Wednesday, August 8, 2012

IDHEF - Chapter 5: The First Life: Natural Law or Divine Awe? (Part I)

This is part of my breakdown of the book "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist." Related posts can be found by clicking here.

   For Chapter 5, I'm going to try to stick to my original format of going through section by section, though I may skip around just slightly when necessary to demonstrate a point. There is a lot to go through in this chapter, so I will be breaking this into two parts. Overall, this chapter is loaded with straw men. Recall, a straw man argument involves a misrepresentation of an opponent's position. This is done to make the opponent look foolish so one can defeat hir opponent in a debate.

   But before we start digging through that straw, I want to take a look at the quote at the beginning of the chapter. It reads, "'God never performed a miracle to convince an atheist, because his ordinary works provide sufficient evidence'" (p113). (Wait! He doesn't capitalize "his"? I also note other sites attribute a similar quote to Francis Bacon instead.) I can see how a Christian (or just about any theist, for that matter) can find such a quote to be profound. It should come as no surprise that I am not impressed. It reminds me of Ray Comfort and his classic argument from beauty of "look at the trees!" The first problem, in short, is that people assert things as being works of their god without providing evidence. Or, we get crap that people think counts as evidence, like we saw in Chapter 4. The second problem is the ease at which substitution can be made. "The Flying Spaghetti Monster never performed a miracle to convince an atheist, because His ordinary works provide sufficient evidence." See how easy that was? I realize there will be those who object, but I suspect any objection will amount to no more than a "How dare you equate God to your satire figure!?!" OK, what if I were to say something else similar like, "Bigfoot never performed an act to convince a skeptic, because his ordinary behavior provides sufficient evidence"? I can justify just about any claim if I tack on this additional claim that doubters are just ignoring the evidence. The third problem of this quote seems to almost be an admittance that the god they think exists does not do anything extraordinary. (They actually do think their god does extraordinary things, the problem is those things are typically told in unverifiable stories.) Upon hearing such near admittance, I tend to just smile, realizing that the reason this is is because their god does not truly exist.

   Now, let's start digging through that straw as they don't waste anytime setting up bad arguments!
Recalling a recent high school biology lesson, Johnny didn't attribute the message to his mom. After all, he'd just been taught that life itself is merely a product of mindless, natural laws. If that's the case, Johnny thought, why couldn't a simple message like "Take out the garbage—Mom" be the product of mindless natural laws as well? Maybe the cat knocked the box over, or an earthquake shook the house. No sense jumping to conclusions.


When Johnny arrived, he saw Mary and Scott walking hand-in-hand along the shore. As he followed them at a distance, he looked down and saw a heart drawn in the sand with the words "Mary loves Scott" scrawled inside. For a moment, Johnny felt his heart sink. But thoughts of his biology class rescued him from deep despair. "Maybe this is just another case of natural laws at work!" he thought. "Perhaps sand crabs or an unusual wave patten just happened to produce this love note naturally." No sense accepting a conclusion he didn't like! Johnny would just have to ignore the corroborating evidence of the hand-holding.

   Comforted by the fact that principles learned in his biology class could help him avoid conclusions he didn't like, Johnny decided to lie down for a few minutes to get a little sun. As he put his head back on his towel he noticed a message in the clouds: "Drink Coke," the white puffy letters revealed on the sky-blue background. "Unusual cloud formation?" Johnny thought. "Swirling winds, perhaps?"

   No, Johnny couldn't play the game of denial any longer. "Drink Coke" was the real thing. A message like that was a sure sign of intelligence. It couldn't be the result of natural forces because natural forces have never been observed to create messages. Even though he never saw a plane, Johnny knew there must have been a skywriter up there recently. (p113-114)
   With the above, the authors are starting a lead-in to the idea that DNA contains a message (see page 115). Then, since all messages we know about are created by intelligent beings, then DNA must be created by an intelligent being as well. The problem is that this is a false analogy. We actually saw a false analogy back in Chapter 4 with the watchmaker argument. What can make the analogy false is that the analogy focuses on only a few property that appears to be similar (in this case, there is only one property) while ignoring properties that make them different. A common phrase used to signal a false analogy is "comparing apples to oranges." One of the big factors that makes this a false analogy is that living beings in which DNA and its "message" are contained have a known natural process called "reproduction." The messages mentioned in the quote above have no such process.

