Sunday, July 27, 2008
So What’s So Wrong with Darwin?
The late William Provine, a professor at Cornell University, once wrote about what he called the five inescapable conclusions about Darwinism, if Darwinism is true. These are:
1. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature.
2. There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society.
3. Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence.
4. When we die, we die, and that’s it.
5. There is no such thing as free will. Quote: “There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.”
It should be noted that in drawing these conclusions, Provine was not trying to disprove Darwinism. He was not trying to portray it as ridiculous or silly. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Bible-thumping creationist viewing Darwinism as a threat to his religion. He remained, until his dying day, a secular scholar who found no fault in Darwinian principles and who agreed wholeheartedly with the Huxleyan assertion that Darwin at long last made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist and who considered himself a member of that good company.
No, this is an open and honest critique, a simple statement of the core beliefs of the faith, made by a member of the faithful. It is the Nicene Creed of Darwinism.
By “Darwinism” I mean the belief that new species arise from pre-existing ones; that over great periods of time by means of gradual, slow changes from one species to the next, new genera, orders, and phyla are established; that the mechanism behind the change from one species to the next is natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation; that this mechanism applies universally throughout nature; and that the process occurs on its own, without any help from outside the natural system. My standard shorthand is: A Darwinist believes that the great-great-great grandchildren of a fish can become the great-great-great grandparents of a bat. The shorter shorthand: A Darwinist believes a fish can become a bat. Same difference.
To expand on each of Provine’s assertions just a bit:
1. There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. By this Provine means that when something happens in nature—say, the beaver acquires buck teeth—it occurs only because natural forces have allowed it to come about, and never because of some goal-oriented force wanting it so. The beaver has his buck teeth because there is a benefit to having buck teeth, not because someone ever said to himself “If we want the beaver to build a better dam, we’d better give him a couple of whopping great incisors to help him bring down more trees.”
2. There are no inherent moral or ethical laws, and thus no absolute guiding principles of human society. Morality and ethics are mere human constructs, formulated perhaps to help us survive in a world red in tooth and claw (or perhaps for some other reason), but not imposed upon us by some exterior force. They do not exist because they have to exist but because we allow them to exist. Murder, for example, is bad only because society claims it is bad; if humanity were suddenly to decide that murder is good, we could murder with impunity.
3. Human beings are complex machines, which become ethical persons by means of two primary mechanisms: heredity and environmental influence. If no laws of morality/ethics exist, and since morality and ethics are mere tools of our own invention, these come about either because we have evolved with these notions already in mind, or because our experiences have led us to adopt our particular ideas of what is moral or ethical. Any strictly scientific theory such as evolution does not contain within itself the resources to underpin or to undermine a normative activity such as morality. Specifically, the theory of evolution does not tell us directly what we ought to do, but only aids in explaining why we engage in such normative activities.
4. When we die, we die, and that’s it. The explanation for our existence is to be found within nature. Mind is just an epiphenomenon of the neural activity of our brains, and notions such as religion have only come about because they somehow facilitate our survival, and offshoots of those notions such as the idea of Heaven or Hell are but the creation of our own fancies. An afterlife implies a purpose to the present life, which we know not to be the case because the universe is purposeless as stated in #1. Because being is a mere temporal verity having no real ontological meaning, we are thus mere physical beings and not spiritual ones.
5. There is no such thing as free will. Everything that we are is the product of natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation, including our minds and our ability to use our minds in decision-making. The choices we make are due entirely to our heredity, which is the product of our environment, or to our environment, which acts upon our heredity, or to some combination of the two. Since our choices are dependent upon either our DNA or our environment, there is ultimately so such thing as free will, which is necessitated upon an ability to act independently. If we can’t act independently of our genes or our environment, we aren’t free from it, either.
So, why do I find the Darwinistic outlook so bleak?
If Darwinism is true, the universe itself is without purpose. A notion such as God becomes superfluous, since He is not needed in explaining where a fish, a bat, or anything else, comes from. I see no intrinsic difference between a God who is unnecessary and one who does not exist.
