Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bending over Backwards: Why Dawkins says he was not "caught out" in Stein's Expelled

Another example. Toward the end of his interview with me, Stein asked whether I could think of any circumstances whatsoever under which intelligent design might have occurred. It's the kind of challenge I relish, and I set myself the task of imagining the most plausible scenario I could. I wanted to give ID its best shot, however poor that best shot might be. I must have been feeling magnanimous that day, because I was aware that the leading advocates of Intelligent Design are very fond of protesting that they are not talking about God as the designer, but about some unnamed and unspecified intelligence, which might even be an alien from another planet. Indeed, this is the only way they differentiate themselves from fundamentalist creationists, and they do it only when they need to, in order to weasel their way around church/state separation laws. So, bending over backwards to accommodate the IDiots ("oh NOOOOO, of course we aren't talking about God, this is SCIENCE") and bending over backwards to make the best case I could for intelligent design, I constructed a science fiction scenario. Like Michael Ruse (as I surmise) I still hadn't rumbled Stein, and I was charitable enough to think he was an honestly stupid man, sincerely seeking enlightenment from a scientist. I patiently explained to him that life could conceivably have been seeded on Earth by an alien intelligence from another planet (Francis Crick and Leslie Orgel suggested something similar -- semi tongue-in-cheek). The conclusion I was heading towards was that, even in the highly unlikely event that some such 'Directed Panspermia' was responsible for designing life on this planet, the alien beings would THEMSELVES have to have evolved, if not by Darwinian selection, by some equivalent 'crane' (to quote Dan Dennett). My point here was that design can never be an ULTIMATE explanation for organized complexity. Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe). Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen. That, for goodness sake, is the creationists' whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella! Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being. Organized complexity -- and that includes everything capable of designing anything intelligently -- comes LATE into the universe. It cannot exist at the beginning, as I have explained again and again in my writings.

 
This 'Ultimate 747' argument, as I called it in The God Delusion, may or may not persuade you. That is not my concern here. My concern here is that my science fiction thought experiment -- however implausible -- was designed to illustrate intelligent design's closest approach to being plausible. I was most emphaticaly NOT saying that I believed the thought experiment. Quite the contrary. I do not believe it (and I don't think Francis Crick believed it either). I was bending over backwards to make the best case I could for a form of intelligent design. And my clear implication was that the best case I could make was a very implausible case indeed. In other words, I was using the thought experiment as a way of demonstrating strong opposition to all theories of intelligent design.



16 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of malarkey.

BK said...

If it weren't for the fact that Dawkins is a well-read author who, for reasons that completely escape me, is loved and idolized by thousands of people who accept his point of view, this guy wouldn't be worth the time of day to write about. He says things that are so completely unbelievable that I find myself sitting in stunned silence over the many ridiculous things he says. I am not certaoin that he isn't really a circus clown pretending to be a thinker.

Steven said...

hey Victor have you ever read PZ Meyer's critique of Plantinga? here

Tom Gilson said...

He says,

Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen. That, for goodness sake, is the creationists' whole point, when they bang on about eyes and bacterial flagella! Evolution by natural selection is the only known process whereby organized complexity can ultimately come into being.

First, evolution by natural selection is not the only known process whereby organized complexity can come into being. (I omitted "ultimately" on purpose.) Every word he has written or spoken was an instance of organized complexity coming into being without requiring a new instance of evolution by natural selection.

So what then if we insert "ultimately" back into his phrase? Then we really are bound to consider the whole phrase, which also includes "come into being." His assumption is that everything that is, has come into being. And if we are going to suppose there is a God, then we have to explain how God could have come into being.

Which is my round-about way of repeating what anonymous already said: he's full of malarkey.

Tom Gilson said...

Myers's attempted takedown of Plantinga (referenced by Steven) fails badly here:

In Plantinga's world, if we queried the inhabitants with some simple question, such as, "Is fire hot?", 50% would say no, and 50% would say yes. This world must be populated entirely with philosophers of Plantinga's ilk, because I think that in reality they would have used experience and their senses to winnow out bad ideas, like that fire is cold, and you'd actually find nearly 100% giving the same, correct answer. Plantinga does not seem to believe in empiricism, either.

Plantinga was talking about beliefs and behavior, and arguing that in the world he postulates there is no necessary connection between the two. Myers trots out an example that assumes the two are necessarily connected (that the way one answers the question, a behavior, reflects what one actually believes), and makes it the foundation for his proof that they are connected.

It boils down to:

1. Assume Plantinga is wrong.
2. Therefore Plantinga is wrong.

I've seen some relatively challenging rejoinders to Plantinga's argument here, but Myers's is not one of them.

The rest of the ironies in his piece are just so much comic relief.

Mark Frank said...

BK

Can you point to some specific statements of Dawkin's account that you find unbelievable?

Tom Gilson said...

Mark,

If I may answer on BK"s behalf, how about Dawkins's claim that raising a child in a particular religious belief is child abuse? And what about his representing himself as a premier advocate for science at the same time he makes that claim? (See here for more on that.)

Mark Frank said...

Tom

I was referring to the specific piece on expelled. I do agree that his "religion is the root of all evil" line is misplaced.

Anonymous said...

How about the fact that his entire explanation here absolutely reeks of a Peewee Herman-esque "I meant to do that!" response? It wasn't that he was "caught out" - sweet Darwin, no! If you could just know what he was -thinking- when he gave his responses, why, you'd know that he was just being too crafty by half.

Ell oh freaking ell.

J said...

Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen.

