Tuesday, March 8, 2011

God of the Gaps, or How Wrong Can an Argument Be?

It's been a while, but I've been busy.

Anyway, at some point, I promised myself I wouldn't do this (referring to atheism/theism or evolution/creation debates) anymore, but this is just too frustrating to ignore.
HuffPost, that bastion of rigorous thought, has a gem on its page today, found here.

It is, of course, a reasonable argument for the existence of god. Because the other ones aren't, obviously, but this one will rectify all the mistakes of millennia of arguments and come up with a conclusive proof that all reasonable people must accept (that must is, of course, descriptive rather than normative.

Let us see. It begins,
“In our recent dialogue I have noticed a consistent theme. It was frequently remarked that religious lines of argumentation lack reason. The contention seems to be that most, if not all, religious systems rely solely on wholly unsubstantiated faith to support their beliefs.”

So, there’s a somewhat valid point half-buried in here, which is that it is often assumed that religious arguments are, ipso facto, irrational, and it’s possible that that’s a problem. Here we need to think about the words we’re using, because what it is to be rational is a matter of some debate. In common usage, it generally just means sensible, as in, it makes sense to me. In a more rigorous philosophical way, it refers to those ways of thinking which are deliberative and logical. The first has more than a hint of intuitionism, and so gives us a poor test to establish the validity of an argument. After all, arguments for god frequently “make sense” to those who already believe. Regarding the second definition, my Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Religion will furnish as many consistent, well-reasoned arguments for god as you care to read. To contend that religious arguments are necessarily irrational is empirically incorrect, and furthermore ignores the history of philosophy, in which Alfarabi, Aristotle, Aquinas and Maimonides, rationalists all, promote their conceptions of god and religion.

On the other hand, most religious systems do rely on unsubstantiated faith to support their beliefs. The “all” and “solely” are strawmen, as clearly there exist nontheistic religions along with secular aspects of religious thought. Moving on, though, it’s an entirely valid claim to make that religion is in large part based on faith. Many believers themselves make such a claim, saying that not only do they trust in the existence of unseen things, but that this faith is indeed a virtue. All of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith (notice the title) begin with the phrase, “I believe with perfect faith.” Aquinas counts faith among his theological virtues, the cultivation of which leads to full happiness and defines it further as Paul does, saying "Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not." If there were no element of faith in religion, then it would either be prescriptive without foundation, and thus incredibly weak, or subject to an enormous amount of change as empirical evidence comes to light. So the essay has not gotten itself off to a good start.

But then arises the main portion of the argument, which we are told will consider the naturalistic account of the origin of life, in particular its failings. After an entire paragraph of promises that much high level intellectual work has been done on behalf of the author’s position, the subject is introduced with,
"One might suppose that in the six or so decades since the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick during which researchers have been investigating the origin of life they might have come up with some pretty solid leads to explain it. The truth of the matter is that we see scientists coming up surprisingly empty-handed and that even within scientific circles, the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.”

Ok, firstly, citation needed. Vague, gleeful allusions to a heartwrenchingly disunited scientific community are all too common in this kind of piece, and not appreciated. Secondly, and I really cannot believe I have to say this, but the fact that hypotheses are getting proposed and then rejected by the broader scientific community is how science works, and more importantly exactly how it is supposed to work. Criticize the Baconian method if you like, criticize the historical materialist nature of science, criticize empiricism, but please do not disparage an enterprise you contend has failed for doing exactly what it sets out to do. Finally, we do have some leads, not that it matters. If we had not a semblance of a shadow of an idea, that would not indicate that naturalism had somehow failed. Is this the argument you would have used before we came to a (moderate) consensus on the Big Bang? But, in fact, we do. The Oparin-Haldane hypothesis, for one. And others. There’s a wikipedia page. You should have read it before you wrote this.
“So how is a non-religious scientist expected to contend with this dearth of hard evidence?"

By turning to you for answers, of course! Because that’s what scientists do when they don’t know the answer.

Now comes the copypasta of ostensibly relevant quotes.
"One must conclude that ... a scenario describing the genesis of life on Earth by chance and natural causes which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith has not yet been written." (Dr. H.P. Yockey, physicist, information theorist and contributor to the Manhattan Project)

A physicist, information theorist, and most-destructive-thing-people-ever-created-creator, but interestingly enough, not a biologist. That’s not a sufficient argument, of course, as information theory is very important in biology. But pretty much only creationists take Dr. Yockey seriously, as he provides so many pithy tidbits on the failure of science to do what he wants (in this case, defund SETI). Criticisms of his argument can be found here and here, and even those take the Dembski threshold too seriously, as far as I’m concerned.