If the universe is without purpose, and if everything that exists is part of that universe, then there is no purpose in anything. The fish, the bat, you, me, and the scum on the bottom of your shoe are all on the same level—the meaningless, accidental offshoots of an accidental universe, resulting from blind, undirected, purposeless processes which did not have the fish/bat/you/me/scum in mind as an end product.
If there is no purpose behind our being, then there is no purpose in our living, either. Our creation was purposeless, and likewise our existence and all phases of it: our birth, our life, and our death. What does it matter whether you die today or eighty years from now? There was no purpose in your being here in the first place, and once you die there’ll be nothing left of you to know the difference.
Morality is a purely subjective illusion. Murder is not immoral, only illegal. Were we to change the law, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with murder. And, anyway, if morality is an illusion, so is the law. So we are left with no means whatsoever of establishing murder –or anything else, for that matter—as right or wrong. Murder is only a meaningless event in a meaningless universe, perpetrated by meaningless people upon meaningless others. There’s no sense in crying over spilled milk, especially when even the significance of the milk can be called into question.
Moreover, Provine’s assertions about Darwinism, to use his own verbage, are inescapable—if Darwinism is true.
If there is something inaccurate in describing such an outlook as “bleak,” it is only in that the description represents a rank understatement.
But I believe that free will exists. I believe that right is separate from wrong. I believe that we are here for a purpose. And my only means of reconciling what I believe with what Provine asserts is to understand that there is therefore something wrong with his premise that Darwinism is true.
And that is to realize that Darwinism is NOT true.
Monday, July 21, 2008
Jake Killjoy, P.I.
There was, no surprise, a good deal of high-spirited disagreement with my assertion. One commenter, for instance, posted this little gem: “Yeah, but the problem is, agents as designers don’t really DO anything.”
To which I replied: “I’ll keep that in mind the next time I read a murder mystery. Gee, I wonder how that knife got into the murder victim’s back? Was it just an accident, or did some law of nature put it there?”
The point being, there are three modes of causation: chance, necessity, and design. To exclude design as a mode of causation, all in the name of keeping science naturalistic, is to argue that the knife either found its way into the victim’s back by accident (chance) or by some law of nature (necessity), and that we can’t even CONSIDER the possibility that the knife was deliberately PUT THERE BY SOMEONE, because “that wouldn’t be scientific.”
Such a position is obviously absurd. Yet, it is not so obvious to the “defenders” of science who work so diligently, so steadfastly, so loudly, to keep science designer-free.
The idea of a “design-free” murder mystery has been bugging me for quite some time. Just after publication of my second novel, Wonderboy and the Black Hole of Nixvy Veck, I began working on my third, with the working title The Road to Heresy.
The basic idea behind Heresy is to depict a future society in which Darwinism has been elevated to State Religion. This is no wild conjecture—-Darwinism is already our de facto state religion inasmuch as it IS a religion (an all-encompassing world view founded on a leap of faith—-that natural selection operating in tandem with random genetic mutation is all you every need to explain the diversity of life on Earth), and the only one we’re allowed to teach in our public schools.
Admittedly, though, the writing has been slow. My main problem is, as a humorist, I’m having trouble telling the story without making it all depressing and dreary. As religions go, Darwinism has the most bleak outlook of any of the mainstream religions and is of the least comfort to its faithful, because if Darwinism is true, there’s no Heaven or Hell, no afterlife, and no real purpose in living; we just live our pitifully few years on this Earth, then we die, and that’s that. So, why live to be a hundred? Why not burn your candle at both ends, have some fun, and leave a good-looking corpse? For that matter, why even have fun? If death is meaningless, so is life, and so is having fun. You might as well end your life right now and spare yourself the pain which is sure to come your way in the future: marriage, kids, mortgage, bills, taxes-—and should Barack Obama be elected president, more taxes—-followed by old age, illness, and death. Nope, not a pleasant outlook at all, and difficult subject matter for a humorist.
