Saturday, February 14, 2009

Science Vs Religion (Pt. III)

In the New Republic column we've been reviewing biologist Jerry Coyne makes some interesting claims about the relationship between science and religion (See Part I and Part II). Some of what he says is helpful and some is not. An example of the latter is this graph:

[A]ll creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God's image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called "irreducible complexity." This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God. Blood clotting in vertebrates, for example, is a complex sequence of enzyme reactions, involving twenty proteins that interact to produce the final clot.

As it happens Coyne is presenting us with a straw man. First, he conflates creationism with ID and then claims that because all creationists believe in God therefore all IDers believe in God. This is false, of course. IDers believe in a designer. Some think the designer is the God of the Bible, but others have no idea who or what it is. It could be an Aristotelian prime mover, a Platonic demiurge, or, for all we know, an inhabitant of one of the infinite worlds posited by multiverse enthusiasts.

Second, Coyne asserts that IDers all believe that God intervened at points in the evolution of life to create various forms, especially man. Some do believe this, of course, but it's simply false to claim that all do. One model of God's creative activity sees God not as an artist doing touch up work on a canvas but more like the bed of a braided river:

Just as the bed guides the flow of water as it splits and wanders toward its destination, so, too, might God underlie the entire process of evolution leading it at every moment in the direction he wants it to flow. In this model, God's intervention is not a one-time or periodic event, but rather a continuous, moment by moment channeling of the flow of evolutionary progress.

Coyne continues:

ID turns out to be simply a "god of the gaps" argument--the view that if we do not yet comprehend a phenomenon completely, we must throw up our hands, stop our research, and praise the Lord. For scientists, that is a prescription for the end of science, for perpetual ignorance.

The problem for Coyne's thesis here is that it's refuted by the fact that people like Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Maxwell and so many others, ID advocates all, didn't just throw up their hands and say "God did it" and proceed to look for some other line of work. These men spawned the age of science and they all believed exactly what Coyne claims to be fatal to the scientific enterprise: That the world reveals evidence of having been intelligently engineered.

The "god of the gaps" argument is invoked by people who have no explanation for a phenomenon, but modern ID isn't based on what we don't know, its based on what we do know. What we know is that the biosphere is information-rich and that information, whenever we have otherwise encountered it, has always and invariably been the product of intelligence. The information coded in our DNA, for example, or the information on display in something like the Krebs cycle, or biomolecular machines, have their analogs in computer software and hardware and what we know is that these are certainly not artifacts produced by blind, purposeless forces.

Coyne goes on to say:

But no serious scientist wants evolution to become anything like a religion, or even a source of ethics and values. That would mean abandoning our main tool for understanding nature: the resolution of empirical claims with empirical data.

Evidently Coyne hasn't read Richard Dawkins' God Delusion in which Dawkins grounds all of life in an evolutionary worldview. And what's this about resolving empirical claims with empirical data? Where are the data to support the claim that life arose by a purely naturalistic process? Or the claim that consciousness is a purely physical, material phenomenon? Or that this world is one of an infinite number of worlds? Where are the data that show that blind, purposeless chance and natural selection have produced butterfly metamorphosis, or sexual reproduction, or insect flight, or human consciousness?

A lot of people are impressed by the astonishing fine-tuning of cosmic parameters and forces (see here and here) and impute this to intelligent, intentional engineering, but not Coyne. He's committed, we are to understand, only to what the data show. He'll admit only the empirical facts of the matter. So how does he explain cosmic fine-tuning? With empirical data? Alas, he offers us only vague hopes, wishes, and speculative metaphysics:

