Posts Tagged ‘natural selection’

David Robertson’s Fleabytes: On Science and Faith

13/11/2010

manicstreetpreacher is back.  Yeah, baby!

Hello again the blogosphere!  It has been a good few months since my last post ruminating on my blogging burnout, but the manicstreetpreacher has psychologically recovered more or less and the iconoclastic fire is beginning to burn again in his soul.

I have been tempted to blog on a number of topics in my time away, but after 119 posts and innumerable hours on other blogs and debate forums, I was beginning run out of topics to write about and nothing was exciting me anymore.  However, one area that has escaped my net thus far is the question of religious education of children.  With this post, I kill two birds with one stone by blogging on a previously untouched topic and taking a pop at an old adversary.

Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland, Dundee is an ardent opponent of the New Atheism and author of The Dawkins Letters: Challenging Atheist Myths, a Christian response to Richard Dawkins’ 2006 anti-religious polemic, The God Delusion.

After hearing his first two appearances on Premier Christian Radio’s sceptics’ debate show, Unbelievable? I penned a vitriolic open letter and had an exchange of emails that turned from rather angry to really quite civilised before finally debating him in September 2009 on the show on religious debate online and whether Europe should be atheist or Christian along with Christian convert, Richard Morgan.

During my sabbatical I have been following Robertson’s own blog and in particular his “Fleabytes” series of YouTube videos in reply to Dawkins’ Channel 4 series, Root of All Evil? (Google Video links: Part I / Part II).

I registered for a user account with the St Peter’s Church website under my usual Internet moniker so that I could post replies to these videos, but my application was not approved.  I was not provided with an explanation, despite emailing the site’s administrator, copying in Robertson himself to that email.

Since I have not been allowed to post on Robertson’s website directly, below is a copy of the reply I had intended to post:

Dear David

I have been watching these instalments with fascination.  If you really believe that Christian faith is based on evidence and – as you state quite categorically in your book – the moment that evidence is disproved you will cease to believe, then I take it you must teach the young members of your congregation to think about the things that ought to make them stop believing in Christianity.

Some religious people claim that trust in science and particular Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as much a faith claim as belief in a personal creator God.  I must point out to you that science is self-validating and scientists are constantly striving to prove each other wrong, and even themselves wrong.  Stephen Hawking jokes that he became famous for proving that the universe and space time began with a singularity known as the “Big Bang” and then he became famous again for proving that the universe and space time didn’t begin with the Big Bang.

While I appreciate that you “don’t know and don’t care” about the scientific truth of evolution (while still ridiculing Richard Dawkins’ main argument in The God Delusion as amounting to nothing more than “evolution is true, therefore God does not exist” and asserting that Darwin’s idea of “favoured races” inspired Hitler’s eugenics and Stalin’s atrocities with the other side of your face), Darwin in fact dedicated an entire chapter in The Origins of Species discussing the potential problems with his theory and stated in no uncertain terms what would be required to disprove it:

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.

As you can see, Darwin is explicating laying down the gauntlet to his opponents and saying “Come and have a go if you think you’re smart enough”, and even providing them with the weapons to defeat him.  Over 150 years later, no one has managed to do so.

Continuing is this vein of self-scrutiny and the constant quest for falsification, I expect you provide the children in your congregation with the tools to examine critically their Christian faith.  For example, they ought to consider whether:

  1. an all-good, all-loving God would be so intent on remaining hidden from his treasured creations.  After all, it has been said that the invisible and the non-existent look very similar.
  2. there is any more evidence to support the Gospels’ account of Christ’s resurrection than Almighty Zeus sending his only begotten son Perseus to Earth to wield his big, strong weapon to slay Medusa and rid humanity of the Kraken.  If you can’t believe what you saw this morning on a bastion of daily journalism such as Sky News, how can you accept something that was written two-three thousand years ago by people who were primitive by our standards, decades after the events they purport to describe and copied and recopied by scribes who were careless or grinding their own theological axes?
  3. all New Testament scholars see the basic Gospel narratives as an accurate depiction of history.  For example, Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version describes Luke’s nativity as “historically impossible and internally incoherent”, particularly in relation to the apparent fabrication of a Roman census that had the onerous requirement for the population to return to their town of origin.
  4. the miracles of Jesus reported in a two thousand year old text are any more believable than those allegedly performed by today’s charlatan gurus and mystics that are testified as authentic by thousands upon thousands of devoted followers – including many Western educated people – and available to view on the modern miracle of YouTube.
  5. there is any evidence outside the text to confirm the events of the Old Testament, in particular the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  Biblical “maximalists” such as James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen are satisfied that the  stories of Moses and Joshua are historically accurate, however, “minimalists” such Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman have declared that there is no corroborating evidence whatsoever for these stories and have consigned them to the same mythical status as Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  How come we do not see such disagreements in relation to other historical characters such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan?
  6. double-blind controlled experiments on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer show that Christian prayers have an objectively higher success rate than those of other religions.
  7. one child being plucked from the sea following a plane crash that killed 153 really constitutes a divine miracle as the girl’s family claimed.
  8. if there is a divine link between morality and metrology, as the then Bishop of Carlisle pronounced in July 2007 blaming the recent floods in Northern Yorkshire on gay marriage, then why don’t we see a few more tidal waves crashing down the centre of Manchester’s Canal Street during Pride?
  9. regardless of whether the resurrection is an historical fact, the Pope is morally right to go to sub-Saharan Africa, where 2 – 3 million people die of HIV/AIDS in any one year and actually say words to the effect, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.
  10. they ought to view programmes like Root of All Evil? and read books like The God Delusion for themselves without any prior input from your good self, their religious parents or school teachers.

Please understand that I am not claiming that I hold the correct view on any of these issues; I am merely advocating them as food for thought for you and your flock.  I therefore look forward to the fly-on-wall episode showing one of your Sunday school classes discussing these very points.

With best wishes for Christmas and 2011 to you, your family and your congregation

manicstreetpreacher

Answers in Genesis: Creationist arguments not to use

28/05/2010

manicstreetpreacher presents the sole example of Young Earth Creationists talking sense.

Ken Ham, the head of global Young Earth Creationist racket, Answer in Genesis, is not my favourite person in the World and you can witness me lambast him in print and on the air.  However, perhaps he deserves some credit for the section of his website dedicated to forewarning his flock against certain arguments that are so patently false and discredited that their very use seriously harms the YEC case.  For example:

If humans evolved from apes, how come apes still exist?

In an evolutionary worldview, mankind did not evolve from apes but from an apelike ancestor, from which both humans and apes of today supposedly evolved.

There are no beneficial mutations:

Keep in mind that beneficial, information-gaining mutations are a necessary mechanism of molecules-to-man evolution, so focusing on any potential for this is essential for evolutionists.  What doesn’t seem to be often addressed is the vast amount of data to the contrary.  But even if there were a clearly beneficial mutation, this would by no means “prove” the mechanism for evolution (for one thing, beneficial, information-gaining mutations would have to be a regularly occurring phenomenon and would have to “build” on previous mutations so as not to be “undone” and to keep the evolution going “uphill”), nor negate the truth of God’s revelation of His Creation in Genesis.

Darwin recanted on his deathbed:

Beyond these denials, if the tale were true, why did Darwin’s wife Emma not rejoice in this?  She was always troubled by what she perceived as the godless nature of his views.  If he indeed repented, why did she not make this known? Also, if the story were credible, why did Lady Hope wait 33 years before relating it, and even then, relating it in a country across the ocean?