The general idea behind the Dembski threshold is that life is extremely improbable, so its natural formation is impossible. This deeply problematic conflation of improbability with impossibility is addressed by relying on the number of particles in the universe times the number of seconds since the universe began (I’m glad, by the way, that we’re accepting that number on “faith”) being orders of magnitude higher than the odds against life happening. The general problem with that being that there’s no reason why the universe has to cycle through all possible configurations before getting to the one we’re interested, which is why despite there being ~8E67 ways to lay out a deck of 52 cards, no particular ordering is impossible. Even if we accept that, though, there are many issues with the argument, including the fact that, by and large, the numbers don’t fall on the far side of this “Dembski threshold.” Leaving all that aside, it’s possible that this quote is right, but even so, the theory we need hasn’t been written…yet. The history of supposedly intractable problems solved by science is long, and the history of “Golly gee, I have no idea” is less paved by success.
"The theory behind theory is that you come up with truly testable ideas. Otherwise it's no different from faith. It might as well be a religion if there's no evidence for it." (Dr. J. Craig Venter, Biologist and one of the first people to sequence the human genome)

Ah, Craig Venter, beloved by accomodationists and creationists alike. Quite a few problems with this one. Firstly, that’s an egregiously broad use of the word ‘theory’ which just contributes to the confusion surrounding the issue. Whatever leads we have on abiogenesis, they are hypothesis about how things came about, not overarching organizing principles, so let’s get that straight. Next, yes, of course, testable ideas are paramount, but that doesn’t make expecting a naturalistic explanation to arise, as it has every other time, faith. Furthermore, hypotheses and theories can still be helpful in ascertaining various ways of looking at an issue, as in string theory, and also, things like Bayesian probability can actually give us near certainty on things that can’t be tested, like the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics. And then, finally, methodological naturalism has a track record unlike essentially anything else, so comparing the vast intricacy of ritual, symbolism and entrenched faith that constitute religion to an expectation that science will, as it so often does, win out, is patently ridiculous. There are different kinds of faith being talked about here, and conflating them is bordering on intellectually dishonest.

The author goes on to assert that we can either accept science on faith, an inherently silly notion, or we can believe in the power of chance, which is an argument that has always been at the bottom of the proverbial barrel in ongoing debates of this kind, so I won’t address it, except to say that the quote that follows it from Robert Shapiro is ruthlessly quote-mined from a scientist who believes in nothing like what this article is promoting and has in fact written several books about potential origins of life. He continues on the irrelevant chance tangent and adds in some more quote mining for good measure (“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going,” is followed directly in Francis’ book by “but this should not be taken to imply that there are good reasons to believe that it could not have started on the earth by a perfectly reasonable sequence of fairly ordinary chemical reactions.”)

Then he moves into a complete misunderstanding of evolution.

Evolution can only begin once we already have a dazzlingly complex, self-replicating, living cell with which to work” is a completely untrue statement. Any replicator with semi-fidelitous hereditary factorsundergoing attrition will evolve. That’s how the math works, and the real world, too.

Rabbi Adam Jacobs then says something absolutely remarkable, not only for its utter absurdity, but also for its sheer disrespect for all philosophical positions mentioned.
“That -- the origin of that first cell, not what happened thereafter -- is the fundamental basis of disagreement between theist and atheist.”

I really, deeply, fundamentally, hope that’s not the truth. Because I pride myself on rationality and truth, science being a phenomenal method of using the former to get to the latter, and many religious people pride themselves on not only those things, but a much more far-reaching understanding of the divine than highly negentropic chemical generation. But he goes on to his even more ridiculous conclusion:
“I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that "chance" played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly
reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.”

No. No, no and no. Absolutely not. The evidence in no way points to a supernatural explanation for everything. What evidence? Where? And in what way would we account for the natural world pointing to a supernatural explanation? All the lack of evidence hurled at the scientists is there for the theist, doubled, and then squared because the evidence for the supernatural, if your philosophy allows for such a thing, would have to be insurmountable. And it’s not. This is not a reasonable position. It’s a tentative one, until we find an explanation for abiogenesis, and then this God of the Gaps nonsense is going to move on to something else.

The key phrase in this paragraph is “the appearance of design.” Not design itself, the appearance of design. And that can be and will be accounted for. Let us not pretend otherwise.

As for the prolix quote that ends the piece, that too is mined from a naturalist scientist who is pointing out the difficulties and limitations of materialism, and the deep and abiding commitment anyone who wants the truth has to make to it, so as to be seduced by easy explanations which give us no further understanding of the universe and as such fail the enlightenment project.

I like to have my intelligence respected, so let us have no more of this.


  1. Some people believe that there is a God who is eternal. Some people believe that there are eternal laws of science.
    In whichever way belief is defended, belief remains a belief.
    One belief-system (God) has been merely replaced by another belief-system (laws of science).

    A joke:

    In olden-golden days the saying was: When there was nothing, there was God. When there will be nothing again, there will still be God.
    But then came the scientists and changed everything. The above saying also changed to this: When there was nothing, there were quantum laws. When there will be nothing again, there will still be quantum laws.
    These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless, changeless, all-pervading, eternal, unborn, uncreated and immaterial. Only that these laws lack consciousness. In every other respect they are just like God.
    These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless and immaterial, because when there was no space, no time and no matter, there were still these quantum laws. (Alexander Vilenkin’s model)
    These quantum laws are all-pervading, because these laws act equally everywhere.
    These quantum laws are scientists' God.

    N.B. Scientists will have a nervous break-down if some day they come to know that quantum laws are not eternal.

  2. One belief-system (laws of science) provides testable predictions that explain a great deal of natural phenomena. One belief-system (God) provides an answer to intuitions of grandeur with no basis in fact.