   One ironic part is that the straw man component of the above quote is also making a false analogy, only in reverse of the false analogy that the authors want you to buy into. The idea is since DNA is a message created by natural processes, then all messages are created by natural processes. They do this to make the idea of DNA being created by natural processes to sound absurd. However, no one I know has ever suggested such a thing, the reasons for which (besides the poor use of logic to reach such a conclusion) we will get into further detail in the next few sections.


   The first thing that really needs to be addressed is that they begin to conflate two different areas of study. This is something apologists do a lot, so it's of little surprise to see it here. What they conflate are abiogenesis and evolution. Abiogenesis deals with how life may have risen from inorganic matter through natural processes. Evolution deals with the diversity of life. The important thing about evolution is that this idea starts with life; it is not concerned with how life came to be. A god could have created the first life form as far as evolution is concerned, as long as that god stays out of the process from then on. (On that note, evolution cannot be "guided by God" (p115). "Theistic evolution" is an oxymoron.) Thus, when they say, "the supreme problem for Darwinists is explaining the origin for the first life" (p115), they are simply wrong.

   The second thing is that when they discuss the idea of abiogenesis, they are looking at life today. What they need to be doing is looking at life in the past. Now, that's not entirely possible since that life is long dead and it would be unreasonable to expect to find traces of such life. What we can do is apply ideas of evolution along with the Principle of Uniformity that the authors mention in the next section to get an idea of what life may have been like. The important idea from evolution is that life generally (though not always) becomes more complex over time. If we then work backwards through time, life should generally be less complex. This is the idea behind Richard Dawkins saying that the amoeba is "'unjustly called 'primitive''" (p116). An amoeba from 100 million years ago would likely not contain "1,000 complete sets of an encyclopedia" (p116). This makes their "key question" another straw man. No one (other than these authors and other creationists) is suggesting the first life would resemble anything from today. (Another thing, too, is that I think an amoeba is more complex than any human cell.) When they say, "Darwinists can't answer that question" (p116), they are correct! However, the reason is because the question is ill-formed. I bet theists cannot answer why God likes to wear green underwear. Why? Because the question is absurd, just like theirs.


   While I like the idea of the Principle of Uniformity and it does indeed seem true that it is a useful concept, I see the authors as abusing it to their advantage. The first thing to note is that they correctly point out the reason "'Take out the garbage — Mom' requires an intelligent cause" (p117), but they do so after having made that false analogy back at the start of the chapter. The worse abuse is that, as we saw in Chapter 4 (though they did not explicitly mention the Principle of Uniformity), they imply that something must be designed if there are no natural causes.
Now consider another geological formation: Mount Rushmore. What caused it? Common sense tells us that we would never suggest that the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore were the result of natural laws. Erosion couldn't have done that. (snip) Since we never observe natural laws chiseling a highly detailed sculpture of a president's head into stone at the present time, we rightly conclude that natural laws couldn't have done it in the past either... (p118)
This isn't completely correct. Just because we have not observed any such natural laws does not mean they don't exist; it may be we simply have not yet observed them. Now, in this particular example, we do know that there are most likely no such natural laws. But this is because we know the process behind Mount Rushmore, as the authors actually address in the remaining sentences in the paragraph.
Today we see only intelligent beings creating detailed sculptures. As a result, we rightly conclude that, in the past, only an intelligent being (a sculptor) could have created the faces on Mount Rushmore. (p118)
And this is the primary reason one would look at Mount Rushmore and recognize it as designed. While not knowing of any natural laws is certainly a factor, knowing that humans do such things is also important. Again, take the examples of lightning and pyramids I gave in the breakdown of the last chapter.

   This second abuse becomes more clear in the next paragraph when they say, "Natural laws have never been observed to create simple messages like, 'Drink Coke,' much less a message 1,000 encyclopedias long" (p118). Even if we ignore my earlier complaint that the first life would most likely not have been so complex, my question would still be, "So what?" We know "Drink Coke" is designed because we know (1) English is a language invented by humans and (2) that people use airplanes for sky-writing. But what about the "message" in DNA? Not knowing a natural cause is not a good reason to jump to the conclusion that it is intelligently designed. Who has observed a god create such a message? Lastly, just because we know humans do something similar (create messages), we can't simply draw analogies to make the case for a designer for DNA, either.

