Michael Behe and the Centre for Intelligent Design

November 29, 2010

Last week, some of the student humanists and the skeptics went to Glasgow Caledonian University to see Michael Behe, the Intelligent Design proponent from the Discovery Institute, who was speaking fot the Centre for Intelligent Design.

It was the same old crap.

That could be the totality of this review, but there are a couple of issues that come out of the talk which I’ll discuss here. He went through the usual stuff about how we recognise things as designed, using the difference between a mountain and Mount Rushmore as an example. I didn’t have much of a problem with this section because he continually referred to ‘the appearance of design’ rather than the fact that something is designed.

Then he went onto the mousetrap claptrap and his baby, Irreducible Complexity in the bacterial flagellum. It’s complete rubbish and purely by coincidence, QualiaSoup has just released an excellent video which includes a section on that very topic, starting at 4.20:

So as you can see, systems can evolve even if they seem irreducibly complex because parts of the system can have different functions, parts that were previously necessary can be lost, and parts themselves can be changed.

It was mentioned in the (very short) question section that parts of a system can have different functions, and Behe’s reply was basically “yes, but look at the definition of Irreducible Complexity that I gave at the start, it says objects are Irreducibly Complex if removal of one part means it cannot carry out that specific function.” That’s fine if he wants to define it that way, but he can’t simultaneously define it that way and claim that Irreducibly Complex systems are a significant obstacle to the evolution of those systems. In order to claim that, he must come up with a system which is truly Irreducibly Complex, in the sense that it couldn’t have evolved through the gradual addition, removal and change of parts and functions. If he has any examples of that, he hasn’t been showing them.

After he’d explained a feature of organisms which he considered a blow to evolution, he then went back to the fact that organisms appear designed. He then said that concluding they are designed is an inductive argument, and then looked up a dictionary definition of inductive reasoning which said that’s the kind of reasoning used in science, and concluded that therefore Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis. If I’d had time for a question I would have asked whether he could see the leap in logic he’s using here. Let’s take a look at it again.

Inductive reasoning is used in science.
Concluding things are designed from their appearance is an example of inductive reasoning.
Therefore that conclusion is scientific.

Using the same logic, I could make the argument that:

Bands played at Woodstock.
U2 is a band.
Therefore U2 played at Woodstock.

I would have pointed out that although inductive reasoning is used in science, there are other things that make a hypothesis scientific, just as there are other things that define bands that played at Woodstock. So for example, how would Behe use the Intelligent Design hypothesis to make specific predictions? What evidence should people look for if they want to disprove his hypothesis? I suspect he wouldn’t have had an answer.

The last part of the talk was phenomenally ignorant. He just boldly asserted that his findings are consistent with findings in other fields such as the fine-tuning of the universe.

There is also an issue with universities hosting speakers such as Michael Behe. Yes, there is a free speech argument to be made, but free speech does not imply that you must give a platform to anyone who wants to speak. You’re free to say what you like but that doesn’t mean I can’t kick you out if you come and say it in my living room. You could say that having both Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionary scientists speak is a form of balance, but the difference is that evolutionary science has gone through peer review and is established, and then it is put into books and taught at universities. Behe and his colleagues can’t get through the peer review process, so they try to bypass it by going straight to writing books and getting talks at universities. I think it’s pretty clear that hosting these kinds of speakers at prestigious locations such as universities gives an air of credibility to a movement that doesn’t deserve it.

The Problem of Evil

August 25, 2009

So following on from yesterday, I’m going to do a piece on the problem of evil. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the argument that uneccesary and gratuitous evil exists, and therefore the idea of God held by theists cannot possibly exist, because if an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God did exist, then there would be no suffering, because he would want to, and would be able to, prevent it. Hopefully that makes sense.

Anyway there are various ways this is explained away by Christians (I say Christians only because that’s the religious group I’m most accustomed to, I daresay it applies equally well to many other religious groups), depending often on what kind of Christian they are.

Fairly traditional Christians may point to the Fall as an explanation. They say that God created the world perfectly without sin, without death and without suffering, but man turned away from God, and this brought sin into the world. The punishment for sin is death and suffering, so it’s all our fault (as usual in Christianity).