Given the weight of evidence, it must be concluded that Lady Hope’s story is unsupportable, even if she did actually visit Darwin.  He never became a Christian, and he never renounced evolution.  As much as we would like to believe that he died with a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, it is much more likely that he didn’t.  It is unfortunate that the story continues to be promoted by many sincere people who use this in an effort to discredit evolution when many other great arguments exist, including the greatest: the Bible.

Old Testament stories have been confirmed by modern day archaeology:

There is little doubt that the genuine discovery of certain objects would be both exciting and a powerful witness to the truth of the biblical record.  However, we need to be careful not to become like some medieval pilgrims, keen to have relics to supplement (or supplant) the worship of the living God.  Christ actually taught that if people did not listen to ‘Moses and the prophets,’ then neither would something as spectacular as someone rising from the dead convince them (Luke 16).

No doubt such fanciful claims as discussed here will always be with us, made by those seeking either [sic] profit, fame, the fulfilment of some deep psychological needs, or any combination of these.  The ‘discoverers’ will often appear completely sincere, saying all the ‘right Christian things.’  Perhaps at some point they have even persuaded themselves.

The Bible does not say we should ‘believe all things,’ but rather that we should ‘prove all things’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21).  Neither does it encourage a gullible approach toward those claiming the name of Christ.  Rather, it warns about wolves among the flock, and also teaches that the heart of man is deceitful and depraved (Jeremiah 17:9).

As in other areas, extraordinary claims carry an extraordinary burden of proof. There is already a huge amount of archaeological and other evidence consistent with the truth of the Bible.  Bible-believing experts exist in many fields, such as the archaeologist author of our article on Jericho (The walls of Jericho).  They are always glad to assess and publicise actual evidence of genuine finds (there have been many over the years) supporting the historicity of the Bible.

No new species have been produced:

All of these animals’ ancestors – horses, donkey, zebras, tigers, lions, whales, and dolphins – were created with genetic diversity.  Through time the processes of natural selection, mutation, and other mechanisms have altered that original information (decreased or degenerated) to give us even more variation within a kind.  Great variety can be observed in the offspring of animals of the same kind, just as the same cake recipe can be used to make many different cakes with various flavours and colours.  Hybrids have a portion of the same genetic information as their parents but combined in a unique way to give a very unique looking animal.  What an amazing diversity of life God has created for us to enjoy!

While it’s a pity that AiG don’t examine all of their claims in such an objective and sober light (then again, I supposed they’d be putting themselves out of business!), this is a breath of fresh air from an unexpected source.  However, I am still dismayed that I continue to encounter many of these arguments both online and in public debate.  What does it say about the “rationality” of religious faith when its adherents still use arguments that one of the most notorious fundamentalist organisations on the planet has consigned to the third circle of hell?

Richard Dawkins on David Berlinski

09/04/2010

DawkinsBerlinski

manicstreetpreacher presents the damning verdict on a pseudo-intellectual by a genuine one.

Further to my recent series of posts on the Intelligent Design creationist propaganda piece Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Mike Godfrey over at God3’s Blog quotes one of the film’s participants, David Berlinski.  In his response to the New Atheism, The Devil’s Delusion, Berlinski, a supposedly secular Jew, writes on the crimes of so-called atheist totalitarianisms in the 20th century:

Dawkins is prepared to acknowledge the facts while denying their significance.  Neither the Nazis nor the Communists, he affirms, acted because of their atheism. They were simply keen to kill a great many people. Atheism had nothing to do with it.  They might well have been Christian Scientists.

In the early days of the German advance into Eastern Europe, before the possibility of Soviet retribution even entered their untroubled imagination, Nazi extermination squads would sweep into villages, and after forcing the villagers to dig their own graves, murder their victims with machine guns.  On one such occasion somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave.

Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner.  “God is watching what you are doing,” he said.

And then he was shot dead.

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.

That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

I can only assume that Berlinski had forgotten about the events of September 11, 2001 when he was writing this passage.  This was an outrage carried out by people who were thinking only too much of what heaven would think of them.  Hopefully, the more recent events on the Moscow tube will jog his memory.

Appealing to authority and credential inflation are common tactics of creationists and Intelligent Design proponents.  Expelled’s host, Ben Stein, went to great lengths to hold out Berlinski as an example of a smart guy who believed in Intelligent Design in order to give it some credibility.  However, all Berlinski succeeded in doing was to be a particularly obnoxious and unlikeable character, saying that Richard Dawkins is “a crummy philosopher” and “a little bit of a reptile”.

In an article reminiscing on an infamous book review for The New York Times in 1989 where he wrote, “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that),” Dawkins had this to say about Berlinski:

Are there, then, any examples of anti-evolution poseurs who are not ignorant, stupid or insane, and who might be genuine candidates for the wicked category?  I once shared a platform with someone called David Berlinski, who is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.  He denies that he is a creationist, but claims strong scientific arguments against evolution (which disappointingly turn out to be the same old creationist arguments).  Together with the great John Maynard Smith and others, he and I were guest speakers at a debate organized by a prominent Oxford rabbi.  Maynard Smith spoke after Berlinski and, not surprisingly, he soon had the audience roaring with laughter as he lampooned Berlinski’s bad arguments.  But what amused me was Berlinski’s tactic for dealing with this mocking laughter.  He sprang to his feet, held up a reproachful open palm towards the audience, and said (approximately of course, I can’t remember the exact words): “No no!  Don’t laugh.  Let Maynard Smith have his say!  It’s only fair!”  Happily, the Oxford audience saw through this tactic of pretending to think the audience were laughing at Maynard Smith rather than with him.  And the rabbi, himself a devout creationist, afterwards told me he had been shocked at Berlinski’s duplicity.  By itself, this is too trivial an example to deserve the name wicked.  But it did make me wonder about Berlinski’s motives.  As I said, he is certainly not ignorant, stupid or insane.

After witnessing his performance in Expelled, Dawkins’ assessment of Berlinski is borne out all too well.

Craig –v- Hitchens: Fourth Thoughts – Sleepless in Biola

06/04/2010

The third and final part (Part I / Part II) of manicstreetpreacher’s reassessment of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against William Lane Craig will examine the “emotional blackmail factor” that pervades Dr Craig’s case for the Almighty.

When Craig is not appealing to flawed logic, he appeals to common sense and inner feelings to guilt trip his audiences into accepting his arguments as this last post will demonstrate.

Argument from objective morality

After name-dropping atheist philosophers like Michael Ruse who contend that morality is just a by-product of evolution and universal norms such as the wrongness of rape and torturing children have no deeper meaning than assisting our survival, Craig argued that human morality is objective and therefore must come from God with nothing more than “the problem is that objective moral values do exist and deep down we all know it” to back it up.  As he phrases it:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore God exists.

Both of Craig’s premises are flawed, so his conclusion is invalid.  Firstly, objective morals could well exist without God.  They could be hardwired into our genes as an evolutionary survival mechanism.  So clearly, Craig’s first premise is incorrect.

