Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bad science, bad theology (I)

Tom Phillips seems to think science has disproven atheism and evolution. He said as much, anyway. I'm not sure what kind of science he's talking about, though. It's not the kind I practice. I'll write a little more generally about it in the future. I think he's more upset at atheists using the science of evolution as a philosophical crutch. Turnabout's fair play, eh Tom?

I tire of such arguments, on both sides. There seems to be the presumption that a little cleverness will allow anyone to overcome the apparent falsehood of a field of knowledge, even without a solid grasp of that field's bailiwick. Usually I see atheists trying to disprove religion by "scientifically" (I'm using suspicious quotation marks, not sarcastic ones--the science and reason are sometimes rational, and sometimes hollow) attacking propositions that were plausible a hundred or a thousand years ago but do not hold up under more careful scrutiny, using more advanced tools. Theistic scientists also sometimes challenge contrarational assertions put forth by particular groups, faith-based and otherwise, but being willing to accept both Faith and Reason, they are, I think, less likely to succumb to an untenable sense of triumphalism like we so often see: being confident that just one side or the other is correct, it's easy for a theistic nonscientist or a science-interested nontheist to assume his or her beliefs are self-evident and only some competing propaganda stands in the way of widespread acceptance. Some creationists talk about fossilized human footprints being found in the same rock as dinosaur footprints, relying only on a similar aspect ratio to that of a real human footprint as conclusive proof, regardless of the facts that these footprints are far larger than modern humans (maybe they were Nephilim?) and closely resemble the nearby three-toed dinosaur footprint with one toe missing. On the other hand, some atheists consider Marian apparitions to be coincidental configurations of birds in a tree, misinterpreted by gullible theists as a an indistinct image of Our Lady, whereas many descriptions are not of merely gussied up vaguely female outlines on pancakes (although to be fair, I've seen such pictures), but are clear images of a beautiful young woman in obviously out of place garb.

Such smug carelessness does not edify anyone. It's not instructive, usually insulting, and leaves one side thinking the other is more worthy of contempt and less of respect. One example I remember from maybe sixteen years ago is a crucifix in a Massachusetts church where the eyes of the corpus, which had been open, closed. I was telling a self-described open minded nonbeliever about the event, just to point out that whether or not you believe in God, there are still plenty of bizarre phenomena we don't understand at all and perhaps never will. He asserted, not hiding his skepticism, that some yahoo must have gone in with a bucket of paint and changed the face of the corpus when no one was around. From the pictures I saw, a simple paint job could not have done the job, and from what I remember, there were people about the church at the time of the miracle, so even if no one had seen it happen, there's no way a guy could have gone in, gotten up to the crucifix, and repainted the face, with no one noticing his presence on church property or the freshness of the hypothetical paint. I can see someone pulling a Sherlock Holmes--"once the impossible has been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"--but an explanation like this one is the best that someone free of the intellectual stunting of organized religion can come up with?

There has been much propaganda regarding intelligent design.

In truth, creation/design is the scientific position; evolution is unscientific. By definition, science is based upon what we observe in the physical world and logical inference from what we observe.

While microevolution, which is change within a species, is observed and scientific, macroevolution, which is what "evolution" customarily means, is not. It asserts life somehow arose from non-life by chance.

No, it doesn't. Macroevolution is what biologists refer to as speciation, one type of organism turning into another--dinosaurs into birds, say. It speaks to the origin of species, not to the origin of life. To call what other theoretical biologists are studying "spontaneous generation" is clever but deceptively low resolution of the concept. As for the distinction from microevolution, there's no solid, objective line in between. Speciation is the accumulation of enough intra-species changes for us to recognize that one or more man-made criteria used to decide what's one species and what's another. Usually the main criterion is the biological or societal capacity for interbreeding, but it doesn't have to be.

The old spontaneous generation model, which Phillips correctly stated was disproven long ago, "predicted" that you could get scorpions by putting mustard between bricks, or that maggots would naturally arise from meat over time. Wikipedia (if you're anti-wiki, suspend your incredulity; if you can get past a little hand-waving chemistry it'll be fine) sums up current thinking fairly well. Basically, some experiments looking at Darwin's primordial soup notion, taking a mix of simple chemicals and running an electric current through it, yielded simple amino acids. These acids themselves aren't self-replicating, but self-assembling structures (see also nanotechnology and colloids) comprise a field that is currently enjoying tremendous practical research and progress therein.

