probable. There is a problem here, and I'll deal with it later when I discuss Occam's Razor.


I made the claim that "In a broad range of possible early-earth conditions, amino acids have been observed to form in repeatable laboratory experiments."

As Rhology expected, I was referring to the original Miller-Urey experiments, and the subsequent research they spawned. He will find many answers to abiogenesis-related questions and criticisms that stem from the massive Creationism propaganda machines here.

His apparent skepticism toward the experiments may be answered (pardon the assumption) with this sort of response:

" Since his first experiment, Miller and others have experimented with other atmospheric compositions, too (Chang et al. 1983; Miller 1987; Schlesinger and Miller 1983; Stribling and Miller 1987). Complex organic molecules form under a wide range of prebiotic conditions."

There was a much more recent study that solved some previous problems. I wish I had bookmarked the abstract I read... if I come across it, I'll link it here.

I'll address another quip from Rhology's before I move on: "Whooptie do - intelligently-designed amino acids! This is an advertisement for ID, not for TOE."

The single biggest problem for "intelligent design," I would argue, is its vagueness. Pink elephants floating to our planet bearing the necessary building blocks for life would imply intelligent design as strongly any other story would. A hypothesis that is supported by every potential evidence does not help us narrow down what the real explanation might be.

Occam's Razor:

Here's a more technical readup. Rhology asserted in his comment that "One cause - God - is far simpler than the quadrillions of causes required for naturalistic abiogenesis."

I disagree. Consider two theories of planet movement: Rhology proposes that God moves the planets (after all, what possible force is strong enough to push such huge entities around?). I side with Isaac Newton. Technically, in regards to causes, Rhology has an advantage. What about all the little causes that put the planets in their orbits, determined their weight, shape, velocity, orbital plane, etc? One cause - God - is far simpler, right?

The problem with proposing the supernatural is that it is separate from the natural. In order to propose the existence of a being like God/gods, one must propose an entirely separate plane of reality - one which cannot be tested or observed. Alternatively, one could stick with a (complicated) theory that does not propose new planes of reality. Such a theory would, it turns out, be simpler. We are not faced with motives... "Why does God push the planets around?" A naturalistic theory (like gravity) eliminates all such questions.

I think I covered the important parts of Rhology's Occam's Razor points. He may feel free to ask follow-up questions as he feels inclined.

Trusting science:

There is a difference, I believe, between well-placed trust and blind faith. One has faith in a stranger's motives. I trust my mom and dad. I noted that, in the past, supernatural explanations have always given way to natural explanations. Rhology seems to think this is childlike faith. It strikes me as a solid foundation.

In the past, murder mysteries have had natural explanations. While it is not impossible that this case is supernatural, we are still obligated - if we follow a scientific profession - to exhaust our possible natural answers before we defer to the supernatural.

Furthermore, we must have good reason to believe that a natural explanation will never possibly be found. Otherwise we would be jumping the gun and making a hasty conclusion.

In Rhology's words, my belief that a natural explanation exists for abiogenesis - despite the theory's currently incomplete state - is similar to my "saying that, someday, alchemy will be shown to be valid."

Alchemy has been shown to be not-valid. We currently lack the information to allow us to confirm or dismiss naturalistic abiogenesis theories, though. So, the analogy fails there (too quickly to be a good analogy). Life arising from non-life is not a case of values turning "into their opposites," as Rhology claimed in his comment. Life varies in complexity and is, at times, difficult to define - as with viruses. A connect-the-dots puzzle begins to form if a link is hypothesized from amino acids to RNA to DNA etc. The mechanisms in question to make these transitions require further study.

Back to the nature of science:

Rhology tripped over himself later in his comment, I think. Near the beginning, he agreed with me that science concerns physical laws and theories explaining physical phenomena. Then, he argued that science is not justified in ruling out the supernatural. This apparent reversal might be a misunderstanding on my part, however...

When I say "I will seek a natural explanation for this murder," I have taken a metaphysical stance. I will rule out supernatural explanations. Science, definitively, seeks natural explanations. It is not equipped to study supernatural explanations.

If science DOES study the supernatural - well, Rhology had better alert the greater scientific community. I hope he alerts me first so I do not feel left out.

Rhology went on to write, "Lab science is also unqualified to make judgments on things that happened in the past, but that fact hasn't stopped it from doing so."

Direct your attention, please, to the Talk Origins response to this (apparently typical) claim.