However, objective moral values de facto do not exist.  Not everyone has the same moral standards.  Our perception of what is right and wrong have changed over the centuries with Richard Dawkins has termed “the shifting moral Zeitgeist”.  Indeed, practices in other parts of the World today which are considered the height of piety seem barbaric to Westerners.  You only have to look inside the books of our religions and see what these pronouncements mandate to see that this is the case.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the moral argument for God is just rank wishful thinking, (how this differs from all other arguments from God, I am not entirely certain).  Perhaps it would be wonderful if there was a list of rules set in stone somewhere in the metaphysical universe, but I simply don’t see any evidence for it.  We just have to feel our around, sometimes getting it right, sometimes making mistakes, always striving for a state of moral perfection regardless of whether that will ever be achieved in reality.

I really wish that Hitchens had raised Craig’s appalling views on the morality of the God of the Old Testament.  I had been very suspicious of Craig declaring the atrocities of the Israelites’ slaughter of the Canaanites to be off-limits in debates, since it was a question of biblical inerrancy, not whether God existed.  I found my answer in an appalling radio interview and then with an article on Craig’s website which I commented on a few months after the Biola debate in which Craig argued that since God sets down moral values, he can arbitrarily overrule them with the result being that murder, torture and ethical cleansing are suddenly all fine and dandy.  Therefore, the Israelites were acting entirely in accordance with the will of God in exterminating the Canaanites and the Bible’s inerrancy is unaffected.

I won’t repeat my piece here; I suggest that it is read in full, but it is a stunning indictment of the theological mind which totally undermines Craig’s argument from objective morality, since he knows that murder, torture and genocide are wrong independent of God’s commands.  It is also a graphic illustration of Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma”: if God tells you to torture a baby, it becomes morally right and indeed obligatory to torture a baby.

Resurrection of Jesus

A key component in Craig’s argument for the resurrection of Jesus is that his followers would not have believed in a dying and rising Jewish messiah, much less have died for that belief.  For his second rebuttal after cross-examination, a clearly weary Hitchens invoked Tertullian’s maxim credo quia absurdum: “I believe it because it is absurd”.  He recounted his research on Mother Teresa and the circumstances surrounding her thoroughly discredited post-death miracle that will see her canonised by the Vatican and will in fact contribute to the misery and suffering of millions in the Third World by promoting shamanism and devaluing modern medicine.

A fair point, but I have seen Hitchens do much better on the historical Jesus.  Check out these two clips from his debate against D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008 in Las Vegas.

On the historical Jesus and the criterion of embarrassment:

On the virgin birth and potency of the story:

Craig is basing his argument on discredited sources that are self-contradictory, written decades after the events that they purport to describe, copied and re-copied over centuries by fallible scribes with their own theological axes to grind.  And as we shall see in the next section, this is not even the reason why he believes in the resurrection at all.

Argument from personal experience

In his opening speech, Hitchens quoted from two editions of Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, where Craig argues that a person knows that Christianity is true because the “Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit” assures him that it is true.  Whereas reason and evidence can be used to support this proposition they cannot be used to overthrow it.  A person has enough assurances from God with regard to his existence and the consequences that will be metered out for rejecting belief in God are entirely on the shoulders of the non-believer.

Although Craig’s response to this in his first rebuttal was somewhat convoluted, I cannot see how he refuted Hitchens’ interpretation, or even amended it significantly.  According to Craig, all belief in God entails is a warm fuzzy feeling inside that there has to be something more than this veil of tears and all arguments and evidence in support are wholly ancillary.  Atheist theologian Robert Price summed up Craig’s stance perfectly in their 1999 debate on the resurrection:

Dr Craig then freely admits that his conviction arises from purely subjective factors.  To me it sounds no different in principle from the teenage Mormon door-knocker: he tells you that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because he has a warm swelling feeling inside when he asks God if it’s true.

Craig said that Hitchens had to show that he is delusional; otherwise his belief in God through personal experience is still valid.  Again, this is a prime example of Craig placing the burden of proof on his opponent.  Without access to Craig’s medical records (I’ll avoid making the cheap shot that they would make for interesting reading!), this is an impossible task.

Nevertheless, people have all sorts of personal experiences that seem real to them: out of body, alien abduction, near death.  Without any corroborating evidence, the sceptic is perfectly justified in writing them off as deluded, not matter how sincere they are.  Indeed, virtually all of these experiences can be reproduced on subjects in the lab under control conditions.

So what sort of evidence would corroborate personal religious experience?  As Victor Stenger points out in God, The Failed Hypothesis and The New Atheism, perhaps if someone returned from such an experience with some new knowledge in their heads that they could not have otherwise obtained except through the agency of an all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural being.  If Craig really does have a hotline to the Big Guy in the Sky, then I don’t know why he hasn’t found a better way to spend his evenings than arguing with miserable heretics like Hitchens who are all fire-bound anyway.

Perhaps personal experience of God is something I will address in a future post, but for now I’ll direct Craig to Sam Harris’ take on the argument from meaning and purpose with his “Diamond The Size of a Refrigerator Buried in Your Back Yard” Gambit for him to realise what a risible non sequitur his reasoning is.

The last “Hussar!”

The debate moderator, Hugh Hewitt, posed the final question of the evening to Hitchens and asked why there was such a high public demand for debates on the God question at present.  Hitchens’ reply was that he is part of a small group of people who want to take a stand against theocratic bullying from Islamist regimes in the Middle East who are soon to obtain nuclear weaponry, terror attacks against civilian non-combatants by Al-Qaeda, fanatical Jewish settlers stealing land from Palestinians to bring on the Messiah and fundamentalist American Christians who want junk taught in school science classes.   For the first time that evening, Craig had to wait politely as the audience’s applause died down before he could retort.

Hitchens may well have wanted to debate the wrong topic that night.  The New Atheism may well be a form of “village atheism”; hostile to the social effects of religion rather than appreciative of the subtle nuances of theological “scholarship”.  But I’ll conclude these posts with a thought from my original piece after first watching the debate that I definitely stand by:

I could accept every one of Craig’s five arguments; you still have all your work ahead of you convincing me that the Pope, the holder of the keys of St Peter, Christ’s vicar on Earth is objectively moral to go to Africa and say, “AIDS might be bad, but condoms might be worse”.  This is a sinister and immoral aspect to religion that interests me more than the mere existence of God and the truthfulness of the scriptures; one which Hitchens tackles head on, but Craig wilfully evades.

Craig may have won the battle.  But the outcome of the war might not be so rosy for him.

Craig –v- Hitchens: Third Thoughts – Deconstructing William

05/04/2010

manicstreetpreacher’s second out of three posts (Part I / Part III) reassessing Christopher Hitchens’ debate against William Lane Craig discusses the “Rubik’s Cube factor” of Craig’s continually evolving God in the face of objections to design.

As always, Craig started off the debate by presenting his bog-standard five “arguments” that make it seem rational that God exists: origins of the universe, fine-tuning of the universe, existence of objective moral values, resurrection of Jesus Christ and personal experience of God.  In CraigWorld these are so amazingly irrefutable that he has used them in just about every debate for the past 15 years, despite their obvious weaknesses and being corrected ad infinitum by opponents and critics.

However, Craig will still say he has won the debate unless and until his arguments have been “torn down” and “a new set of arguments” put in their place.  Has it ever occurred to Craig that his “arguments” are not worth expending the effort?  After all, you can make a plausible case that the Earth is flat or that the Holocaust never happened if you limit the debate to a narrow set of facts and arguments.

Consider the case of Thomas Aikenhead, a teenage medical student who was the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy in Edinburgh, 1697 for scorning the Holy Trinity as “a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense” and “not worthy of man’s refutation”.  Can’t Craig learn anything from this?