Evolution also asserts one life form can change into another, higher form - something also never observed and thus unscientific.

"Unobserved" does not equal "unscientific." If it were that simple, relativity would be unscientific because we could not observe the effects until after Einstein suggested ways to test for it. I suppose relativity could have suddenly become scientific once we learned how to see it, but by the same token, macroevolution cannot yet be ruled out, and intelligent design cannot yet be ruled in. It would be more accurate to say "unobservable" is "unscientific," but it still would be missing the point. A theory, so to speak, can be unscientific, but not a phenomenon. You can say the theory of evolution is unscientific, but speciation can only happen or not happen within our experience. Paraphenomena may be either a protoscience or a pseudoscience, but we cannot say some strange occurance is scientifically treatable or not until we successfully do so (for if we fail, it only means that our attempts so far have been fruitless, not that all possibilities must be fruitless).

In fact, talk like this assertion belies the misconception behind ID: that because we haven't figured something out already, we never will. Unless it's objective, conclusive proof of God.

I should have stopped here, but even though I don't fancy myself a Darwinist pundit, there are some logical problems that often fail to get addressed, and I want to stop it.

Instead, we always observe exactly what Genesis states numerous times: Life reproduces "according to its kind," i.e., cats beget cats, crickets beget crickets, etc. They never change into something else. With microbiology, we understand why.

Wow, one example of what Genesis states, although I don't remember the references to like begetting being numerous, except for the geneologies. I do need to read Genesis more, though. I do see snakes getting shunned by humans, with the whole head-and-heel striking business, but none has ever approached me or a flesh-of-my-flesh woman and made any kind of temptation. I haven't heard about anyone bringing back pictures or wreckage of Noah's Ark, either. Is only Genesis subject to literal inerrancy, or can we trust the rest of the Bible, like normal Fundamentalists? How about I Kings, where pi is shown to equal three? Are all those "observations" I make with a compass and a calculator, where pi is a little higher than Kings suggests, erroneous or a hoax?

All life contains DNA, a genetic blueprint containing information. But purely material processes cannot create information, which originates only from a "mind." Evolution proceeds via chance, the antithesis of information. The DNA in simple bacteria has several million specifications; man's has several billion.

What's "information?" A message? A regular pattern? Is ammonia a medium of information because when heated with oxygen (heat and oxygen are not that hard to come by, nor is ammonia, in the world), it creates predictable quantites and proportions of NOx and water? If I may wax sincere for a moment, if I perform an experiment on an abiotic system, do the data I collect constitute information, or does my participation preclude the experiment from being a purely material process, even though I'm only observing? Back to the subject at hand, when bacteria live in or near another organism, they can take in the other organism's DNA. Their nuclear reactions are far stranger than what we normally think of when we imagine microbial reproduction.

Chance and information are not antitheses. Statistics and probability are all about extracting information from chance. Heck, play with any anagram generator on the web and you'll get lots of provoking words and phrases that are not directed by the original permutation. Certainly, anagrams are limited to the letters of the original, but a random string of words can generate an intelligible expression. Was information spontaneously generated ex nihilo? It didn't come from the generator (which only works with what you gave it--some of them filter through a dictionary, but it's not necessary), and its source wasn't in you (else the random string you tested wouldn't have been random), and it didn't come from the letters (which are only symbols of sounds, largely arbitrary things that except for a and i only denote meaning in groups and very limited contexts).

If anything, information is the opposite of entropy, and chance is the opposite of certainty.

The DNA molecule, the most complex structure we know and unquestionably the most efficient copying device, with self-correcting processes, prevents one life form from "changing" into another. We are all copies of a copy of a copy, etc., going back to the very first human parents.

Sorry, where did mutations go? Depending on how strict you want to be in defining "species," we can induce enough mutation in like such that it begets something very unlike, or perhaps just becomes unlike, although that would only satisfy the Lamarckians.

DNA is certainly complex, but it is not terribly efficient, and it does not have self-correcting processes that prevent speciation. These processes do not stop mutation, but allow the organism (or individual cell) to die when too many unfavorable mutations occur, either at conception or through environmental influences.

If we were all copies of a copy of a copy, then we should all look the same. It should be obvious that we're not. Where do you think this variation came from?