   The flawed reasoning still continues in yet the next paragraph. Here, they say, "Spontaneous generation of life has never been observed" (p118). True! They seem to be saying this to make a point against those who would conclude* that the first life didn't require a designer; yet, they fail to make the same point against themselves and their apparent conclusion of a designer. Where's the observation of spontaneous generation of life from a supernatural creator?

   But wait! We're not done with this paragraph just yet.
In fact, all experiments designed to spontaneously generate life...have not only failed, but also suffer from the illegitimate application of intelligence. In other words, scientists intelligently contrive experiments and they still cannot do what we are told mindless natural laws have done. Why should we believe that mindless processes can do what brilliant scientists cannot do? (p118)
This one is just mind-boggling. Name me an experiment that is not "intelligently contrived." So, if someone puts together an experiment that combines hydrogen and oxygen and this experiment produces water, does that mean water is intelligently designed? Oh, wait...I suppose the answer is going to be "Yes" because they think a god created all the matter in the universe. Which makes me wonder if they really believe there is even such a thing as a natural process. They spoke of erosion earlier as if it were a natural process, but I can intelligently design erosion. I could run water through a garden hose and wash away the loose dirt in my garden. So does this make erosion an intelligent process? Does this mean the Grand Canyon is designed? Apparently not, because they just said otherwise earlier in this section.

   So what exactly are they trying to say there? It seems to me that since we can observe the natural forces at work on the examples I gave without the need for simulation, the authors will admit that those forces are indeed natural. But, for whatever reason (I find it to be through abuse of the Principle of Uniformity), they think anything simulated in a lab that can't be observed in nature must then require an intelligence. This is absurd. One concept that many scientists find key to the idea of abiogenesis is that the earth would have been hotter in the past. (Recall the Second Law of Thermodynamics that was discussed in Chapter 3?) In other words, conditions on earth would have been different then than they are today. It is suspected that those conditions may have been suitable for the formation of life from nonliving material. But the conditions of today are not, and thus we cannot directly observe such phenomena. The whole point of this is that just because we can't observe certain natural forces at work today does not mean that (1) such natural forces do not exist and (2) that attempts at simulating what is suspected to be early earth conditions does not necessitate design. I don't know how else to explain this because it doesn't seem to me like this should even be a tough concept to grasp.

   As I suggested, I really think their reasoning is abuse (or, to be softer about it, misuse) of the Principle of Uniformity. They seem to be negating it and thinking it will still work. When they described the principle, they said it was an idea that if natural forces can do the job today, they could do it in the past. I suspect they are also concluding that if natural forces can not do the job today, then they could not do it in the past. I disagree on this.

   Take this statement as an example: "If I stand out in the rain, I will get wet." Now I'll negate it. "If I do not stand out in the rain, I will not get wet." Is this true? No. It is true I won't get wet from the rain, but I could get wet for other reasons. I could be taking a shower, to use a common hygiene practice**.

   The other part about that paragraph was that they claim the Miller-Urey experiment is discredited. It is?!? That's news to me! Actually, if you read Wikipedia (and I've seen other websites that I find to be credible back this up), it states:
After Miller's death in 2007, scientists examining sealed vials preserved from the original experiments were able to show that there were actually well over 20 different amino acids produced in Miller's original experiments. That is considerably more than what Miller originally reported, and more than the 20 that naturally occur in life.
Now, I grant that this happened in 2007, three years after this book was published, but I have suspicions that the experiment wasn't discredited back then, either. I have a hunch that the people claiming the experiment was discredited were creationists. Notice that there is a reference number (4) near this claim. Let's go to the Notes in the back of the book...Jonathan Wells!!! Hey, he's a creationist. How 'bout that! Now, why does this matter? Eh, well, it really doesn't. The more important idea to point out is that just because someone claims something is so, does not mean that claim is true. To be honest, just because one is a creationist, which means they have an opposing viewpoint from the goals of the Miller-Urey experiment, does not mean they can't be correct about that experiment either. The one thing that isn't there is surprise. I'm not surprised a creationist would make such a claim about the Miller-Urey experiment. Now, if someone who supports the idea that life arose from natural causes said that, then I may pay more attention. Even then, I'm not going to buy into such a claim until it is backed by more than just a handful of scientists. And that's what we've got here — just a handful of scientists claiming that the Miller-Urey experiment is discredited while the vast majority do not agree with such claims.