Why resort to “arguments” at all?

Atheists hardly ever raise the argument from hiddenness in a debate, but let’s face it: there is no empirical data whatsoever in support of the existence of God.  The fact that debates have to be held on this question at all has to say a great deal.  If God does exist, why does he choose to remain hidden?  Wouldn’t it just be great if we could see God creating new planets and species in front of eyes rather than just having to makes “inferences to the best explanation”?

Anselm’s Ontological Argument declares by fiat that existence is both a necessary and great-making property and therefore a maximally great being by its very definition must exist in reality.  Fine.  I could engage in the same smart-Alec sophistry by declaring that evidence, proof and certainty beyond reasonable doubt in the minds of all living creatures in the universe are great making properties and therefore by definition such a being does not exist.

Before turning to Craig’s “arguments”, I have previously posted a series of highly amusing and irreverent YouTube videos refuting Craig’s arguments.  Victor Stenger, American atheist physicist, presented plausible rational alternatives to Craig’s supernatural “God of the Gaps” reasoning during their 2003 debate the University of Hawaii.

Cosmological argument

Craig is being flagrantly dishonest by continuing to assert that the universe began to exist with the Big Bang singularity.  Although not on this occasion, Craig has quoted Stephen Hawking as writing, “Almost everyone now believes that the universe and time itself had a beginning at Big Bang.”   However, Hawking and his partner in physics, Roger Penrose, have recanted an earlier thesis when they said that the universe began with the Big Bang singularity.  But hacks like Craig and conservative Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza mine extracts from Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Nature of Space and Time to make it appear that Hawking still believes that the universe began with the Big Bang singularity.

Hawking acknowledges in Brief History, “So in the end our [Hawking and Penrose] work became generally accepted and nowadays nearly everyone assumes that the universe started with a Big Bang singularity.”  However, the very next sentence Hawking writes, “It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account (p. 50).”

In his latest book, The New Atheism,Victor Stenger clarifies:

D’Souza has glanced at A Brief History of Time, mining quotations that seem to confirm his preconceived ideas.  He quotes Hawking as saying, “There must have been a Big Bang singularity.”   D’Souza has lifted it out of context and given it precisely the opposite meaning of what Hawking intended…  Hawking was referring to the calculation he published with Penrose in 1970, and D’Souza cut off the quotation.  This act of editorship makes it look like Hawking is confirming that the Big Bang actually happened when in fact the full quote reveals just the opposite.

Craig’s assertion “out of nothing, nothing comes” is sheer folk wisdom.  We see apparently uncaused events all the time in radioactive decay.   Firstly, Craig ought to have looked at the smoke detectors in the Biola gym and considered when a particular Americium atom decays inside it, what caused one to decay rather than some other one.  The answer is nothing that we know. Secondly, even in a vacuum, virtual particles come into existence all the time and are measurable.  Appealing to “common sense” reasoning when it is at odds with modern physics contradicts is not intellectually honest.

“Is atheism true?”

Craig responds to Hitchens’ speech by saying that he has no positive arguments to show that “atheism is true”.  This is a misrepresentation of the atheist position and part of Craig’s debating trick to shift the burden of proof onto his opponent when he is the one advancing the positive claim.  Atheism is a term devised by the religious to label people who do not share their views.  It is the opinion that theism is untrue since there are no good reasons to believe that God exists.  There is no evidence for God and saying “God did it” in order to explain away the existence of the natural world is no explanation at all.  Craig is asking the impossible by demanding arguments or evidence that God does not exist.

Having loaded the burden of proof onto his opponent’s shoulders, Craig excused himself from having to provide anything like the extraordinary evidence that his extraordinary claims warrant.  He said that he was arguing for the “best explanation of the data”.  But even if the debate were only about inference to the best explanation, Craig has still not provided anything like the level of proof required to discharge his claims.

Craig closed his first rebuttal by saying that all the evidence has been on his side.  He certainly presented reasons to believe, but that does not mean that they were any better than those for Russell’s teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Subsequently, Craig showed that providing evidence against God is pointless, since far from “Christians being able to follow the evidence wherever it leads”, believers can move the characteristics of their God around like a Rubik’s Cube so that God confirms with the empirical data post hoc.  Craig’s responses to Hitchens’ objections to arguments from design proved this in spades.

Teleological argument

In his first rebuttal, Craig quotes Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga and portrays Hitchens’ belief in the scientific truth of evolution by natural selection as a faith-based commitment: atheists are ideologically committed to evolution since as an alternative to God it is the only game in town.  This is a gross misrepresentation.  Believing in evolution is not a faith claim at all, but accepting a coherent scientific hypothesis supported by masses of evidence and one that has survived sustained assaults by creationists.  Even if evolution had not been discovered, or indeed was untrue, this would still not provide one shred of evidence either for design or a designer.

After Hitchens in his opening speech rather beautifully recounted how he had the mitochondria trail of his African Homo sapiens ancestry traced with a DNA swab from his cheek by the National Geographic Genographic Project, Craig employed a ridiculous sound bite about the sheer “improbability” of evolution by natural selection.  This next clip is from a different event, but it is virtually identical to what he said at Biola.

There are two objections to a priori improbability of which Craig has no doubt been informed repeatedly.  Firstly, Craig’s obsession with low probability is irrelevant since improbable events happen every day.  If you crunch the numbers in relation to your own existence (i.e. the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg multiplied by the probability that your parents met, repeating the calculation back until the beginning of time), invariably you will get a fantastically low probability.

Secondly, what is the probability of the supernatural alternative?  What’s the probability that the universe is the product of a divine design?  What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated?  It could be even lower.  And what empirical data do we have to make the calculation at all?  I have never heard an apologist answer these questions and Craig disappointed me yet again at Biola.

Then Craig moved onto Hitchens’ “98,000 Year Wait” Gambit claiming that God’s timing in bringing the Christian revelation to the largest number of people possible was perfect since only 2 percent of humans who have ever lived were born before the year 1AD.  The claim sounded highly dubious.  Sure enough, the report by the Population Reference Bureau to which Craig referred (download PDF) actually shows that at least 47 billion out of the estimated 106 billion people that have ever lived were born before 1AD. That’s about 43 percent, not 2 percent.  Craig may well have based his argument on this article by D’Souza:

I’m indebted to Erik Kreps of the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.  An adept numbers guy, Kreps notes that it is not the number of years but the levels of human population that are the issue here.  The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the number of people who have ever been born is approximately 105 billion.  Of this number, about 2 percent were born before Christ came to earth.

“So in a sense,” Kreps notes, “God’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  If He’d come earlier in human history, how reliable would the records of his relationship with man be?  But He showed up just before the exponential explosion in the world’s population, so even though 98 percent of humanity’s timeline had passed, only 2 percent of humanity had previously been born, so 98 percent of us have walked the earth since the Redemption.”

Kreps/ D’Souza/ Craig either misread the chart thinking the number of 1,137,789,769 at “Births Between Benchmarks” for 8000BC represented the people born before 1AD or just divided 106 billion by 47 billion and thought the 2.25 meant 2.25 percent.  I just wonder how Craig’s God will be reinvented in the light of this correction.

Argument from fine tuning

This idea that the universe is fine-tuned for human life is an utter distortion of physics by apologists who have leaped on part of a scientific concept as supposed evidence for their God.