Even evolutionists accept the finding that all humans descended from a relatively recent woman whom scientists have taken to calling Eve, based on the DNA in our mitochondria, the cell's powerhouse. Mitochondrial DNA comes unmixed, only from the mother.

So? "Relatively recent" to scientists is still long, long before the usually accepted dates for creation. By my reckoning, it still leaves more than four and a half billion years from the time the Earth coalesced for life to form (sorry--that is, assuming it didn't get here from somewhere else). Either way, this "mitochondrial Eve" is not the first modern human. She is only the last human female whose line of daughters we know not to be broken. Any women who were her contemporaries, or women who descended from them, either had only sons or nor children at all, or possibly we haven't surveyed their mtDNA yet.

The fossil record disproves evolution. If the first life form changed into another, higher form by gradual gene changes, and so on down the line, accounting for all life then, quoting Darwin, "the number of intermediate and transitional links, between all living and extinct species, must have been inconceivably great."

The whole world would be awash in the remains of "infinitely numerous connecting links." It isn't.

Um...we haven't found all the fossils we expect, so we've found all that there are? Scientists know better than to traipse around in fields they haven't mastered; why do people who haven't studied any of it think two and a half years of a liberal arts degree is adequate?

I'm sorry, I was being rude. I don't mean to belittle any liberal arts program. They're not inferior at all; they just deal with completely different bodies of knowledge, just as ferrous metallurgy and constitutional law do. Still, I wonder if Phillips would go so far as to claim that, if we have dug up a dozen T. rex skeletons, then God must have only created a dozen of them, or at least created a dozen apparent skeletons and buried those when He was finishing up with assembling dry land.

Over the hundred years we've been studying paleontology, we've gotten a low-resolution picture of the fossil record, which is billions of years long. Why do self-appointed, external overseers of science get to decide that now is when we need to start producing some conclusive results?

Darwin conceded that fact, calling it "the most obvious and serious objection" against his theory. He attests the "sudden appearance" of species, complete and distinct, in the fossil record - just as if God created all life individually.

Uh, okay. Last I heard, Darwin's linchpin was something closer to irreducible complexity, but I may have simply forgotten. Maybe Phillips forgot that most biological and paleontological research took place after Darwin died, so Darwin couldn't have known to write about it. Einstein fudged relativity to permit a steady-state universe, though, so if he can be wrong about something untrue, despite having a surprisingly (to him, in the case of universal expansion) accurate grasp of something true; then why can't old Charles?

Evolution is scientifically preposterous. Laws of probability are real scientific laws. Our DNA is unique because the odds of another person having our exact DNA are so remote we can dismiss that possibility altogether. Likewise with evolution.

Here he's confusing science with engineering. Engineers are all about how to make things work first and asking about why things work later. A good rule of thumb for an engineer is to always try a first-order approximation and see if it's close enough to work with.

You do see similar simplifications in statistical mechanics, but no stat mech scholar will deny that the extremely rare events that seem impossible to those of us living in the big, slow, hot regime we do live in are still possible. You can drop a piece of metal in a bucket of water and reasonably not expect the water to freeze while the metal turns red-hot, but an actual scientist who knows a thing or two about stat mech would not look at a red-hot piece of metal in a bucket of ice and say "Nah, didn't happen; it's too unlikely."

I'm suddenly reminded of the island of peaceful, terrible musicians from "Erik the Viking." They got to live in peace as long as not a drop of blood was spilled there. One of the main characters murdered someone, and the island sank. The inhabitants refused help, as the water rushed up around them, believing their track record should speak for itself. Am I being clear enough?

Lastly, one should hesitate before labeling mathematical principles as scientific laws. Sure, math is a sort of science, but probability and statistics derive from logic, not from analysis of test results (which even theoretical physics has to fall back on, after a fashion).

Nobel laureate Francis Crick calculated nature's chances of producing one small protein: 1 in 10 to the 260th power. Crick reminds us there are only 10 to the 80th power (1 followed by 80 zeros) atoms in the whole universe; he concludes even the elementary components of life "cannot have arisen by pure chance."

Ah, another infallible scientist. No, I'm only being mean again, although I'm not sure why the faithful would be inclined to use the work of an atheist, who believed the soul was only a superstitious model of the yet-undefined psychological phenomena that emerge from the structure of the brain to form the person, to support something the atheist himself found ridiculous. Is he accidentally promoting some theistic principles, or just being misinterpreted and/or taken out of context?