Dawkins may annoy some people, but he's correct on that. And the fossil record does show, well, evolution; descent with modifications. Mammals arrive very late in the scene.

The design people are confused on evolutionary progress (among other things). While Darwin granted that species improved and seemed to progress, that occurred over countless millenia. There seems to be something like "directionality"--hardly traditional theology, however. And countless species have gone extinct because of poor engineering or not being able to adapt, etc.

AS a metaphor or philosophical speculation the Design arguments may have some power, but they should never be mistaken as a replacement for biological science--and the courts agreed with keeping Intelligent Design out of the science classrooms. Behe lost the case.

kbrowne said...

How was Dawkins 'caught out'? Everything he said on Expelled made sense. But then, I do not think it ridiculous to suggest that aliens may have designed life on Earth. (Dawkins may think that but I do not.) I am sure humans will do something like that on other planets in the future. Why is it absurd to speculate that it may already have happened?

Tom Gilson,
In the link you give, Dawkins is not talking about religious teaching in general, he is talking specifically about the doctrine of Hell. That is indeed an appalling doctrine and has caused a great deal of suffering. I am not surprised that he thinks it is child abuse to teach it to children. If I were talking to Dawkins I would raise two points though.

First of all, I do not believe that Hell for all non-Catholics was official Catholic teaching at any time in the lifetime of people now alive. It once was official teaching but a very long time ago.

Secondly, Dawkins does not tell us what he thinks parents and teachers who really believe in the doctrine of Hell should teach children. The Catholic church teaches that at about the age of seven children become capable of mortal sin. If Hell is real surely it is necessary to warn them.

Joshua said...

Wow, how breathtakingly idiotic!

Even if life on Earth was seeded by intelligent designers on another planet, and even if the alien life form was itself seeded four billion years earlier, the regress must ultimately be terminated (and we have only some 13 billion years to play with because of the finite age of the universe). Organized complexity cannot just spontaneously happen.

Aren't those two sentences completely mutually contradictory?

Victor Reppert said...

I think, in at least a narrow sense, I have to side with Dawkins' complaint against Expelled. Dawkins was answering the question "What if we just can't find an adequate terrestrial Darwinian explanation to the origin of life?" His answer would have to be something like Francis Crick's panspermia thesis. If you accept Dawkins' 747 argument, then this is the conclusion you have to draw. That is, if you have an argument that shows that theistic explanations for complexity are always and necessarily going to be inadequate, then if there is an explanatory gap concerning how life emerged, then any possible account of it that, using Dennett's terminology, employ skyhooks is to preferred to one that sticks to cranes, whatever difficulties the crane hypothesis might face.

Dawkins appears to merely assert that the ultimate explanation for extraterrestrial life would have to be evolutionary, and that makes him sound dogmatic. But he has an argument for it. It is quite true that William Lane Craig says that it deserves the title of being the worse atheistic argument in the history of Western thought, but nevertheless the appearance of mere assertion generates a misunderstanding.

Erik Wielenberg has argued that the 747 argument is a recycling of an argument found in Hume's Dialogues, and argument that I have called The Inadequacy Objection. I am linking to Wielenberg's analysis as it appeared on Vallicella's blog. I replied to the objection as follows in my essay in In Defense of Natural Theology:

The Inadequacy Objection gratuitously assumes that matter is what is clearly understandable, and that “mind” is something mysterious, the very existence of which has to be explained in terms of un-mysterious matter. But is this an accurate picture? According to Galen Strawson,
This is the assumption that we have a pretty good understanding of the nature of matter—of matter and space—of the physical in general. It is only relative to this assumption that the existence of consciousness in a material world seems mystifying. For what exactly is puzzling about consciousness, once we put the assumption aside? Suppose you have and experience of redness, or pain, and consider it to be just as such. There doesn’t seem to be any room for anything that could be called failure to understand what it is.
On the other hand, matter is described by modern physics in the most mystifying terms imaginable. The philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen writes, “Do concepts of the soul…baffle you? They pale beside the unimaginable otherness of closed space-times, event horizons, EPR correlations, and bootstrap models.”

Peter Pike said...

J said:
---
And the fossil record does show, well, evolution; descent with modifications.
---

Actually, fossils don't show descent. Descent is inferred, not demonstrated.

J said...

Trivial.

If one steps outside in the early AM, and the ground is wet, and the trees and plants are covered with water, and water's running down the street, it shows it rained, even if the sky is clear. OK, call it an inference, but really observation. The verb "show" may not please a logician, but it connotes inference.

There exists a long sequence of fossils and ancient skeletons that look quite a bit like modern horse skeletons, with a few differences (smaller, slightly different bones, etc). Thus, that shows that horses developed over millenia, regardless of the semantic game. And combined with the radio-carbon dating, close to certainty. There are a few issues with transitional forms but there are more transitional forms than creationists admit.

(Im not saying that rules out religious interpretations, but they need not be traditional or biblical).

Anonymous said...

The stupid thing is that if Dawkins had been able to finish making the point he claims that he intended, it makes him look even worse. Suppose aliens did start life on Earth and direct it accordingly; all ID claims is that there is evidence pointing to that design. It doesn't claim the aliens were themselves designed -- to do that, we'd need to examine the evidence of their development on their own planet. That evidence might in fact turn out to indicate that the aliens evolved undirectedly!

In other words, ID might turn out to be completely compatible with the atheistic view Dawkins wants. But Dawkins isn't interested in the evidence, even if it did agree with him -- he's simply pushing a dogmatic worldview he wants to believe in, and any resemblance to true science is purely coincidental.