But a “design-free” murder mystery? Now that’s something else! Yessiree, full of comic possibilities.
So, I’ve decided to revise what I’ve written so far for Heresy and go instead with (drumroll, please!): Jake Killjoy, P.I. (Legal Dept: Jake Killjoy, P.I. and all other Jake Killjoy, P.I.-related items, including Jake Killjoy, P.I. Junior Investigator Kit, Jake Killjoy, P.I. Malibu Beach House, and Jake Killjoy, P.I. Action Figure with Kung-Fu Grip, are the exclusive property of Terry L. Mirll.)
Our Hero will be your typically acerbic Sam Spade/Mike Hammer gumshoe, downing hard liquor like lemonade and spitting in the eye of all who come his way. I haven’t decided on a title yet—-Dial D for Darwin, or Select Me Deadly, or some such. Something pithy, like the titles used in “The Venture Brothers” (from Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” lineup. My personal favorite is: “I Know Why the Caged Bird KILLS.” Now that’s pithy!)
Labels: Intelligent Design
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Truth vs. truth
I’ve always believed that Truth (the unblemished, unassailable Truth—with a capital T) exists. But it seems elusive. The closest we ever come is truth (lower case), which is vastly imperfect and can only be intellectually satisfying unless we exert great effort to block out anything that doesn’t harmonize with it. To borrow Jack Nicholson’s line from “A Few Good Men”: Truth? You can’t handle the Truth!
Sorry, but that’s just how it is. You CAN’T handle the Truth.
Instead, you (and yes, not just you; I mean myself as well) settle for the truth, the truth as you see it, not True, but true enough. And yet, AT BEST, truth, because it is not Truth, is a kind of delusion.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to understand the world about us. It is only an honest acknowledgement of our intellectual limits.
Since Truth is elusory, and understanding that our ability to find Truth has its limits, our best hope is to be honest, or at least as honest as possible. (A discussion of honest vs. Honesty is another topic altogether.) That implies two things: a healthy acceptance of our own fallibility (as Dennis Miller puts it, “That’s just my opinion—I could be wrong”) and the realization that stupidity is NOT defined as “That with which I do not agree.” Both are difficult to achieve, though of the two, the second is the more burdensome. Anytime I observe a heated debate, it’s usually because someone is unwilling to admit to himself that his adversary has a point.
A case in point is an exchange I recently viewed on a science blog. It involved an opponent of Intelligent Design who openly admited that he solicited a scathing review of a book which he never bothered to read. Despite this admonition he could never compel himself to admit that what he did was the teensiest bit dishonest, since the object of his animadversion was a member of the Discovery Institute and therefore instantly worthy of disdain and contempt regardless of what the book says. Surely, any truly reasonable person would agree that in order to offer a valid review of any book, one should first be obliged to read it (as evidenced by the fact that the word “review” has the word “view” in it, implying that one should at least LOOK at the damn thing before damning it), and yet Our Hero, whose claim to expertise was in having "a graduate education in paleobiology" (and never mind that the philosopher he is attacking has two PhDs; a graduate education in paleobiology trumps two PhDs because—well, just BECAUSE), remained adamant in his asseveration that reading a book is no prerequisite for reviewing it. And for anyone who should disagree with him, he could only offer the oh-so-clever retort (which is just oh-so-clever that he felt compelled to use it again and again): “Enjoy your membership in the Discovery Institute IDiot Borg Collective.”
Yes, a mind IS a terrible thing to waste, isn’t it?
What truly flummoxes me is that Our Hero actually thinks he is defending science. He truly believes he is fighting the good fight, standing firm at the bulwark of knowledge and driving away all who would make science a religion and turn back the clock of human progress. Yet all he really does is utter the intellectual equivalent of “Persecute! Kill the heretic!” against anyone not fully in line with his way of thinking (or, rather, non-thinking), which speaks volumes about who is REALLY trying to make a religion of science, even if only inadvertently.
His version of science is not science, but ideology draped in the reliquary of science. It is still ideology, however. Not the open examination of evidence to see what it might reveal, but the automatic shouting down of anything not in accordance with that ideology. It is a witch hunt mentality, all in the name of science.