Rhology complained that science "says" it can tackle questions of the supernatural - he seems to want science to cease making claims about the improbability of God. If he can produce any examples of papers or studies that made it past a respected peer review - any such paper or study that makes any attempt to tackle questions of the supernatural - then I will have an answer for him. If he cannot produce such a paper or study, then he already has my answer.

Evolution and mutation:

I wrote, "The emergence of new species is not microevolution, Rho. "

In his comment, Rhology responded with "Yes it is, sorry." I would like to bring to bear a trustworthy source here:

"Microevolution is defined as the change of allele frequencies (that is, genetic variation due to processes such as selection, mutation, genetic drift, or even migration) within a population. Macroevolution is defined as evolutionary change at the species level or higher, that is, the formation of new species, new genera, and so forth. Speciation has also been observed.

The bold emphasis is added. Rhology seeks evidence that "lizards turned into birds." He should note that (to the best of my knowledge) no actual scientist has ever proposed such a transition. A more commonly accepted theory is that dinosaur-like animals evolved into birds.

I pointed out that the process of microevolution is an accumulatory process. No mechanism exists to halt or reverse the changes that occur due to mutations from generation to generation. Until such a mechanism is proposed, we must believe the changes accumulate over time and result in new species. This has been observed.

Over time, a creature as distinct as a dinosaur could become less and less dinosaur-like and more and more bird-like.

Rhology DID propose a mechanism to halt that process of change. As he put it, the change from "lizard" to bird is impossible because of "the fact that they're LIZARDS." He went on to label the theory of microevolutionary processes extrapolated to a longer timeline as a "fairy tale" that anyone could "just dream up."

Oops, I forgot Rhology applied a little intelligent thought to the question of stopping/reversing microevolutionary changes. His primary suggestion was not bad: "That 'beneficial' mutations are highly rare; most mutations screw up organisms."

Not bad at all. However, harmful mutations do not act to halt OR reverse the mutations that do benefit the organism. Imagine, for example, a population of mice isolated in the arctic circle. Mutations occur each generation. Most mutations are neutral; some are harmful. The harmful mutations kill off those with the mutations.

So far we have a population that has not changed.

Finally, one beneficial mutation occurs. In that environment, this mutation is useful (thicker hair, say).

Thicker-haired mice soon become more common and 25 generations down the line, most of the mice have thicker hair. All the while harmful mutations are happening - and killing off the individuals with the harmful mutations - but then another beneficial mutation happens.

And so on. These beneficial mutations accumulate over time. There is no mechanism that has been proposed to stop or reverse these changes; so given enough time, we will start to see "mice" that only vaguely resemble the original population. When these arctic mice cannot naturally breed with their forebears, we have a new species. New species eventually become new families; "lizards" become birds.

Rhology then wrote to question a premise he thinks exists in evolutionary theory: "the premise that more information can be added out of nowhere."

I wish I knew what exactly he was referring to, because this is such a big issue. It is so big that Rhology cited it as one reason he is not an atheist anymore. I have a feeling that in this - as in so many other matters - he is misinformed. Please give me a more concrete example, Rho. Do you mean new genetic functions, new complexity (like amino acids being created from chemicals and lightning) or what?

Young Earth Creationism (briefly):

The thought of this topic makes me want a drink to wash away the bad taste that immediately comes to my mouth. But enough of that - I am not in the mood to argue against the bullshit of Creation "science." I will tell you this: the majority of educated Christians consider it hogwash more fervently than you think the same for the theory of evolution.

I refer to what I just wrote about intelligent design when I claim a hypothesis that accounts for anything (like YEC) is a very poor hypothesis. All evidences can be made to support it, and since none can be falsified, we come no closer to learning what the real explanation is.

Rhology disagrees that this is a weakness, apparently.

He also disagrees that an argument in this form is valid:

1. As we delve deeper into the fossil record, the fossils we find are less and less complex.
2. Therefore, as time progressed further, the animals represented by the fossils went from less to more complex. (Please note - This trend is generally true, although since less-complex and more-complex organisms have always existed at the same time, it is not an absolute truth that less complex fossils preceed more complex ones. Similarly, many species have led long lives. Thus, we find fossils of successful organisms extending deep back into the fossil record).

This is, as Rhology wrote, an unimpressive assumption.

Forensic science and lab science:

Forensic science involves gathering and documenting facts, testing evidences in laboratory settings, and formulating naturalistic theories about what happened in the past. For some elucidation, my post Forensics and Evolutionary Theory may equip you with a more thorough understanding of how these are related.