This Fall doesn’t make sense unless you’re a creationist, for a fairly simple reason. If someone uses this as an explanation, all you have to do is ask when the Fall supposedly happened. If they say it happened in the Garden of Eden about 6,000 years ago, you can point to geology and evolution to prove them wrong as usual. But if they’re a theistic evolutionist, it doesn’t fly, because animals were killing each other and eating each other and dying from the word go, there was no time when there was no death, certainly not right the way up until anything resembling humans came around within the last 200,000 years. That’s how natural selection works. When you’re in the middle of a debate it’s quite useful, as Stuart demonstrated once, to ask something like “so when did the Fall happen, before or after the Precambrian?”, because this divides the creationists from the theistic evolutionists. I also used this with a street preacher and he was left saying “erm erm erm” because if he’d said “in the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago”, then everyone listening would have laughed and walked away.

I did once hear a curious answer which took me by surprise and stopped me using this argument for a while because I thought he’d put a hole in it. A geologist said that it didn’t matter when the Fall happened because whenever it happened, it had ripples of effect both forwards and backwards in time and space. Think about that, he means that it could happen in the future… weird eh? That sounds pretty solid but actually it isn’t, that’s impossible too. If humans did it, and then it had effects corrupting the creation throughout history as well, then that means in some other now-corrupted reality humans must have evolved without death and suffering, and as I’ve said, that’s impossible with natural selection. So the Fall only works if you’re a full-blown creationist.

Another way the problem of evil may be explained away is through Free Will. As you may have read in my last post, God’s Free Will is on shaky ground anyway but let’s carry on regardless. The argument is that God created the world perfectly, but he gave us Free Will and some people have chosen to cause suffering, and that’s the source of evil.

Well, first of all, not all suffering is caused by people choosing to cause evil. What about diseases? What about natural disasters? What about accidents? At this point they may try and cover the gap with the Fall argument, but then you can just go back up to the last argument. One person did try and come back to that with the argument “well, a natural disaster isn’t evil in itself, people being close to it causes the suffering”, which threw me off for a second, but then a bullet isn’t evil in itself, but if I shoot you with it then it is. If people aren’t causing it, then in Christian thinking that leaves God. God is killing people using natural disasters. Brilliant.

Other Christians may explain evil away by saying that evil is caused by Satan, and goodness is caused by God. Well it’s kind of wishful thinking really to attribute all the good things to God but all the bad things to either people or to Satan, fairly arbitrarily. But this argument (and both the above) is fairly easily knocked down by pointing out that God is supposedly omnipotent and whatever is causing this evil, be it people, the Fall or Satan, God should be able to overcome it and prevent suffering. That’s what a loving, perfect God would do.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone did something evil, say, shot someone, but then the suffering caused by that evil didn’t happen. Say the victim got shot but was still alive and felt no pain and had no adverse affects. That way the suffering is being prevented but God isn’t affecting Free Will. What if disease and natural disasters happened but didn’t harm people. Then suffering would have been prevented, but the Fall will still have happened. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Wouldn’t that be a good reason to believe in an all-loving God?

I think this is fairly solid but if you can put a hole in any of what I’ve written, or you can think of another way of explaining evil away, go ahead and leave a comment.

Rectorial Elections

January 29, 2009

None of you are probably interested in this but I just spent over an hour tolerating George Galloway’s opinions and I’m determined to make sure it wasn’t in vain.

So here’s the background to the story. Stuart mentioned ages and ages ago at a pub night that George Galloway is a creationist, mentioning vaguely an article written by Johann Hari, writer for The Independent. Now George Galloway is standing for the position of Rector at the University, so I checked it out, made sure for myself the allegation had been made, and mentioned it briefly whilst commenting on the Student Newspaper website (that link), which consequently got published in the paper copy the next week.