One look at the universe shows that it is anything but congenial for our kind of life.  The Earth is the one speck of dust that we know is capable of supporting life in a vast abyss of virtual nothingness. Our observations of the nearest solar systems and planets do not bode well for the prospect of having intelligent carbon-based neighbours.  Is that a universe that is friendly towards life?

The planetary version of the Anthropic Fine Tuning Principle makes even less sense.  Theists are basically saying, “Look how hostile the solar system is life.  If it wasn’t for the gravity of Jupiter sucking up all the space debris, we’d have a cataclysm of the kind that wiped out the dinosaurs every five minutes.  God must have placed Jupiter in the path of the asteroids when he was finally bothered to create beings who could worship him!”  What nonsense!

The Anthropic Cosmological Principle is like Darwinism.  It is an alternative to the design explanation, not a feature of it.  An all-powerful God would be capable of designing life to exist irrespective of the heat, cold, sunlight and asteroid conditions.  Indeed, he could design us to survive in a hard vacuum!

However, the inhabitants of CraigWorld see the vast emptiness of space and the sheer improbability of life and say, “Oh, it points to a designer God who created the universe with humans in mind!”  But theologians keep their children fed by constantly reinventing their God to conform to the empirical data.

Suppose we reverse the data and imagine a Star Trek-like universe where intelligent life is overwhelmingly probable and our extra-terrestrial neighbours visit us regularly (and not just long enough for a single frame blurry photo to be taken by someone driving a potato truck in Iowa).  The theologians would still say, “Oh, it points to a designer God who created the universe with humans in mind!”  The words, “cake”, “eat” and “have” spring to mind.

Hitchens argues that the failed galaxies and certain destruction of the Earth by the explosion of its own sun do not imply a benevolent designer.  Craig’s reply is that this does not disprove that they were designed, since manmade objects such as cars and houses are not built to last forever.  True, but this was never part of Hitchens’ argument.  However, you would be hard pressed to argue that this was all the result of an all-wise and all-loving designer who cared for his creations.

Finally, Craig says that this objection has no purchase on Christian theism, since for Christians; the end of life on Earth is the beginning of eternal life.   This is a ludicrous assertion that has no more substance than a child’s fairytale.  Craig offers no evidence for a soul separate from the physical body or the prospect of life after death, aside from ancient scriptures, which of course predicted the end would come 2,000 years ago (Matthew 16).

We are still waiting.  Perhaps it’s time to give up and move on, Doctor?  No, evidence is an occasional convenience in CraigWorld.  What matters is good ol’ fashioned faith, as my third and final post tomorrow will demonstrate to degree of probability beyond mere inference to the best explanation.

William Lane Craig –v- Christopher Hitchens: Second Thoughts

04/04/2010

With his 100th post :o manicstreetpreacher begins his reassessment of a notorious debate as he tries to figure out where his hero went wrong.

Craig was flawless and unstoppable.  Hitchens was rambling and incoherent, with the occasional rhetorical jab.  Frankly, Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.

So went the verdict of the web’s most fawning atheist Craigophile, Lukeprog, over at Common Sense Atheism a year ago today in respect of Christopher Hitchens’ debate against Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, at Biola University on the motion “Does God Exist?”.

Luke subsequently commented that his piece was linked all over the web.  Craig himself quoted it in his post-debate newsletter to his flock.  Lee Strobel quoted it in his foreword to Craig’s latest apologetic, On Guard.  I linked to it in my original comment piece back in June last year when the Biola DVD hit the torrents sites.  I’m certainly not giving Luke the satisfaction of linking to it again here.

I have mixed feeling about my original piece.  After the damning verdict against Hitchens on the blogs was clearly exaggerated, I wanted to stick up for the guy.  At the same time, my blood was very much up that he had let Craig get away with so much and smugly declare that his five pathetic “arguments” for God’s existence were unassailable and that his opponent had provided no evidence or argument that God did not exist, that it turned into an ad hominem rant against Craig.

I originally titled it “We should all feel very sorry for this man”, which irritatingly still appears when the post is automatically generated by WordPress as a “possibly related” post.  I even made some very unkind remarks about Craig’s spindly hands that since he is obviously close to punching his last ticket, he is dreaming of eternal life next to the Father’s right hand more than usual but will be sorely disappointed.  “What a great analysis,” I thought when I hit “Publish”.  Until one of the post’s first commenters pointed out that Craig suffers from a neuromuscular disorder that affects the appearance and movement of his hands.  Damn.  It has been my most reviewed and re-edited post.

So one year after the actual debate, I have taken a step back and watched the tape again with the benefit of having seen and heard a lot more lectures and debates by Craig.  The remainder of this post and my second and third posts will present what I now think.

Hitchens and Craig meet at the Christian Book Expo

Two weeks before their debate, Hitchens sat on a panel with four Christian authors: Craig, Douglas Wilson, Lee Strobel and Jim Denison at the 2009 Christian Book Expo held in Dallas, Texas on Saturday, 21 March 2010.  The debate moderated by Christianity Today writer Stan Guthrie, who in reality turned into a sixth discussion participant.

The full audio of the discussion can be downloaded here; the full tape video is uploaded to YouTube below.

Hitchens dominated the discussion and received most of the airtime and audience questions.  However, in his closing remarks, Craig baited him by saying that his arguments amounted to “I don’t like it”, as opposed to “I don’t believe it’s true” and condescendingly asked him to engage more with him and his cohorts’ wonderful arguments in their upcoming debate at Biola.  In an Apologia podcast immediately afterwards, Craig sounded incredibly pleased with himself, saying that Hitchens did not have the “intellectual capacity” to answer his arguments.  The clip with Craig and Hitchens interviewed can be listened to here.  Following the encounter, the blogs predicted a beat down for Hitchens at Craig’s hands, including former student of Craig and evangelical preacher turned atheist author and blogger, John W Loftus.

Letters from Biola

I’ll come right out and say that Hitchens lost the debate.  No two ways about it.  While he didn’t come off as badly as Lukeprog’s infamous sound bite implied, he simply didn’t prepare enough in advance to answer Craig’s arguments.  Hitchens is more concerned with the social effects of religion.  Craig wanted to argue over its truth and after all, that was the debate’s motion.  Craig boasts a great delivery at the lectern.  He compresses his points very well and splits his arguments up piecemeal.  Hitchens sears, flows and mixes it all up into one.  He also has a habit of making “throat-clearing” precursors before answering points.

Even so, I had severely underestimated Craig.  A very few others aside, I had only seen his debates against Bart Ehrman and Victor Stenger which were the two occasions when he had been convincingly beaten.  Having now seen and heard many more of his debates, I can see that Craig does not debate his opponents has such, but executes premeditated hit-jobs on them.  Craig makes a point of not debating anyone without a doctorate.  He made an exception with Hitchens, who has been a visiting professor at several universities, but as far as I know does not hold an actual PhD and during the debate, Craig referred to him as “Mister” rather than “Doctor” or “Professor”.   Was this an attempt on Craig’s part to discredit the leading debater of the Four Horsemen?  Very possibly.

Craig employed every single one of his dirty tricks at Biola: scientific distortion, quote-mining of authorities, dropping in as many points as possible, patronising and intimidating erudition, demagogically pandering to the audience… the lot.  It can take ten times as long to answer a question than to ask it.  Craig fires out arguments in quick succession and then chides his opponent for failing to answer all of this arguments and objections.  He also presented straw man versions of Hitchens’ own arguments, which took up a great deal of Hitchens’ time in his rebuttals, only for Craig of course go on and then say that Hitchens had not properly refuted his original arguments!