Theories about evolutionary ancestry and abiogenesis work exactly the same way. Without resorting to *mere* speculation, scientists can gather and document facts, test evidences in laboratory settings, and formulate naturalistic theories about what happened in the past. Forensic science, like evolutionary science and abiogenesis, is indeed repeatable, even if history is not.

Fossils have stories to tell, as I would have Rhology believe. His stance in the comment I'm responding to suggests he thinks of fossils as mere dusty bones. However, fossils have growth rings. We can know how old the individual was. We can know if a dinosaur got in a fight and broke or fractured a bone. We can learn how it healed - or didn't - we can learn how long a body was exposed before being buried (by the marks scavengers left behind), we can learn about its environment (based on how it was buried), we can learn about where it lived (based on whereabouts we find it). We can know how long its kind lived (based on which parts of the fossil record the bones occur in).

Whatever the weaknesses of cladistics may be - we can tell how closely a fossil is related to other ancient species (or living ones) based on similarities. These are the same similarities and differences we use to classify animals today. These things are screamingly obvious to anybody who was once a boy with paleontology aspirations - but apparently not to Rho. If there is anything unclear about why fossil bones are not blank and unresponsive; but rather filled with useful information, tell me.

Closing comment:

I must admit I am a little confused by Rhology's final words to me in his comment: He said he felt overwhelmed "Only by your faith. I'll say this - you make me a little embarrassed that I don't believe as fervently in my religion as you do in yours!"

Often, Rhology and I differ in our definitions. At references to my personal "faith" and/or "religion," my response leans toward a burst of laughter. Still, I should let him clarify. Religion is, to me (and to dictionary.com) "a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects... usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

I cling to no such thing. I look forward to Rhology's response.


Rhology said...

Oof, I look fwd to when I might have time to respond.

I'll try to make it a priority, though. Talk to you kind of soon.

B H said...

Some great points. You must have a lot of patience to tackle some of the comments you did.

As much as some of us like to rave about simplicity in the natural world, I think the value in simple explanations gets oversold to the public - which is particularly troublesome because of the different ways we define "simple". Using God's motives was a good way to show the complexity without getting into the mess Dawkins always finds himself in ("but our God isn't complex, He's really quit simple!").

As for the limits of science and creationism, I too find it frustrating when we're told on the one hand that science can't hope to weigh in on religious claims but on the other hand that the natural world is proof of some god's existence. Either we can gain knowledge about the "intelligent designer" from the physical universe or we can't.

G-man said...

Well, as J.D. from Scrubs tells us, sometimes all you can do is put together a bunch of old words and hope they say something new.

I sure hope to avoid the kind of mess Dawkins et al seem to get in! It is part that - and part a genuine lack of interest - that has kept me from reading any Dawkins, Harris, Dennet or Hitchens. In the end, I'll find out how good my points were when Rhology responds.

Rhology said...

It is part that - and part a genuine lack of interest - that has kept me from reading any Dawkins, Harris, Dennet or Hitchens.

That, and presumably a better taste in reading material than some...

Still waiting for a time slot to open up. :-(

Rhology said...

Let the conversation continue.

G-man said...

My response to Rhology's blog post follows:

Remarkable. It's difficult to think of how to reply to such a jumble. I guess a jumble is what happens when people try to discuss so many topics at once.

I think your example is a flawed idea. You have agreed with me on more than one occasion that science does/should only concern itself with natural phenomena - even that it must assume that a natural explanation exists in order to function properly.

In that case, this is the role/bound of science concerning the "resurrection" of Jesus: The topic doesn't exist. "Resurrection" + "Human being" = "Nonsense." I'm not making a claim about the resurrection here - just pointing out that it's another example of where science has nothing to say about the supernatural, except that it fails if it assumes a supernatural explanation for phenomena exists.

However, many people believe a phenomenon occurred: a human being rose from the dead. It is definitely within the realm of science to investigate what really happened and why gullible human brains have accepted it as truth - just as gullible human brains now believe there is a mile long, half-mile wide UFO flying over Texas.

If people assume a natural (a reasonable natural, even) explanation exists in both these cases, science can at least aid in figuring it out.

Science and God

Perhaps we agree that this "scientism" is incorrect. However, the question is not some *percentage* of truths science can uncover. It is the question of which truths science is best equipped to uncover, and that is what makes it so important.

Now - it seems to me you have admitted that a scientific approach to phenomena (including the existence of the universe, life on earth etc) demands investigating natural explanations. Superstition - sorry, I mean Biblical accounts - is necessarily ruled out.