Anywho during the pub night tonight, one of our members Alex got a phonecall saying that Galloway was over in Frankenstein’s. Turns out he was just showing his face at a Debating Union event on sex tourism, but we approached him outside whilst he was having a smoke just before the event. After Stuart saluted his strength, his courage and his indefatigability, I shook his hand and asked him whether the allegation that he’s a creationist is true or not. He looked me straight in the eye and denied it, saying he’s not a creationist and he’s never been a creationist. I told him I’d read a transcript of a radio show he’d presented and he said that it was not a transcript. I began to wonder if Johann Hari had been lying, since I had nothing but his word to go on. Stuart then asked him to repeat on a recorder what he’d just said, and he said something along the lines of “I believe evolution to be a scientific fact. But I also believe that, since God created everything, he also created evolution.”

Well I wasn’t really satisfied, so I decided to check for myself. I correlated the date of Hari’s accusation with Galloway’s radio shows, which are handily archived on his website, and decided that if he said it, it would’ve been on the 1st December [Edit: 2007]. So I put in my headphones and listened to the show instead of going to bed and forgetting about it like most people probably would have. 56 minutes in, an atheist calls up (one of the themes of the show was ‘militant atheism’) and says that if God did create us, evolution isn’t the best way to do it because it involves so much death and destruction. George Galloway then said this, which I’ve taken from Hari’s original allegation linked above, but I checked against the recording and is correct. You have the details, you can listen for yourself:

“I was looking at my little six month old baby today beginning to take his first steps crawling across the hall of the Methodist Central Hall today, and it doesn’t look like an accident to me. He doesn’t look like an accident of evolutionary chance to me. I’m not really prepared to believe that from the bottom-dwelling slugs of the pond came the voice of Pavarotti. I’m not really prepared to believe that Albert Einstein and a spider are really the same thing, that they just took a different evolutionary path.”

The lying get. He’s not getting my vote (not that he would’ve anyway).

The Nature of Faith

October 20, 2008

I know I’ve already done a few pieces on the issue of faith, but it’s come up a few times recently at the ECG and at Student Alpha, and I want to address a couple of specific claims.

Firstly, at Alpha they were saying that we use faith for everything. Sitting on a chair, for example, you don’t know if it’s going to support your weight but you put your faith in it. I later said in the discussion that it’s a totally different kind of faith. From experience you know that most chairs do support your weight because that’s what they’re designed to do. So even though it’s not 100% certain that it won’t collapse, you can be fairly sure. Someone gave the other example that you put faith in all kinds of experts who say things about which we have little to no idea, such as your doctor’s medical advice, but again this isn’t blind faith. Scientists and even just academics in general go through a lot in the way of peer review to get their work published, as I’m sure Tim over at the Friendly Humanist will testify. The faith that you put in these kinds of everyday things is also not unfounded, it is again based on experience. You can’t really say the same about religious faith. So just because we sometimes use the same word to describe it, doesn’t make it the same thing.

It was said at the ECG that you must put faith in any account of the origin of the universe and that God is one of those accounts. Particular attention was drawn to people believing in the multiverse theory in spite of the lack of evidence, and that this is no different to faith in God. I have a couple of points to make about this.

1. Belief in the multiverse theory is not totally unfounded, it is to a small degree based on experience. We live in one universe, why could there not be other ones like it? Similarly there’s no reason to suggest the Universe could have existed forever, why does it have to be a beginning?

2. As I’ve said about a gazillion times, I have no problem with the deist idea of God as the first cause, or the idea of Spinaza’s God; it’s just as valid as any other origins theory. But this is totally different to the personal Christian God that the people at the ECG were talking about. It is not a case of accepting all or nothing.

There’s also the issue that I don’t put faith in things that are really important. I wouldn’t advocate the use of faith in something so important as whether to worship God every day of my life or not, or what to believe on certain contentious moral issues that have an effect on everyone. That I leave to reason, as I think we all should.

Back to the ECG… again!

October 15, 2008

So last night kick-started another series of lectures from the Edinburgh Creation Group, hosted at the Greyfriars and Buccleugh Free Church. Take note that I’ve added their blog to my blogroll on the right of your screen. I only discovered it yesterday but it’s good to have a written explanation of a theory. I’ve often said that text such as on websites and forums is a much better medium through which to hold a debate than in person, so maybe it’ll be a catalyst for further blog posts in the future.