Craig also constantly appeals to authorities.  During the Hitchens debate he quoted external sources no fewer than 19 times!  However, he is extremely selective in the way that he uses quotes.  In their debates against Craig on the resurrection, Bart Ehrman and Bishop John Shelby Spong exposed Craig’s use of authorities on New Testament scholarship who in reality are deeply opposed.

Richard Dawkins was quite right to refuse publically a debate against Craig on the grounds that the man is simply a “professional debater” rather than a proper academic worth taking seriously.  Hitchens was too respectful and had clearly been taken in by the Craig hype, as his slightly nervous demeanour at the pre-debate press conference showed.

So with the dust well and truly settled, let’s take a look at Craig’s arguments now he is unable to hide behind his debating tricks.  My next post tomorrow will begin the deconstruction of Craig’s arguments and tactics piece by piece.

Michael Shermer debates David Robertson on whether Christianity is good for us: Premier Christian Radio, “Unbelievable?”, 20 February 2010

25/02/2010

manicstreetpreacher to Michael Shermer:

I have of course had multiple encounters with Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee, Scotland, author of The Dawkins Letters.  For the Saturday, 20 February 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Robertson debated Michael Shermer, head of the American Skeptics Society and author of numerous books debunking all things paranormal and pseudo-scientific, such as Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

The debate focuses on the comparative levels of charitable giving, happiness, well-being, mutual respect and trust and attitudes towards slavery and gay rights between believers and non-believers.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the debate, and I’m certainly not posting this to gloat at Robertson (who I consider a personal friend of sorts after our encounters), but he is an extremely tough debating opponent.  While I was satisfied with how I came off in my debates against him, I took as many hits as I scored and tripped over my own arguments on a couple of occasions, particularly on evidence an atheist would accept as evidence for God in Show One and the moral argument in Show Two.

Shermer on the other hand is a seasoned pro and has heard it all before and will do so a thousand times again.  While I in my reckless youth tend to take more of an all-guns-blazing approach at the microphone, Shermer is far more laid back in his citing of peer-reviewed journal papers, opinion polls and tried-and-trusted philosophical arguments.

These were especially effective against Robertson’s arguments which seemed to be based largely on personal experience of visits to “Sweden’s atheist utopia” where apparently people are much less willing to sell you a drink than the Americans.  Shermer is going to withhold judgement until he runs the experiment for himself.

I particularly admired the way Shermer put paid to the popular notion that Christians lead the fight against slavery by pointing out that William Wilberforce and John Newton were in the minority of Christians who opposed the practice when the established Anglican and Catholic Churches were defending it.

In a similar vein to how Christianity has a posteriori claimed the moral high ground in respect of abolition, Shermer predicts that the current firestorm over gay marriage in the USA will be resolved in the next 20 years or so to the benefit of homosexuals.  While today the most vehement opponents of gay marriage are Christians, as with slavery, Christians will surely single out the few of their number who supported gay marriage and hold them out as leading the fight for equal rights!

I will credit Robertson for contributing to a high-brow discussion and for once not playing the “Hitler and Stalin were atheists” card while giving a nod to the crimes committed by the Christian Conquistadors against the indigenous people of the Americas; a Holocaust in its own right.  Perhaps MSP’s email to him in response his comments following Brierley’s coverage of the Dawkins/ Grayling I2 debate on atheist fundamentalism had a small part to play in that.

The two places where I thought Robertson really fell down was in his closing remarks where he accused the secularists as “living in a fantasyland” before going on to say in the same breath that Christians know that they will not live in a utopia until they get to heaven.  Right.

In addition, Marx and Engels never said that “religion is the opiate of the people”.  This is in fact one of the most common out-of-context quotes of all time.  The full quote from Marx’s introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.  To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.  Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

Don’t let Christopher Hitchens hear you say that one, David!

Download the full debate audio.

Evolution: Special Investigation

17/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher is pleased to report that NonStampCollector has done it again!

At the end of last year, I compiled the best of Aussie YouTube genius, NonStampCollector.  I am thrilled that the turning of the new decade has only enhanced his satirical skills when it comes to all things theocratus lunaticras.  Watch the video below which reconstructs a typical creationist interview with an atheist evolutionary scientist.  P Z  Myers has described it as “Every creationist argument I’ve ever had” and the video has also been posted on RichardDawkins.net.

Enjoy:

The clip is based on P Z Myer’s infamous radio debate in 2008 against Discovery Institute hack Geoffrey Simmons: someone with doctoral qualifications who didn’t know the scientific meaning of the word theory, and used it as a pejorative.  Quite a few elements of the script clearly came from that exchange (whales, ignorance, etc.).  See the relevant threads on Pharyngula and RichardDawkins.net: apparently there was a thread briefly posted on William Dembski’s blog Uncommon Descent where the commenters handed the debate to Myers, even though they disagreed with his point of view!

No wonder Richard Dawkins refuses to debate creationists!

Intelligent Design: Dembski responds to MSP

16/01/2010

manicstreetpreacher just needs to clear something up.

ID proponent William Dembski continues to give me a free readership on his Uncommon Common Descent blog by attacking my post on his appearance on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? (700 views and counting!  :o  ).  Firstly, Denyse O’ Leary vilified me for my take on the importance (or lack!) of probabilities in biology.  Now, Dembski himself has posted a response denying that Darwin knew about the complexities of the cell, accusing your humble servant of “re-writing history”:

A blogger who goes by “Manic Street Preacher” sent me three unsolicited emails about his reaction to the debate, which was not positive…

I finally had a look at what this blogger wrote. I can’t say I was impressed with the argumentation or erudition, but I do have to credit him for chutzpah…

I don’t mean to be argumentative, but the insides of the cells depicted here do look to me like blobs.  But qualitative interpretations like this aside, the fact is that Darwin had no conception of molecular biology or the intricate nano-engineering that Michael Behe, for instance, describes in the cell.  Moreover, it’s straightforward to examine the actual history of the scientific understanding of the cell to realize that the cell in Darwin’s time was conceived as simple, indeed so simple that it could spontaneously generate.  Jonathan Wells and I describe some of this in HOW TO BE AN INTELLECTUALLY FULFILLED ATHEIST.

But perhaps the easiest way to see that “Manic Street Preacher” is blowing smoke is to do a search on “Bathybius Haeckelii” – slime dredged up from the ocean floor thought to be the primordial living matter.  This proved to be a big embarrassment to Huxley and Haeckel.  The details here are unimportant.  What is important is that biologist of Huxley’s and Haeckel’s stature thought that life could be so simple as to be the result of this slime.

“Manic Street Preacher” reminds me of Joey Bishop in the movie A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN [IMDB].  Bishop, caught in flagrante delictu with another woman by his wife, denies all wrong doing (and, if he were a Darwinist, would accuse his wife of infidelity).  Eventually, the wife, suitably cowed, accepts the denials and agrees that nothing happened. Well, here at UD we don’t let Darwinists get away with such nonsense.  Darwin and his contemporaries didn’t have a clue about the complexity of the cell.  History bears this out, Darwinian revisionism notwithstanding.