Trusting science

Ok, I can move on. You seem to be saying that your trust in the Bible has a parallel to my trust in the findings of people using the scientific method. That's interesting, considering the time-tested tradition where superstitious, Bible-based theories (like that classic exegesis where Earth is the center of the universe) are replaced by scientific explanations that we discover were, in fact, the correct ones.

Bear in mind, Rhology, that at any point, any one of those (correct) naturalistic explanations discovered by science (like germ theory, atomic theory etc) could be argued against with the same success Creationists and ID'ers have had in taking their stances.

That's why I trust science more than religion. Scientific discoveries and conclusions can actually be falsified. Nothing can falsify somebody sitting on a Bible.

I must digress: Murders are sometimes performed by rare bizarre natural accidents? You've lost me here, Rho.

"This is a terrible example since it's not under dispute."

...No, the reason it is a good example is precisely because it is not under dispute. I want to use a non-disputed topic (something on which we agree) to make a point about its similarity to something we disagree on.

To reiterate my point: We have always found, in the past, that seeking a natural explanation for a murder mystery - by using the scientific method - routinely aids us in finding a real human cause.

For anyone to disrupt the forensics team by upbraiding them for ignoring supernatural explanations... well, that would severely hinder the very good work the team could be doing. In the same way, the persistent nagging of a motley group of people who produce negative work (rather than positing helpful hypotheses that can be tested) to try to discredit real scientists... well, these ID'ers and Creationists aren't doing anybody any good.

Re: Alchemy. The amazing part is that you didn't grasp the difference, Rho. We have, currently, the tools it takes to show alchemy to be invalid. We do not have enough knowledge about the early earth to be able to invalidate abiogenesis.

"A naturalistic theory of origins is alchemy"

Look Rho, to get gold from tin one would have to fundamentally alter the elements - in effect, removing the tin and replacing it with gold (which is not the same of actually making the tin *become* gold).

Abiogenesis is not the same. With abiogenesis we are talking about a process - following a trail of breadcrumbs, in a sense - which shows that under certain conditions, certain chemicals produce certain amino acids, which can become RNA, DNA and eventually a hugely simple version of what we might call "life."

Remember that a thing and its converse are not necessarily opposite. "Blue" and "not-blue" are not opposite values.

"Life" is a word used to describe a lot. Life describes everything from single-celled organisms to elephants to viruses. What qualifies something as "life" has a short duration - such things die eventually. Life and non-life are not opposite values as much as they are, perhaps, shades on a gradient.

"Looked over your link. Pathetic."

Really? How many of the entries did you read? All 17? And yes of course this site assumes it can happen: abiogenesis is a scientific theory backed by evidence, and is currently the best naturalistic theory we have for the origins of life.

"here you posit that randomness can become complex, specified order, just given enough time."

Umm, duh. Pour a bunch of water randomly into a trough, and then open up a little hole in the bottom. You'll find that a very orderly whirlpool emerges. Energy, time, and conditions can certainly cause specified order to emerge from randomness.

"Intelligent" Design

The problem is not with identifying the designer or not. The problem is with identifying the marks of design. Since a designer could, theoretically, have the personality of a small child smearing paint on a canvas, or MC Escher trying to create paradoxes, or Picasso creating something or other... what possible wild assumption is it that "complexity" or any such trait would be the sign of an intelligent designer?

Any and all facts - each.and.every.fact. - can be said to be "evidence" for a designer. Nothing can falsify these claims (just like today's ID'ers could argue 'no, the designer could have made things that look like germs, sickness is certainly caused by something else' to reject germ theory).

Its vagueness is its weakness.

As I said, "A hypothesis that is supported by every potential evidence does not help us narrow down what the real explanation might be."

PS irreducible complexity is a bunk idea and was already disproved/discredited before it even made the writings of famous Creationists. So yes, that particular claim is falsifiable (and has been falsified), but that does not make the overall hypothesis of ID falsifiable. Please recall that applying a trait of a subset and assuming it applies to the whole thing is a logical fallacy.

"And natural selection is much better described as a hypothesis that is supported by every potential evidence."

The Triablogue author seems to have trouble grasping concepts. If someone were to explain to him why natural selection is a deterministic process AND YET chance plays a role in environmental factors (earthquakes, floods etc) ...and that these are not contradictory ideas, he'd sound a lot smarter.

Occam's Razor:

Very well - there are a few coincidences required for my worldview. Maybe 1 or 2, if I had to guess. Otherwise, everything is virtually inevitable.

