Thursday, September 24, 2009

Forget (Charles) Darwinism

I'm not a fan of the word "Darwinism". I know it has its uses, but I think it can cause confusion - and sometimes that is even intentional.

The phrase is a favorite in creationist materials, its use often subtly implying that proponents of evolution are necessarily proponents of Charles Darwin. That implication is useful later, when the creationist claims that science is itself religion (and Darwin presumably a member of its church hierarchy).

I also think it has some weaknesses in terms of marketing.

The term "Evolutionism" (spell-checker informs this is not even a word) can be expected to conjure images of the process, and the scientific methods behind its study. But in hearing "Darwinism", one inevitably ends-up with a single person. Of these two, an individual person is clearly the weaker target in a debate.

So I'm going to make a shocking proposition: Let's forget all about Charles Darwin.

And you know what? It's not even a problem.

Darwin is not a god
What creationists fail to realize when mounting arguments against Charles Darwin is that the world of science, logic and reason does not revolve around authoritative personalities, as in most theism.

And unlike theism, the scientific community thrives on conflict.

When the pope declares condoms sinful, it behooves every member of the church to support the declaration. Could you imagine a South African padre showing up on CNN with a 200-page mathematical proof to refute him? Imagine further that the entire clergy verifies his work, and later elects him to the Vatican hierarchy - with the pope's approval!

In the scientific community, every single announcement or discovery is scrutinized by peers all over the world. And it's not because they want to support it. Few things would catapult an aspiring scientist to grant status, than concretely refute the latest announcement from a Nobel laureate! The output of the Scientific Method doesn't just benefit from this effect: Skepticism is integral. As propositions are made, adjusted and refined, theories get closer and closer to completely explaining the observations.

No, Darwin isn't the pope of evolution. He could even have recanted his own theory, converted to Catholicism, Islam or Pastafarianism - and it would not make one bit of difference to the scientific community. Or to the theory.

Science doesn't have popes, and reason doesn't worship anyone or anything as infallible.

So please, drop these stories about Darwin's alleged "deathbed conversion": Even if they were true, they're irrelevant anyways, because...

Evolution doesn't belong to Darwin
Some creationists who attack Darwin act as if they think they'd be better off if he had never existed.

The fact is, it wouldn't have made one bit of difference.

Darwin was just one of a whole community of scientists who were developing the same ideas. And they weren't even utterly new ideas. Like all scientists, the work of Darwin and his contemporaries built greatly on previous scientific discovery. Even before Darwin's time, Naturalists had been "zeroing-in" on what could, inevitably, only have become a theory of evolution.

Yeah, that's right. Darwin had homeboys. That's how Science rolls, dawg!

If Darwin had never existed, we would simply be discussing "Wallacism" instead. Or some other -ism.

Creationists, Darwin isn't your problem. A nonsensical philosophy made of bronze-age misconceptions is your problem.

It was never about Darwinism
Okay creationists: Darwin's out of the picture! You can drop the entire genus of arguments that rely on discounting the man.

Now you can get back to something more useful - like figuring out how you can possibly coexist in a world where science offers knowledge, and you offer fables.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How (and why) science "throws the game" to faith

One position currently fashionable among theists is that science is itself a faith. Through this assertion, theists hope to either elevate religion to the level of science - or to bring science down to religion's level.

I'm honestly not really sure which.

Actually, theists should not be so eager to be placed on the same playing field as science - and I'll explain in another article why that would be to their detriment.

Yet it remains popular, because it implies a parity between faith and science. If valid, it would provide a foundation from which theism could attack all aspects of science - beginning, in all likelihood, with science education. If the assertion were valid, the thinking goes, one could say that science should be considered no more "true" than the conflicting beliefs of whatever theism is being advocated.

What's really interesting to me about this argument is how it so dramatically illustrates the gap between science (and reason) on one side, and faith and theism on the other.

How can any theist actually think this argument strengthens their position?

Science, ironically, is to blame.

Integrity: Reason's biggest weakness
Consider a typical "origin" debate:
Science: We theorize that life evolved via natural selection.
Theism : And you know that for a fact?
Science: Well - no. It's a theory.
Theism : Well my religion has the truth: god made it happen.
Science: Come on, now - you don't know that's true.
Theism : Yes - yes I do! Do you know for certain that it's not true?
Science: No, I really do not know that for certain, either.
Theism : So you admit that it's possible.
Science: Mmm...yes, of course technically it is possible.
Theism : Well there you go. And it turns out to be true.

As comical as it may sound to some readers, this really isn't far from the arguments one hears for parity between science and religion.

The problem with it (of course), is that these two parties are using dramatically different definitions, and standards of measurement.

What kind of "knowledge?"
When a theist says they "know", what they mean is that they believe it. They feel it very strongly (whatever that means). They have scripture that says the same thing they are saying. This, in the un-logic of theism, is "knowledge". Christianity (for example) claims that you will gain "knowledge" of god through prayer.