Aside from being somewhat bemused at being compared to a member of the Rat Pack and an email spammer, I have two retorts to this.  Firstly, Dembski ought to have scrolled down to the comments section, where he would have seen that I had linked to this page on zoologist and theistic evolutionist Wesley R Elsberry’s blog which contains excellent references both to creationist and IDiots’ claims that Darwin knew nothing about that complexity of the cell:

Antievolutionists make lots of claims about Charles Darwin, seeking to impeach the authority of someone born 199 years ago today.  Given that science moves on and leaves no one’s ideas untouched, one would think that they would stick to negative claims that would stand up to some scrutiny.  Again and again, though, we find that they continue to espouse negative claims that are just plain silly, at least to those with even the slightest familiarity with the actual record that Darwin left.

[A] common antievolution claim about Darwin, simply put, [is] that Darwin considered the contents of cells to be “black boxes”, comprised of a simple or homogeneous protoplasm.  This is expressed in similar ways by a number of antievolutionists.  The following is just a sampling of the available instances.

Michael Behe:

To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box.

And again:

Scientists use the term “black box” for a system whose inner workings are unknown.  To Charles Darwin and his contemporaries, the living cell was a black box because its fundamental mechanisms were completely obscure.  We now know that, far from being formed from a kind of simple, uniform protoplasm (as many nineteenth-century scientists believed), every living cell contains many ultrasophisticated molecular machines.

Casey Luskin:

There were other things that Darwin did not know.  For example, Darwin assumed that the cell was like a primitive blob of protoplasm that could easily evolve new biological functions.  As Behe explains, “To Darwin, then, as to every other scientist of the time, the cell was a black box…  The question of how life works was not one that Darwin or his contemporaries could answer.”

Nancy Pearcey:

To be fair to Darwin, he proposed his theory when scientists knew next to nothing about biochemistry.  Living things were “black boxes,” their inside workings a mystery.  The cell itself was thought to be nothing more than a blob of jellylike protoplasm.  It was easy to draw large-scale scenarios about fins gradually turning into legs, or legs into wings, since no one had a clue how limbs and organs work from the inside.  As Behe writes, it is as though we asked how a stereo system is made and someone answered, “by plugging a set of speakers into an amplifier and adding a CD player, radio receiver, and tape deck.”

That’s pretty rich, that “be fair to Darwin” phrase.  As Jeffrey Shallit, Professor of Computer Science at University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, commenting on Stephen Meyer’s recent book, Signature in the Cell points out, “This claim has been repeated again and again by creationists, but it is not true.  Fergodsake, the nucleus was discovered in 1833.”

Elsberry continues with the opinions of Jay Richards:

In addition, biochemists and biologists have discovered a microscopic world of mesmerizing complexity belying the simple blobs of protoplasm that Darwin imagined.

Elsberry frames matters bluntly:

Antievolutionists don’t go looking at the primary sources to come up with these nuggets; one of them creates a “magic bullet”, and the rest pass it around like a game of “telephone”, sometimes resulting in a garbled mess.  As Casey Luskin’s contribution here indicates, the likely source of the BS in this case is Michael Behe.

Why call it BS?  Because anybody can disconfirm the claim in seconds with a modern Internet search, and only moderately longer using the past technology scholars have long relied upon for substantiating claims about prior work.

Wesley correctly recommends the Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online website as an excellent resource:

One finds there Darwin’s work on pangenesis, his hypothesis that there existed small particles that he called gemmules, each of which contained the heritable information for some particular trait, and which would combine, somehow, into the gametes.  His continued advocacy of this wrong idea was a major failing on his part, but along the way we can see that even though Darwin was wrong about gemmules, he did hold an antithetical view to the claim that everything was simple at the most basic levels of life’s organization:

Notwithstanding the astounding complexity of the processes implied by this hypothesis of pangenesis, yet it seems to me to comprehend the several leading facts better than any other view.  On this hypothesis we may fancifully look at each animal and plant as being compounded of many beings, in the same manner as a tree or coral is compounded of many similar beings; but in neither case have these so-called beings had a separate existence.  Each of these beings, or parts, is supposed to be capable of throwing off gemmules, which whilst within the organism are capable of self-increase, and which can be separately developed at the part or organ whence they were derived, and can be united, as in the case of hybrids, with other gemmules into a single germ or bud, which reproduces the complete parent form.  On this view, each organic being may be looked at as a little universe, formed of a host of different self-propagating organisms, almost as numerous as the stars in heaven, and as minute as they are immense.

Darwin clearly understood the complexity of the cell in this paper:

As, however, a cell is a complex structure, with its investing membrane, nucleus, and nucleolus, a gemmule, as Mr G H Lewes has remarked in his interesting discussion on this subject (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1, 1868, p. 508), must, perhaps, be a compound one, so as to reproduce all the parts.

Two papers by Darwin published in 1882 demonstrate Darwin’s readiness to experiment in resolving sub-cellular processes, using chemistry and microscopy to aid in the work.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on chlorophyll-bodies. [Read 6 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 262-284.

Darwin, C. R. 1882. The action of carbonate of ammonia on the roots of certain plants. [Read 16 March] Journal of the Linnean Society of London (Botany) 19: 239-261.

These papers in the primary literature demonstrate vividly that Charles Darwin not only was aware that protoplasm was not homogeneous, but was at the end of his life working toward elucidating exactly what differences within cells existed.  As Wesley concludes:

The antievolution “magic bullet” intended to dismiss Darwin is a dud.  Sub-cellular structure elucidation was another part of science in which Darwin was an active participant.  Darwin’s own preferred hypothesis of heredity, though now discredited, presumed the sort of immense complexity at small scales that antievolutionists falsely claim Darwin had no “imagination” for.  Many antievolutionists have willingly participated in passing along this falsehood and urging changes in public school curriculum policy based, in part, on their false and ignorant claims.  I find it significant that I have yet to encounter any instance of an antievolution advocate pointing out the actual facts of the case and remonstrating with their colleagues, even though the disconfirming evidence is easy to locate and describe.  I can only conclude that antievolutionists in general have no concern for the truth nor for fact-checking even the simplest of their claims.  Trusting antievolutionists to help guide policy and form curricula for public schools would be malfeasance, plain and simple…

Secondly, the charge that Darwin did not know anything about the inner workings of the cell is purely an academic point and I corrected Dembski mainly to preserve Darwin’s reputation and correct him on this bogus canard that he and his ilk keep trotting out.   There was a great deal that Darwin did not know about and/or where he was plain wrong.  Dembski is correct in pointing out that he had no idea about genetic mutations, DNA and molecular biology.  However, his theory has been revised, updated and indeed strengthened by the subsequent 150 years of scientific research, experimentation and peer-review by scientists who have had far greater knowledge and far more advanced technology at their disposal.

This is the science that has rid the world of smallpox and flown us to the moon.  Even if Dembski and Behe had their way and people accepted that there was an extraterrestrial intelligence behind the complexity we see in nature, even if the unthinkable happened and the designer actually revealed himself in the middle of an international event with the entire world watching and told us directly to be nice to each other, nothing whatsoever would change about the way we do science.  We could not even confront the designer and ask him to repair what he makes, like Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

We would still have to search for cures to cancer and AIDS as well as updating our vaccinations against constantly evolving viruses (funny how you never hear creationists and IDers shout about the wonderful design of these particular organisms!).  Creationism and Intelligent Design contribute nothing to the advancement of science and medicine.  If an IDer has ever won the Nobel Prize, they must have hidden it from the judges.  If the Discovery Institute is leading the way in the fight against deadly diseases, they are keeping it awfully quiet.  Instead, they are concerned with preserving ancient myths in the vain hope that adhering to such beliefs sometimes makes people behave better, as the opening paragraph of the DI’s “Wedge Strategy” document (download PDF) well attests:

The proposition that humans beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.  Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise and progress in arts and science.