However, the "God" explanation is STILL more complex. Not only are you proposing that an entire level of reality exists, in order to support your claim, and that this reality is invisible and untestable (starting to sound like Scientology's Thetans already)...

...you must also account for how an intelligence exists without a brain, for example. How does that work? How, also, does this spiritual reality interact with matter? There is an entire level of complexity that one or two coincidences does not even begin to approach.

Evolution and mutation:

I'm really glad to continue this part of the conversation, because you were so demonstrably wrong and I can actually feel like I'm making progress :)

"And it's never been observed to turn one kind of organism into another kind."

If you'd bothered to read the link that said that speciation has been observed, you'd have found that you're wrong.

I'd like to draw a new analogy, which is quite simple: a person taking steps in sand. Right now, we observe a person taking small steps forward. Despite strict and constant observation, we have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for him to reverse his steps or to come to a stop. He is traveling from A to B, and Rhology says he will not arrive at B. Why? Because the Bible says so.

Truth is, Rho, we can observe his footprints. Even if he took those steps before we were observing him, the footprints are still there, showing us that he has progressed from a different A to a different B before.

In case you're much more dull than I think you are, I'll elaborate. An accumulation of genetic changes, which cannot, to our knowledge, be stopped or reversed, lends credibility to our theory that given enough time, a species can go from A to B.

We've seen that it can in modern examples (check out that link), and we've seen through footprints (fossils) that it has happened in the past.

So the current theory - the one that best explains observable phenomena through observable evidence - is the theory of evolution. Macro-evolution, even.

Until somebody comes up with a theory for how the symbolic man can be stopped from traveling from A to B, especially when we know he has traveled from different A's to different B's before, it's a pretty dumb stance to deny evolution.

"you naturalists generally give the all-clear for murdering babies"

Harsh, Rho, that's just harsh. Should I prepare to give you the statistics on the personal faith of the people who get the highest percent of abortions by far? I won't name any names (*cough* Christians).

And by the way, there is a word for baby, and a word for fetus. Of course, you probably think that means the two are opposite values from the way you've tried to link alchemy with abiogenesis, but they're really just different things. The key distinctions between a baby and a fetus are what makes abortion NOT murder of babies. But I digress.

"Great, that's just wonderful. Now provide some evidence that they cease being MICE at some point."

I don't need to! It simply follows from the premises.

Look, take a bag of blue marbles and replace one blue with one yellow. Keep going. Every now and then, use a green instead of a yellow (to represent a bad mutation), but then remove it. Eventually, unless you can propose a mechanism to reverse the process and replace the blue marbles, you will end up with a bag of yellow marbles.

Now, what exactly makes that such a leap? It seems pretty intuitive.

"DNA is a volume of information on how to build an organism that is not just a mass of useless tissue. You assume that this developed from unordered randomness."

Ah, thanks for the explanation. I think the analogy people have drawn between DNA and information has gotten to your head. DNA is just matter. It is matter that works in a particular way, determining the genetic makeup of... whatever.

Information generally implies meaning. If I read an instruction manual in Japanese, I am not being informed. DNA is just matter doing what matter does when it's DNA. The water cycle works in a particular manner, but it is - again - just matter doing what matter does.

Alright, I don't need to read Gee's book to know that you're either coming to false conclusions about what he wrote, or that he's wrong. There is a lot that can be learned from fossils, including when the animal lived, how old it was (juvenile fossils exhibit the same traits today as they did back then - proximity to nests, smaller bones etc) and a long list of other things. Since his book has received positive comments from what seem to be good sources, my conclusion is that you've misread.

For my own conclusion: Science looks for natural explanations for physical phenomena. The existence of life, the development of life and the existence of the universe are physical phenomena. Given the track record of the scientific method - discovering a true explanation for phenomena that has replaced superstitious explanations, even though superstitious explanations can always be supported by their proponents with just as much strength as modern IDers and Creationists do - Yes, I believe science is our best bet for learning the true explanations of even the more mysterious phenomena.

The overall alchemy analogy is silly. With energy, order can easily come from non-order; life from non-life. Since we know an unobstructed line from A to B will, with enough time, inevitably arrive at B, we know birds could theoretically develop from dinosaur-like animals (not lizards).

The same sort of propaganda machine that forced Galileo to recant is more than powerful enough to convince Rhology that naturalism is a "bizarre doctrine."

Time will tell if the repeated success of science at explaining the world is repeated once more. Time will tell if A progresses to B or if the world is willing to sink into scripture-fed intellectual darkness because the Bible says it does not.

Rhology said...

I responded. :-)

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