   The remainder of this section seems to be making appeals to common sense. As I've stated in that post I linked, a person using common sense does not always get the correct answer. I find that what people like Richard Dawkins are trying to do is warn people not to fall into the simplistic thinking that leads to incorrect answers. When he says that "'complicated things give the appearance of being designed'" (p119), what I think he's trying to say is that it is simplistic thinking that leads to such conclusions. When one thinks more deeply about the evidence, one can then realize that design is an incorrect conclusion. The authors are trying to accuse the likes of Dawkins of denying the evidence, but I find that to be far from the reality of the situation. The reality is that the gut reactions of us humans are not always correct. Yet, the authors would have us believe that by denying our gut, we are denying the evidence.

   As far as their "chicken and the egg" dilemma, I think it's actually not that big of a problem. I would suspect that proteins came first. This is because, in part, of the idea that complexity tends to build over time. So, working backwards, as well as looking at results from the not discredited Miller-Urey experiments, it would seem that proteins can form without DNA. Thus, DNA would come later. The reason the authors even think there is such a dilemma is because they are working from the straw man argument that the first life form would contain some complex message.

* And do I really need to mention again that there is a difference between accepting an idea as true and finding it intriguing?

** Ultimately, though, my biggest complaint by far is that they are reaching a conclusion that certain natural processes cannot exist because they have not been observed. This is poor reasoning.


   I suppose the first place to start in this section is to address this claim about people like Dawkins ruling out intelligent causes from the start. I'm not going to deny this as being true so much as I'd like to point out some reasons why this isn't the issue the authors make it to be.
  • We know natural causes exist. We do not know a god exists, despite the many who claim at least one does.
  • We are continually learning more about nature.
  • We humans have a history of attributing many things as having theistic causes. This includes lightning, of course, but can be extended to practically any weather event (tornadoes, rain, hurricanes, drought, etc.) as well as tectonic events (primarily earthquakes and volcanic eruptions). We do not have such a history of attributing things to natural causes that are actually theistic causes; again, despite the many who may claim otherwise.
  • Most importantly, theistic causes could cause problems with the Principle of Uniformity. If a god does exist and can pretty much do whatever it wants (and, based on later chapters in this book, the authors imply as much), then things like the Grand Canyon do not need to have a natural cause. This god could have intelligently designed the Grand Canyon. After that, it could have created the water cycle; water, naturally looking for the path of least resistance, would have found its way through the Grand Canyon. Thus, giving the impression that the Grand Canyon was created by natural processes when it was actually designed. (Or, it could be that the Grand Canyon was created through erosion processes, but the main erosion was from an unnatural flood. In other words, the flood referenced in Genesis 6-9.)
  • While this is a lesser point, I find it to still be important to consider. As the authors say, "science is a search for causes" (p120). Even if one where to look for a theistic cause, one is not to stop at a god. If one comes to the conclusion that a god is responsible, the next step is to investigate that god to learn how that god did it. However, I've never heard of a creationist attempt to do this. About all we get are claims that this god is "unimaginably powerful" (93). How interesting!
To be honest, science has been a search for natural causes before intelligent (or theistic) causes for as long as science has existed. Isaac Newton, who was apparently quite religious and a classic example of a religious scientist that present-day religious apologists love to cite, was likely not looking for intelligent causes when he was studying the planets and gravity (though he apparently thought intervention was needed on occasion to deal with instabilities he thought existed). Pierre-Simon Laplace is famous for stating that he "had no need of [a god] hypothesis." (To be honest once more, Laplace was probably not religious, so he's not a good example; I just love that quote.)

   Next let's cover these supposed problems. They provide some quotes from Klaus Dose (whoever he is) and Francis Crick. So what it there are problems or a bunch of speculation? It seems what the authors are doing is trying to make it appear that all these scientists are in desperate denial of intelligent design when the reality is they have a mystery on their hands. After this, the authors really start grasping at straws and throw out examples of scientists who may be/have been a bit kooky, like Fred Hoyle, who was discussed in Chapter 4. Or quoting Chandra Wickramasinghe accusing Darwinists acting on blind faith...a guy who supports the idea of panspermia.* Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!!!