One piece of scripture that has stuck with this manic street preaching heretic is something St Paul said: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  For now we see through a glass, darkly.”  (1 Corinthians 13: 12 – 13).

Time to put away childish things, guys.

Intelligent Design: White Noise

05/01/2010

Non-scientist manicstreetpreacher presents his case against “Intelligent Design Theory” following William Dembski’s debate against Lewis Wolpert – Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, 2 January 2009.

Lewis Wolpert (whose discussions with Russell Cowburn I reviewed here) sounded rather irate in last Saturday’s edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? and frankly, who can blame him?  The South African born atheist embryologist and author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast was in conversation with William Demski, American fundamentalist Christian who is also a leading proponent of “Intelligent Design” and author of The Design Inference and No Free Lunch.

I won’t give a blow my blow account of the debate itself, but there are a few points which Dembski needs to be hauled up on (no doubt for the umpteenth time which will not make the slightest difference, but it’s the principle that matters!).

Firstly, “complexity” and “improbability” appear to be Demski’s favourite words in the English language, which of course make him no different than all other creationists or people who argue from design.  Apparently, the complexity that we see in biology is just so incredibly complex, that there comes a point when the zeros after the decimal point become too many and we can infer that it was The Thing That Made The Things For Which There Is No Known Maker.

So what if it’s all enormously complex and improbable?  I have heard it said that the probability of the first self-replicating carbon based cell arising on Earth is greater than the number of atoms in the known universe.  Fine.  What the hell, let’s say that it’s TWICE the number of atoms in the known universe.   It’s no use ruling out natural events on the arbitrary notion of low probability.  You have to compare it with the probability of the alternative you contend is more likely.  What’s the probability that the laws of nature are violated? What’s the probability that an invisible and undetectable designer – natural or supernatural – created it?  I’ve never heard a creationist or “design theorist” answer these questions and Dembski disappointed me yet again.  Perhaps the improbability of design is even greater, and what data does Dembski have to make the calculation?  None I would say, because there is no evidence of a designer whatsoever.

This reasoning also fails on the basis that low probability events happen all the time.  If you crunch the numbers in relation to your own birth (i.e. the probability that a particular sperm united with a particular egg multiplied by the probability that your parents met and repeated the calculation back until the beginning of time), you will get a fantastically low probability.  Theistic evolutionary scientist Francisco Ayala reinforced the point during his recent debate against Christian apologist William Lane Craig on whether Intelligent Design was a viable alternative to evolution.  Ayala remarked that there’s no need to argue against Dembski and Co, because their very existence on this Earth is so mind-bendingly improbable that they were never born!

For the Bairnsfather view of Dembski’s thinking, I can do no better than the introduction to P Z Myers’ lecture at the AAI Conference 2009.  Dembski, Behe, Simmons etc.: “Here is biology.  It’s very complex.  Incredibly, unbelievably complex in fact.  Complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity, complexity…  DESIGN!!!!!!”

Brilliant!

Secondly, Dembski repeated the common straw man that scientists in Darwin’s day knew nothing about the inner workings of the cell, and thought that they were mere “blobs of protoplasm”.  Well, Dembski should take a look this drawing out, which was made by Darwin himself:

See, they show the inner workings of the cell and clearly show its complexity.  Scientists in Darwin’s time, in fact, had quite a good understanding of what cells were, and they were not simply “blobs of protoplasm”.  This is yet another creationist hoax which is easily debunked.

Shame on you, Billy!

Third and finally, some ID theorists out there may resent my description of Demski as a “fundamentalist Christian” or think that this has nothing to do with his “science”.  However, they may wish to know that Dembski teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.  Below are a series of extracts from assignments and exam papers that are set for students which came to my attention after a thread was posted on RichardDawkins.net.

Christian Faith and Science Take-Home Final Exam:

Make your best argument against theistic evolution.  In other words, if you were in a debate situation and had to argue against theistic evolution, how would you do it?

Lay out your own view of the relation between science and theology.  Are they in conflict or consonance?  Should they be compartmentalized?  Do they support each other?  Is it important to harmonize them?  Etc.

Have advances in the natural sciences over the last 40 years made it easier or harder to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist?  Explain.

Trace the connections between Darwinian evolution, eugenics, abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.  Why are materialists so ready to embrace these as a package deal?  What view of humanity and reality is required to resist them?

You are the Templeton Foundation’s new program director and are charged with overseeing its programs and directing its funds.  Sketch out a 20-year plan for defeating scientific materialism and the evolutionary worldview it has fostered if you had $50,000,000 per year in current value to do so.  What sorts of programs would you institute?  How would you spend the money?

Christian Apologetics Take-Home Final Exam:

You just learned that your nephew or niece is going off to study theology at a liberal seminary.  You suspect the place is teeming with “Homer Wilsons,” i.e., professors intent on eroding any real faith of the seminary students.  Write a letter to your nephew or niece outlining the pitfalls that they are likely to face and how they should protect their faith from eroding.

According to Richard Dawkins, faith is believing in the absence of evident [sic].  By contrast, Nancy Pearcey argues that the attempt to remove Christian faith from the realm of knowledge and evidence has led to Christianity’s cultural captivity.  Make the case that Christian faith is a matter not of subjective opinion but of objective knowledge.

No amputees are recorded as having been healed in the New Testament (i.e., no one with a missing limb is said to have grown back the limb in response to a prayer by Jesus or one of the Apostles).  Indeed, throughout Church history it appears that no such miracle has occurred (if you know of a wellconfirmed [sic] case, please cite it).  Atheists therefore argue that if miracles really happened and gave evidence of God, God would have performed a healing like growing back the limb of an amputee.  Do atheists have a point here?  How do you maintain that miracles are real in the face of such criticism?

For more academic travesties on a par with Liberty University’s natural history museum labelling dinosaur fossils as being 3,000 years old, including online debate forum postings comprising a substantial proportion of students’ final grades (!), click here:

AP410 This is the undegrad [sic] course.  You have three things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 40% of your grade); (2) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 40% of your grade); (3) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 2,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

AP510 This is the masters course.  You have four things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 30% of your grade); (2) write a 1,500 to 2,000-word critical review of Francis Collins’s The Language of God – for instructions, see below (20% of your grade); (3) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 30% of your grade); (4) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 3,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

Aside from this, Wolpert correctly pointed out that Dembski’s reasoning is a mere language game.  Even if the designer was eventually discovered and observed, this would not change the way Dembski carries out his science one iota.  The man hasn’t proved anything and never will.  Even if Darwin’s theory is completely wrong, even if the evolution of Homo sapiens we observe today is more improbable than the number of atoms in a billion universes that is still not evidence for either design or a designer.

The Intelligent Design movement is nothing more than racket and a Wedge Strategy (download PDF) to bring creationism into school science classrooms by the back door.  As a wise man has observed of late, it may be designed but there’s nothing intelligent about it.

Listen to the debate in full if you must.


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