Anyway last night’s presentation was entitled “Chosen Planet: Earth’s Uniqueness for Life” by Dr George Marshall. In many ways it was quite similar to another talk last year but it didn’t go anywhere near as far as that one did. Several things were covered that I wasn’t aware of. For example, I knew that the moon caused the tide but I thought it was just the gravitational pull of the moon which pulled the water towards it, causing deeper water. Apparently there is also a high tide on the opposite side of the earth too! The point was that if the moon was closer it would cause catastrophic floods which would hinder the development of life on earth. Any further away, and the oceans wouldn’t be churned up enough to allow nutrients to come to the surface and feed the algae which are so fundamental to the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But ours is juuust right, so that’s ok (you’ll notice this becomes something of a theme).

Next up is the Earth’s orbit. If it were smaller, we’d be too hot, bigger and we’d be too cold. If our orbit were more elliptical the temperature would be too temperamental, and if other planets had elliptical orbits it would pull ours out of orbit creating the same problem. A bigger orbit would also result in a greater level of vulnerability from comets and asteroids. But ours is just right.

Many stars, including red dwarves, give out massive solar flares which would also make the climate too temperamental to support life. But ours is just right. Our solar system’s location in the galaxy is also idea to support life.

So, as the more astute among you may have noticed, this is no coincidence. We shouldn’t be surprised that, as living beings, we live on a planet that is suitable of supporting life. I was about to point out that the way the world is is exactly as we should expect it if it happened naturally, when someone on the front row came out with “What exactly is your point?” What followed was a very heated discussion whereby the question-asker didn’t at all make himself clear, really annoyed Dr Marshall (who didn’t understand the point he was making at all), and abiogenesis was brought up which has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand (oh, I should mention that halfway through the presentation it emerged that Dr Marshall is a biologist, not an astronomer), and the discussion went nowhere. I kind of brought it back up again in a more polite and clear way, and got the answer we were looking for. Dr Marshall wasn’t arguing that all these parameters amount to such a coincidence that God must have done it, it’s just that you have to step back and say “wow”. He still referred to it as a coincidence though, so I don’t think he grasped the idea that it’s not a coincidence at all.

Anyway, I think this shows the importance of at least appearing to be tolerant of people’s ideas. You don’t get anywhere by shouting and screaming, you just kind of come across as a bit childish. We were both on the same page, he just went about it a different way which I think was detrimental to the discussion.

In short, I’d heard all the arguments before and more along the same vein (which if people would like to bring up here I’m happy to discuss – last time Dr Ross’ 101 quantities was mentioned), so it was nothing new, although some things were mentioned that I hadn’t been aware of. It was also claimed that it takes faith to believe in a multiverse or an oscillating universe just as it does to believe in God. I have my own opinion on that and if anyone wants to discuss it further, drop me a comment here.


September 16, 2008

Faith is a strange thing, something we as humanists are generally opposed to. That sounds sad to a lot of people on the street, because ‘faith’ is so often used as a synonym for ‘trust’. But let’s be clear here, faith is a specific type of belief which goes beyond what the evidence says.

The reason I bring this up is because we had a conversation at the Chaplaincy Fayre today with Jack from the Christian Union. He started off by plugging one of their joint events with the Philosophy Society (which I’d also like to mention), which is called “Is Faith in God a Delusion?” It’s a debate on the subject between 2 fairly big names; Alistair McBay from the National Secular Society and David Robertson, author of ‘The Dawkins Letters’. It should be good, I’ll be there, it’s THIS TUESDAY 23rd September at 6.15pm in the George Square Lecture Theatre at Edinburgh University. Be there if you can.

Anyway so he was talking about the discussion they had deciding whether to use the word ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ in the title. It was interesting because he said the discussion was about whether to define belief in God as a belief or a faith position, but in my mind it doesn’t matter, that’s the subject matter of the debate. I would say that any faith is delusional by definition (after all, faith has been described as “an illogical belief in the improbable”), and so ‘belief’ would be the correct word to use, with the debate itself dealing with whether belief in God is logical or specifically a faith position. That in turn will determine whether it is delusional or not.