[S]cientists have other explanations [for the universe's exquisite precision], ones based on reason rather than on faith. Perhaps some day, when we have a "theory of everything" that unifies all the forces of physics, we will see that this theory requires our universe to have the physical constants that we observe. Alternatively, there are intriguing "multiverse" theories that invoke the appearance of many universes, each with different physical laws; and we could have evolved only in one whose laws permit life. The physicist Lee Smolin has suggested a fascinating version of multiverse theory. Drawing a parallel with natural selection among organisms, Smolin proposed that physical constants of universes actually evolve by a type of "cosmological selection" among universes. It turns out that each black hole--and there are millions in our universe--might give rise to a new universe, and these new universes could have physical constants different from those of their ancestors. (This is analogous to mutation in biological evolution.) And universes with physical constants close to the ones we see today happen to be better at producing more black holes, which in turn produce more universes. (This resembles natural selection.) Eventually this process yields a population of universes enriched in those having just the right properties to produce stars (the source of black holes), planets, and life. Smolin's theory immensely raises the odds that life could appear.

When Coyne says there are explanations "based on reason, not faith" what he actually means is that there are explanations based on materialism not on intelligence. After all, he himself is displaying a powerful faith that ultimately a plausible materialist explanation will be found.

In any event, such a theory as he proposes might be true, who knows? But that's the point. There's no empirical evidence for these hypotheses. Our Knight of Faith has tacitly admitted that his belief is based not on empirical facts at all but upon an unshakeable metaphysical faith-committment to naturalism.

Moreover, if there is a multiverse in which all logically possible conditions prevail then there might well be a world in which there dwells a being capable of creating a world like ours. If so, why could not our world represent the creative effort of such a being? In other words, by embracing the concept of the multiverse Coyne refutes his own argument that ID's designer has to be the God of the Bible.

Coyne seems to vaguely realize that he's wandered onto very thin ice and tries to explain why his faith in nature is better than belief in an intelligent agent:

[Belief in] the existence of multiverses does not require a leap of faith nearly as large as that of imagining a God.

This is interesting. He acknowledges that his views are based upon faith, not empirical data, but he justifies taking the "leap" by asserting that his leap is shorter than that of the IDer. How, though, does Coyne measure the size of such leaps? What metric does he use? Are such leaps subject to empirical quantification? Coyne thinks that the breath-taking precision of dozens of cosmic properties is easier to impute to the existence of a near infinity of contingent worlds, all having different constants and forces, none of which we have any evidence for, and whose origin itself would stand in need of an explanation, than it is to attribute it to the existence of a singular intelligence whose existence is not contingent upon anything. How does Coyne decide that the latter requires a greater leap of faith than the former?

And some scientific explanations of the anthropic principle are testable. Indeed, a few predictions of Smolin's theory have already been confirmed, adding to its credibility. It may be wrong, but wait a decade and we will know a lot more about the anthropic principle. In the meantime, it is simply wrong to claim that proposing a provisional and testable scientific hypothesis--not a "belief"--is equivalent to religious faith.

This is what the materialist usually winds up saying: "Wait a decade." He insists that empirical claims must be resolved with empirical data, but if the empirical data is lacking, materialist conclusions are drawn anyway. They're simply backed by a promissory note: "Just wait," the materialist urges. "Someday the empirical evidence will arrive, but in the meantime you must have faith that they will." This sounds very much like secular eschatology.

At any rate, if ID believes in a "God of the gaps" then materialism believes in a god of the promises. What Coyne apparently meant by resolving empirical claims with empirical data was that empirical claims must be resolved with empirical data or by nebulous promises of such data appearing in the future. Meanwhile, we are commanded to just believe and not question our scientific bishops.



How anyone with a shred of decency could vote to spend $780 billion of our money and thereby risk plunging us into a hyperinflationary depression and piling trillions of dollars of debt onto the backs of our children and grandchildren without even having taken the trouble to read the bill mystifies me. How anyone with a shred of intelligence and concern for their country and their children can vote to keep these people in office is every bit as mystifying.

The Democrats promised that members of congress would have 48 hours to review the bill before the vote was taken. Instead, they rammed it through before anyone had a chance to examine what was in it. No one who voted for this bill really knows what they voted for. Only three Republicans voted for it, but all but seven Democrats did. There's a joke in Washington that says that Republicans worry that people won't understand what Republicans are trying to do and Democrats worry that people will understand what they're trying to do.

It's no longer funny.