What I'd really like to know, though, is where these statistitians are getting their probabilities from. Some of the magnitudes seem reasonable, but if I can accept ten to the 260th power for a probability, should I not be willing to consider ten to the 250th? The 270th? The 100th or 1000th? The 80th?

Whatever the answer to that question, the comparison is disingenuous. If there were 1080 particles randomly distributed throughout the universe, my chance of taking one particle and pairing it with another randomly selected particle is 1 in [1080-1]. The universe isn't built that way, though. We're dealing with a much smaller population, yes, but also one that is much denser, so particle interactions have a tremendous impact on the kinetics of the system.

Mathematician Emile Borel states an event will never happen when the odds are less than 1 in 10 to the 50th power.

Dr. Borel sounds like either a good engineer or an arrogant classical physicist. If I showed you that some phenomenon had odds worse than 1:1050 of occuring, and then I showed you the phenomenon, would you deny that it did happen? Odds like "1 in 10 chance" don't mean something might occur ten times but actually does so only on the tenth. The probability of an event is not based on the opportunity for that event to happen. If I roll a die, the chance of me getting a 5 is one in six; on average, I'll have to roll six times to get a five, all the numbers coming up more or less equally often. It does not mean that if I roll the die once, I cannot get a six. When these other, huge improbabilities get bandied about, I suspect that critics of evolution are looking at the average expected behavior (for the six-sided die, add up the possibilities and divide by how many there are: 21÷6=3.5, which is sensibly right in the middle, but unreasonable for obvious reasons) and taking it as the way things must be.

1 in 1050 is still a nonzero possibility. "Statistically impossible" is an arbitrary, if convenient, lie we tell ourselves to keep the math easy.

Phillips goes on a little longer about famous people citing figures and attitudes that seem to have no place outside classical physics. Maybe it's not fair to use ad hominems, but he's the one who started name dropping, and appeals to authority are not logically sound, either. His evidence comes from scientists who died decades ago, an atheist who had nothing a creationist would stomach for an alternative to evolution, a mathematician who believes in panspermia, and Albert Einstein:

Albert Einstein said, "I want to know how God created this world." Einstein knew the universe didn't happen by chance.

Right, because he also knew the universe was static, and he has access to secret proof of God that doesn't actually happen to explain scientifically God's existence, so Einstein has to do that part himself.

Nobel laureate Ernst Chain said, "To postulate that the development and survival of the fittest is entirely a consequence of chance mutations seems to me a hypothesis based on no evidence and irreconcilable with the facts."

Which facts? We've only had a hundred or so years to sift through what so far looks to be billions of years of fossil-hiding rock? Everything we know, scientifically, jives poorly with some poetry composed in a prescientific, and at the time probably preliterate, society?

Atheism and evolution are dead. Science destroyed them. Those claiming evolution is scientific must demonstrate that life can come from non-life by purely material processes and that one life form can turn into another, higher form. Science demands it. Put up or shut up.

Now Phillips just sounds, to me, like he feels seriously threatened and is posturing, at least after everything else he's written. Evolutionary science has yielded too many fruitful results for such an ultimatum to be taken seriously. Science, by definition, does not speak to the absence or presence of a Diety. Atheists like it because it explains so many things so well without invoking the Deity. Creationists, literal or otherwise, see science as an incomplete religion (and I can't blame them for getting that impression sometimes, although everybody really should know better) and try to graft in the Truth they know from revelation as if we should have been able to find it by reason alone, making the attractiveness to atheists and scientists themselves (I've written on narrow ecclesiology and the inadequacy of reason before, as have far greater thinkers) less of a threat.

Anything we could reliably reproduce and test--i.e. with science--is inherently not supernatural. Evolution, meanwhile, does not speak to the origin of life, like I said, but only to its development, hence the name.

You cannot demand that a field, which is not even your own, solve problems outside its scope, and when it says it cannot, you have no place to declare the whole field invalid. Whom could I rail against if I believed that a shotgun should serve well as a hammer, or a briefcase as a dinner salad?

As I would like to say if they let me give out flu shots, "This vaccine is brought to you by the science of epidemiology and the theory of evolution." As the theolgians say, "Believe it, so that you might come to understand." Short of understanding, you will always fail to disprove it.

1 comment:

UberKuh said...

Great post! Keep 'em coming.