Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tutoring Uppity Negroes

This is getting a little old now, but it's still worth posting because it illustrates how people who claim to be free of racist assumptions are sometimes prone to the most patronizing behavior toward blacks. Senator Boxer thinks that because Mr. Alford is black that he should hold certain views about economic issues, and because he doesn't have those views he needs to be tutored by the kindly white lady who will deign to patiently instruct the poor benighted negro:

Senator Boxer is like a character out of a Flannery O'Connor short story. One can almost hear her pleading with equal measures of exasperation and condescension in her voice, "Mr. Alford, here's what others of your race think about this legislation, why don't you be a good boy and think like they do?"

This is how some people display their racial broadmindedness, I guess, by talking down to the uppity negro.


Signature in the Cell

In the controversy between Darwinian materialism and intelligent design there are four main issues over which the battle is joined. These are the origin and structure of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of species or diversity, and the origin of human consciousness. It's interesting that despite materialist boasts of epistemic superiority they have a theory for only one of these (speciation). For each of the others the materialists have no testable, empirical, scientific explanations at all. Notwithstanding, we're constantly reminded by experts such as Judge Jones of the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case that Darwinian materialism is science and intelligent design (ID) is religion.

Even the one theory that the materialists do have, common descent, often proves to be a procrustean bed for the facts that scientists uncover in their daily work, but even so, that theory is really not at issue between IDers and Darwinians. What's at issue in the debate is not the scientific facts, but the theoretical significance of those facts. The materialist says that the universe, life, and consciousness each has a purely material explanation even if they haven't the haziest idea what it could be, and the IDer says that the scientific evidence that we have in each of these areas points most plausibly to intelligent agency.

Now comes a book by Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, that shows the utter inadequacy of materialist explanations for the origin of life. SIC may well prove to be a game-changer in the debate over whether the origin of life can be explained in purely physical terms. Surely if Judge Jones had read it he would have been hard pressed to arrive at the conclusions he did. SIC will make it very difficult for future critics of ID to get away with some of their traditional accusations and arguments.

In his book Meyer accomplishes a number of things: He demonstrates in convincing fashion the sheer implausibility of any materialist explanation for the DNA enigma, i.e. the origin in the genetic material of specified functional information. He methodically makes the case that of the possible explanations for the digital code inscribed on nucleic acid molecules - chance, physical law, a combination of chance and law, or intelligent purpose - the best is clearly intelligent provenience. He also takes on just about all of the common objections to ID, especially those which arose in the 2005 Dover trial, and one by one shows each of them to be lacking in any real force. The complaint that ID is religious, that it's not science, that it's a souped up version of creationism, that it's not testable, makes no predictions, and leads to no research are all addressed and thoroughly refuted.

His argument is so thorough and so devastating to materialism that many readers will find themselves wondering how anyone could still embrace it.

Meyer adopts an interesting format for his book. He weaves the science and philosophy together with his personal intellectual biography to trace how he came to hold the views he does.

The book is long (508 pages) and not every chapter will interest those who may not have much background in cell biology, but he makes every topic accessible even to the scientifically uninitiated. He unravels the argument throughout the book, but for me his discussion in the epilogue of how information is not only coded straight forwardly on the DNA molecule, but how the same nucleotide sequences can code for different proteins depending on a host of complex biochemical conditions, much like a word can have multiple meanings depending on the context in which it is used, was of special interest. His explanation, too, of how information is stored not only in nucleic acids but also in structures in the cell, and indeed the very structure of the cell itself, was fascinating.

To get an idea of how astonishing this is imagine a page of text. The text itself has one meaning, but if it appears on a certain kind of paper it might take on additional meanings. Moreover, if you read, say, every third word yet another meaning would come to light, or if you read the text backwards still another meaning would be revealed. The information in the cell has this kind of complexity. Intelligent cryptologists can create this sort of code, but blind chance and physical forces have never been known to do so, nor, as a matter of probability, is there any but the most nominal chance that they could.

There've been a number of books that everyone interested in the intelligent design controversy should read. They're classics in the history of the attempt to legitimize intelligent agency as an explanatory cause of physical events. Some of these are: Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson, Evolution: a Theory in Crisis and Nature's Destiny by Michael Denton, Darwin's Black Box and Edge of Evolution by Michael Behe, The Design Inference and The Design Revolution by Bill Dembski, among others.

SIC makes such a powerful case and covers so much ground that I'll be surprised if it doesn't join this list in becoming a classic, not just in the literature of the debate over intelligent design, but also in the popular science literature as well.


Keeping the Mo

One of the dangers of front-loading all of one's major legislative goals into the first six months of a presidency, as Barack Obama has done, is that if he fails to get cap and trade and health care reform, his agenda will pretty much grind to a halt. It'll be extremely difficult for him to recover his political momentum and do anything much after these signature items have gone down in flames. He'll be a lame duck with three years left to go in his first term.

That these items will fail to be enacted is much more likely if unemployment continues to rise into double digits, and people have the sense that the stimulus was a boondoggle. Confidence in the president and his prescriptions for the nation's problems will evaporate and it'll be very hard for him to muster support for anything else he wants to do.

This is why the president seeks to impress upon us a sense of urgency. It's crucial that congress rush these bills to a vote, not because they must be enacted soon - much of the health care legislation would not take effect until three years after the bill is signed - but because he knows that they will never get passed if the economy worsens further. He also knows that the more time people have to ponder what his legislation entails the more the opposition to it will mount.

The Catch-22 is that the President has to get these bills passed before the economy gets worse, but if he passes them it's almost certain that that in itself will make the economy worse.