Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Observation on Evolution Debates

Note: Some of this was written as if addressing a creationist. 

Charles Darwin, author of Origin of Species, is NOT the only scientist ever to study evolution.
Whether evolution is valid or not isn't really a question which anyone is going to prove as laymen in an Internet debate. The real issue here is who should we trust for an understanding of the world. I've been debating with evolution deniers first several months now, and I have yet to meet one who can actually explain with the claims of evolution actually are. The "Evolution" being rejected is not actually evolution, but a strawman presented by preachers in an attempt to discredit science.

I accept the consensus conclusion of tens of thousands of independent international scientists around the world. These scientists actually studied evidence from many different disciplines, to include:

  • Radioisotope dating
  • DNA comparisons on living species
  • Morphological comparisons of living animals 
  • Morphological comparisons of embryonic development
  • Detailed catalogs of skeletal evolution, including temporal information from radioisotope dating, geographic information which shows the moron of the species, and eventually modern day ancestors of the skeletal remains. 
As a scientist, I seek out criticism of my work. Peer review is there to ensure I'm not reaching conclusions that are unsupported by the evidence or misinterpreting evidence that I've reviewed. Carefully criticizing my peer's work is one of my responsibilities — essentially, looking for potential holes or gaps in my case. That's how science works.

Authority is not worth much in science. A famous scientist may get more frequent invitations to be the keynote speaker, but her academic presentations and papers must continue to stand on their own merits. In fact, many audience members or paper reviewers become more critical for a famous scientist's work out of a desire to appear smarter. 

When a creationist claims the mainstream scientific consensus is wrong, they're essentially claiming that the scientific process has not only failed, but that it continues to fail. And it does this not for a single research laboratory, but for the entire biological and paleontological branches of science. That the scientists who have dedicated their lives to the careful study of a narrow aspect of biology or paleontology is somehow fatally flawed. That gaps and erroneous assumptions have somehow gone undetected. And if that isn't absurd enough, these gaps and flaws must persist across the study of many different species, by scientists from many different institutions and countries.

phylogenetic tree of life, showing the relationship between species whose genomes had been sequenced as of 2006. The very center represents the last universal ancestor of all life on earth. Note the presence of Homo sapiens (humans) second from the rightmost edge of the pink segment.
The sheer magnitude and absurdity of this claim of scientific community ineptitude is difficult to grasp.  The figure at right is a dramatically simplified view of the tree of life as determined by sequencing modern genomes. While consolidating this information and constructing the tree via statistical analysis may have been the work of a couple teams of scientists, the supporting collection of evidence and extraction of genetic data was supported by many different scientific teams.  Though the branches in this figure are developed by statistical clustering models (likely k-means), they match the branches of phylogenetic classification of modern species and fossil records. Independently, either one of these two approaches to classification of species is compelling evidence for evolution. Taken together, with the understanding that they agree, is overwhelming evidence. If a god created these creatures as we see them, it must be a trickster god, trying to deceive us into believing evolution. 

I'm not able to conceive of a means by which this could happen.There are clearly smart people working at ICR and AiG to attempt to discredit the theory. Rather than starting with the evidence and considering several possible conclusions, these "scientists" start with their conclusion (biblical "Truth™") and work to find confirmation for it in the observable world. This approach is fundamentally dishonest. Yet their work has had little or no impact on biology or geology. Their findings are reviewed and dismissed as invalid or irrelevant. If there were valid points to their claims, they would be recognized by a the scientific community.


  1. By Ivica Letunic: Iletunic. Retraced by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal: LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
    Caption: phylogenetic tree of life, showing the relationship between species whose genomes had been sequenced as of 2006. The very center represents the last universal ancestor of all life on earth. The different colors represent the three domains of life: pink represents eukaryota (animals, plants and fungi); blue represents bacteria; and green represents archaea. Note the presence of Homo sapiens(humans) second from the rightmost edge of the pink segment. The light and dark bands along the edge correspond to clades: the rightmost light red band is Metazoa, with dark red Ascomycota to its left, and light blue Firmicutes to its right.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Response To: Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God

The Original Article

This was written in response to my dad, who as a Presbyterian Christian shared Eric Metaxas’s article from the Christmas WSJ Op-Ed page. Dad and I haven’t really discussed religion much since he found I’m an atheist. He is the treasurer and has served as a deacon in our church.
Eric Metaxas
Dec. 25, 2014 4:56 p.m. ET

My Response:


I hope you're feeling better.  We were all sad that we didn't get to see you and mom this weekend.

I also hope you wanted an honest and thoughtful response to the article you sent. I've taken an interest in philosophical debates over the last year or two, so I'm quite familiar with this particular style of god claim, as it's in fashion right now.  I'm happy to have these discussions any time.  Here's a sampling of my current thinking on this subject.  I'm sharing my thoughts and opinions on the article, which aren't going to be supportive. Keep in mind that I'm criticizing the article here, not you.  I'll do my best to be respectful to Mr. Metaxas, but I think he's been sloppy in his argument and in the claims he makes.