In any case that was merely the first sentence of our discussion. Jack denied that belief in God is a faith position because there’s plenty of evidence for the existence of God. We of course enquired what that was and he told us that the “rational information” of the universe was evidence enough to imply an intelligent designer. By that I presume he means that the universe is so complex it couldn’t have come about by ‘chance’. So then we realised we were talking to a creationist and gave other examples of rational information coming from an intelligent force, such as peanuts in a jar sorting themselves out through gravity with the smallest at the bottom, pebbles on the beach having the smallest ones furthest up the beach, craters on the moon as well as clouds that look like things. But he was having none of it. We also gave examples of how things are badly designed, such as the human eye, but he said he wasn’t commenting on the level of intelligence involved (even though he’s saying his perfect God did it :/).

We then got onto the problem of evil, and he said that it’s a punishment from God from the Fall. I said that there are a lot of innocent people who suffer, and the amount that people suffer isn’t proportionate to their sin, so what kind of judicial system does God run? Jack said it’s an imperfect system because the world has been corrupted by sin, and God’s waiting for everyone to repent before he fixes it. In the meantime he judges after death.

Now see, the problem is that a lot of people think that as long as the existence of God is possible, it’s perfectly rational to believe, regardless of whether things can be explained naturalistically. In fact, Occam’s Razor says that we should go with the option that presupposes the least, so even though the naturalistic option may seem against the odds, it’s better odds than presupposing the existence of an invisible, all powerful entity, for which we have no evidence whatsoever. Anyway, a bit of a ramble today. I apologize.

Evolution vs Intelligent Design

September 5, 2008

Last night I attended a talk at the Edinburgh Zoo given by Stuart Ritchie, President of the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the Darwin 200 celebrations. Stuart is a good friend of mine and I looked forward to the talk a lot, as I know he’s very enthusiastic on the subject of creationism.

Basically he outlined the difference between Creationism and Intelligent Design (ie. not much, according to the Wedge Document), then outlined the theory put forward by evolutionists. He then took arguments used by Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents in turn and demolished them as he knows how to do so well, incorporating the circular logic of the Bible, information theory, the bacterial flagellum, the Climbing Mount Improbable analogy, the scrabble analogy, and pretty much everything important that needed to be included, although I’m sure he could have continued for much longer afterwards if he’d had the time. He placed evolution side-by-side with both creationism and Intelligent Design to see which one stood up to scrutiny, and lo and behold evolution came out on top.

What interested me was the Q&A section towards the end. Several people who appeared to be from a religious background said that Stuart was simply bashing religion and its theories in the same way as ID proponents bash evolution. This is completely untrue! If ID theorists stood their own theories up to half as much scrutiny as Stuart did to evolution, I would be a happy man. In reality it is a blinkered, religiously motivated view which holds them back from seeing the truth and leads them to take others into their false beliefs. And if nothing is done, they will still be doing it when we’re celebrating Darwin 300.

Another man who confessed to being a Christian and a former RE teacher said to me afterwards that really both his position and that of Stuart were against fundamentalism. Whilst Stuart repeatedly said he had no qualm with religious people who kept their beliefs out of science (I happen to know otherwise 😛 ), my major problem with the so-called “religious moderates” is that they rarely, if ever, speak out against fundamentalists within their ranks. How often do we see the British Muslim Council speak out against lies told in the name of Islam? How often do Christians turn on creationists and say “hold on a sec, you’re talking rubbish, I’m not letting you represent me”? We only ever see religious people speaking out against fundamentalism after a serious terrorist attack, when they’re effecively forced to. Instead the debate is between different faiths, or between faith and science, and too seldom do religious people scrutinize themselves. I suspect there’s a reason for that; if they did, there wouldn’t be too many religious people left.

In any case, I fully support the Darwin 200 events, and urge anyone who’s remotely interested to get along to one of the many events happening nationwide. You won’t regret it. I think we’ll be getting Stuart to do the same talk again in the Humanist Society’s first semester programme, too.