Error! Does not compute!
   Lastly, they have a pretty good quote from Michael Denton about the improbability of life as it is today arising from natural processes. I'm not sure where they got the quote, but it would not surprise me if Denton also added in something like I said earlier in this post about early life likely being less complex than what we see today. (Or he might just be dishonest like Robert Jastrow, who was discussed in Chapter 3 as claiming to be agnostic, but didn't speak as though he was. We appear to have a similar situation with Denton. Wikipedia actually says he claims to be an agnostic and not an atheist; but, more interestingly, he claims there is design in life, yet does not consider himself to be a creationist. So what does he believe, then? Does he believe there was no designer behind this design? How does one argue for design, but then not think there is a creator/designer? There seems to be a contradiction in his beliefs. Either that or perhaps they are ill-formed. Or perhaps the designer is an alien life form (thus he can be agnostic without contradiction as that would not be a non-natural creator)? But then where did that life form come from? Or another idea I've heard is that the universe itself is intelligent. This could be considered some unusual form of pantheism, though. At any rate, considering he wrote this book in 1975, he's had plenty of time to get his story straight.)

   I finally get to talk a bit more about this idea of DNA being a "message." As you may or may not have noticed, I have occasionally been putting that word in quotations. This is because the idea of DNA being a message is an analogy; one which is for the purpose of making the process easier to understand for humans by putting it in terms we understand. So when the authors go about saying that "life contains a message" (p122), they are starting to over-extend the analogy.

   There is a bigger question, though. Let's go ahead and accept their over-extension of the analogy for the sake of argument. They go about claiming that "chemicals cannot cause the message" (122), but chemicals apparently can read the message. Just think about this for a moment. If DNA is a message, to whom is the message intended? After all, don't there have to be two parties involved, at minimum, for a message to work. There needs to be the transmitter and at least one receiver. There are three parts to communication: a sender, the message itself, and the receiver. The authors have basically said that the god they are out to prove is the sender and DNA is the message. We have a missing piece in the puzzle.

   Go ahead, seriously consider that for a moment, and then read on.

   Do you see the problem? The only piece we have left in the puzzle box are chemicals. It is that these chemicals can go about interpreting (reading) that apparently receive the message in DNA and assemble accordingly. Or if chemicals cannot do this, then there might be a second deity that has to interpret that message instead. I suppose the same deity could just be leaving itself a note, too. Either way, the authors have not suggested either as being the third puzzle piece. But let's focus on the chemicals for now. Assuming that they would agree that chemicals can interpret the DNA (and based on what they say about a chicken-egg dilemma on page 119, they just might), these authors are then implying that chemicals can read but can't write. They try to use this example of how chemicals cannot "cause the sentences on this page" (p122). Sure, but chemicals probably can't read these sentences either! Something is reading that DNA. If it's not chemicals, what is it?

   Continuing to beat this horse, I have also heard DNA described as code. Now, as a software engineer, I write code. Yet, my code is worthless without a compiler. Where's the compiler that handles DNA? Again, if it's not chemicals, then what is it? And if it is chemicals? Then why can't chemicals create the message in the first place? The authors have been trying to convince us that materialism is wrong because they have a better answer. But their answer is incomplete to the degree that it should not even be considered an answer.

   The last page of this section seems to back again to the problem of common sense that I already discussed earlier. Actually, "common sense" is specifically mentioned in the Lewontin quote. I hate that Lewontin uses the term "a priori," and I disagree with him on some of the details of his quote, but I find the overall idea of his quote as well as Dawkins (who probably should have said, "...commitment to find a real explanation...") to be more about making sure one has the correct answer instead of accepting the seemingly simple answer and ending up being wrong. Again, when you look at the history humans have of incorrectly attributing natural phenomena to gods, can you really blame them for pushing for naturalistic explanations?

* On a side note, the idea of panspermia seems to be about comets and such containing organic matter or bacteria that gets released when they thaw or crash. It is not about intelligent aliens depositing life as the authors suggest on page 121. The authors are correct, however, when they say this idea has the problem of putting the question of first life off by a step.

End of Part I

   Since my full chapter breakdown is over 8,500 words, let's take a break. See you in Part II.

No comments:

Post a Comment