Like I said, kind of depressing.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
The Old Knowledge/Perception Debate
“One cannot predict in advance what stories people will tell themselves to make believe that they do not know the reality of God and their obligation to Him; every agnostic and atheist devises a different set of plausibility gambits, a different pattern of omissions, of forgettings, of avertings of gaze. But it is extraordinarily difficult--I think impossible--for such self-deceptions not to slop over at some point into what one admits about the moral law. Our minds won’t go like that. “
I agree, but would go one step further: it’s not that our minds won’t go like that; it’s more like they can’t go like that. The human predilection to delude oneself is so strong, it prevents us from having any real epistemic access at all. We don’t know the world, only perceive it.
This is hardly a new idea. “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in the 13th chapter of Corinthians. Our understanding of the world is hampered by our ability to interpret it. Or, as Plato expressed it in his cave analogy, we do not see the world itself, only the shadows and reflections of it. Behind what we see is a greater reality, if only we could turn around and look at it.
My point being: it’s not that we don’t turn around and look; we can’t.
Does anyone remember Jeremy Burke’s PBS series “The Day the Universe Changed”? Though not nearly as well received as his “Connections” series, he still made a good point: the history of science is a tale of perceptions followed by discoveries that alter those perceptions. Then, with the altered perception in place, now held to be the truth, along comes another discovery that alters the new reality. Still, it is not the reality that is altered, but only our perception of it. And in that sense, the universe changes.
Thomas Kuhn makes much the same point in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which coined the term “paradigm shift.” A paradigm in Kuhn’s terminology is a model of the world, a model that expresses a basic idea of what the world is, how it works, and how we are to interact with it. The model seems cohesive and is held as valid for any given period of time, sometimes for centuries. But along comes some phenomenon or observation that doesn’t seem to fit. At first there is resistance, followed by acceptance, at which point we revise the model to incorporate the anomaly, which we then term a scientific revolution.
Yet Kuhn’s examination of scientific revolutions only touches upon the fact that, from time to time, they occur. One question he never seems to ask is why. Seems to me, humanity lacks the basic ability to do otherwise. Whatever paradigm of the universe we may have in mind at any given moment, it is only a paradigm. The model of the world is not the world itself. The former is only a tool to describe the latter, yet that tool is flawed, as evidenced by the fact that sooner or later it is abandoned for one that is better—or, at least, for one that we think is better.
I say “think” because even when that purportedly better tool comes along, there are still those among us who are unwilling to accept it and who still refuse to abandon the previous model. And here’s there kicker—there is absolutely no means whatsoever for any of the rest of us to make them change their minds. There is so such thing as a rational compulsion to adhere to any particular model of the universe; or to any idea; or to any scientific theory. For anyone who doubts this assertion, allow me to point out that the U.S. is home for the Flat Earth Society. There are folks who sincerely believe that the Earth is flat.
One would think such a thing to be impossible. Surely, in the 21st century, in an industrialized, high-tech, literate society such as ours, with all the data, information, and evidence at our command that the Earth is spherical (well, egg-shaped, according to recent accounts), no one would dare refute such a thing. And yet, there are those who do. I once caught an interview with an FES member, who, when confronted with a photograph of the Earth, taken by a satellite in orbit in space, explained the image before him this way: Einstein stated in his Theory of Relativity that “space is curved”; so the curvature of space forces the light reflected from a flat Earth to display itself to the camera’s lens as circular.
Never mind that this is nothing at all what Einstein meant when he talked about the curvature of space. For the FES member, this was enough.
This sort of rationalization, moreover, is not rare, but common. It is what causes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deny the Holocaust. It leads Terry McAulliff to say that Al Gore won the election in 2000. It makes the lawyer in Richmond assert that smoking does not cause cancer, while the blowhards from Truth.com assure us just as forcefully that it does. Each of us, in our way, is like the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” looking at our severed arm lying on the ground and adamant that it is not ours.