For starters, the headline is just plain wrong, and striking in its ignorance of the scientific method.  It's common to have flashy headlines in the media, so it's not surprising.   Nevertheless, science most certainly does not "Make the Case for God", and I'm not sure how to restructure the scientific process such that it actually could make such a case.  Science deals with the construction of models which accurately predict the observable behavior of the natural world around us.  To do this, science requires verifiable, repeatable experimentation to demonstrate the validity of clearly stated, falsifiable hypotheses.  Theistic claims of a god generally place the god in a nebulous "super-natural" or "spiritual" realm which is firmly outside any ability to test and validate. By definition, this is outside the realm of science. Furthermore, as an intelligent agent, a god with "the omni's" (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence) would not follow pre-definable orderly rules we seek to establish with science. As far as I know, there's no reasonable way to study any god claim using science.

In his article, Mr. Metaxas lays out a well known philosophical argument for the existence of god.  The fact that the philosophical argument cites science as its evidence doesn't make it scientific.  There is no "god hypothesis" presented, much less actually tested.  The particular philosophical argument is in the category of "Fine Tuning" or Teleological arguments for the existence of God. The teleological argument on physical constants is one of the best arguments I've ever seen for the existence of God.

Hardly any cosmology scholars are making teleological claims of god's existence as the author seems to want his readers to think.  This sort of claim comes from Christian (and Muslim) apologists. I've studied the teleological argument and I find it unconvincing for several reasons.  I'll outline the four biggies here:
  1. At its core, it uses what's called an argument from ignorance fallacy. The argument from ignorance fallacy is when a debater (A) claims that his opponent (B) doesn't know the answer but Aclaims to know the answer, therefore A is right.  In this case, the statement goes, "We don't know why these constants are balanced, but our religion claims God did it, so our religious dogma must be true."  To see just how absurd this debate technique is, notice that the argument works equally well for any conceivable creation myth: a creator pixie; the Aboriginal Rainbow Serpent; or the classic modern parody, Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    • Aside: The fact that there are aspects of the laws of nature that we don't yet understand never implies that any god did it. This is called "God of the Gaps". It's an attempt to spread the deity / deities into the ever-shrinking bits of the natural world we don't yet fully understand. We no longer need Ra, Apollo, or Helios to explain why the sun moves across the sky each day, or Zeus to explain lightning, or Poseidon to explain storms at sea. God of the gaps is asymptotically approaching zero.
  2. The teleological argument is often presented as an argument for the Christian or Muslim model of an intervening (or theistic) God. In the cosmological constant form, it's AT BEST, a argument for deism, not theism — an intelligent "first cause" with no demonstrable continuing affinity towards humanity, and certainly no "personal relationships" as the Christian and Muslim traditions teach.
  3. The argument fails to address the elementary "what created God?" Question. At it's core, this argument implies that the things around us (e.g. cosmological constants) appear to be "designed", so they must have a designer. But surely such a designer must be even more complex than the thing it designed. Why then do we not insist on a second designer to design that first designer?  Apologists, and indeed most Christians I know, get around this by something called "special pleading" – the assertion that we should make a special case for God that they refuse to grant for the universe. Namely, that a complex, all-powerful god could simply exist without needing a cause. Yet for some reason, the universe and all the things within it cannot.  Without special pleading, the intelligent creator deity requires his own creator, which requires a creator, and so on to infinity.
  4. The teleological generally starts from the foundational assumption that humans are the ultimate "goal" of the universe, a strikingly arrogant position in my opinion. This is a problem for all religious apologetics I've seen. As a human, it's tempting to to take this position.  After all, it makes me feel special. But on the spatial and temporal scales of the universe, our entire species is insignificant, so we're left to assume that the universe was made just for us?  Seems like an tremendous waste of effort -- particularly the meteors and inescapable eventual destruction of our sun.  
Very few modern cosmologists consider these numbers evidence for God in the way that the article seems to suggest. There are several potential mechanisms whereby these constants could be "tuned" without an intelligence. The Multiverse is one. Very long time scales is another. There are not any fundamental problems with our understanding of the universe that ONLY a god could explain.

In my opinion, these sorts of articles, and apologetics in general, serves only to help believers feel more justified in their beliefs by giving the appearance of a solid foundation for religious beliefs where there is actually none to be had. The argument makes brilliant sense if you read it starting with the assumption that an intelligent creator god exists.  But it doesn't actually provide any clear or compelling evidence that such a creator deity exists in the first place, much less indication of what properties such a deity would possess.  So the honest truth is that:
  • We don't (yet) know why the physical constants are balanced, but that doesn't mean a god did it.
  • We have no way to determine how likely it is that they would be balanced, but even if it's extremely unlikely, that doesn't mean a god did it.
In the end, religion is based on faith. There is not, nor will there likely ever be any "proof". Until such a time, I remain very skeptical.  But I'm always happy to discuss. I'd like to know if I'm wrong, and I'm not going to find that by navel gazing.

With Love,
  • Me