That's right - knowledge. Through prayer. Not through evidence. Not through double-blind laboratory experiments. Not through mathematical proof.

That is clearly not the same kind of "knowledge" that science pursues.

When a scientist says they "know", that something is a "fact" - they mean a very different thing. They mean it has been tested by third parties, can be verified via multiple observational data, is consistent with the rest of the body of scientific knowledge, etc.

And most scientists are hesitant to ever claim final, unshakable knowledge of anything as fact. This is humorously illustrated by Richard Dawkins' acknowledgement of the theoretical possibility of fairies.

Science always reserves the possibility not only that any "fact" may be literally incorrect, but also that new data may well take strange, sometimes seemingly "impossible" forms. This is a key foundation of science, and it's one of the reasons it actually works.

No truly reasonable, logical person would probably ever assert that there "definitely is no" anything. Science, unlike the dogma of religion, thrives on revision.

Science needs its "open mind", meaning that *every* theory - always - will be "less than certain".

Theism's free throw
The problem is, theists hold themselves to no such high standards: In "faith logic", a concept of "personal truth" exists, which is equivalent -- and sometimes superior -- to empirical truth. For example, a common sentiment voiced in these positions is that theism is "true for me".

Religious suppositions can be considered "absolutely true", simply by virtue of having been written down, or declared by church leaders - or even just because the speaker "feels it in their heart."

Excuse me -- that's truth? Yes - for theism, it is.

One can't help but imagine theism in this debate as being the short, overweight kid with esteem problems to whom we give a "free throw". And in a way, that's really what's happening here.

Simply put, science has too much integrity to engage in the equivalent behavior of claiming absolute knowledge of things that it has not proven 100%. Even confronted with questions like "are you absolutely certain there is no god?", most good scientists can't logically reply with anything but "no, I am not".

And we will never will be.

Science will always throw the game to religion
Because logically, there will always be some chance that we'll discover new evidence confirming the existence of gods. Surely, it's got to be very very unlikely. Even more unlikely than fairies. But that is simply not sufficient to be considered "impossible".

That's how science works, folks.

And religion will always be happy to pick up that ball and make a run for the goal - with nothing more than unsupported claims.

Science has integrity -- the poor saps. ;)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why God Theory Isn't Useful

Previously, I took a swing at illustrating why a theory of god isn't needed as an "alternative" to the Theory of Evolution.

I ended with the question of whether, as a theory, creationism could perhaps add to the body of scientific knowledge, or advance the general aim of investigation. Refer again to the Red-Handed Crook analogy: Perhaps it isn't directly relevant what the crook ate for breakfast, but we might be interested in the data nonetheless, "outside the court" as it were.

So let's play along: If god theory offers valuable insights into How Things Work, where do those insights sit in relation to existing scientific theory?

Because science is not just the Theory of Evolution. Science is also host to the Theory of Gravitation, and of Molecular Biology and of Antibiotics, and Planetary Motion, and Electromagnetism.

If a god theory seeks to be treated as science, it must (by definition) fit somewhere into this taxonomy.

Where in science should god live?
If god theory offers an alternate framework for some of what science posits, and also offers solutions for what cannot be represented in science (i.e. faith), then it is in intersection with science.

If god theory claims to address alternatively all that science addresses, than it is a superset of science. If it only claims to address a small fraction, then it is a subset.

A fourth possibility not shown is that god theory would claim to occupy the same space as all of science, and then some.

While you can surely find creationists of all sorts who will make that assertion, these claims will never be part of any attempt to augment scientific theory; That would instead be an attempt to supplant science completely - a different topic which we'll cover later. :)

So it would seem fair and appropriate to consider those who want to introduce god theory to science as holding the "intersection" position. Certainly science lays (nor desires) no claim to explanations of the theistic parts of religion - so this would seem to best represent the situation.

God theory as an augment to science
If it disputes some of what science posits, accepts some, and proposes solutions for matters not addressed by science, then it could be argued that a god theory simply augments science.

Scientific investigation welcomes sound, valid theories that correlate to observable evidence - especially when it conflicts with other theories (that's sort of the whole point). Quantum mechanics conflicts with thermodynamics, string theory conflicts with quantum mechanics - and so on. In time, through the Scientific Method, we often find that as our understanding of new sciences unfolds, these inevitably "meet up" in such a way that they no longer conflict - and the theory is adjusted in accordance with the evidence.

So why couldn't a god theory just be some "new branch of science", like string theory?

Well, we don't pursue a theory of gravitation simply because the theory exists. We pursue it because it is testable, predictable, and correlates to observations, where other competing theories have not. In other words, it is a plausible theory.

Scientific exploration doesn't demand that every fantastical idea be investigated as a potentially valid theory. Scientists entertain the bizarre notions of string theory because, as posited, it would both fit observations and it would resolve some outstanding questions.

But does god theory offer us any of these? Does it offer us new formula, new experimental processes which can be independently repeated? Does it offer us anything at all that we didn't already have? If we're going to expand the scientific domain to include such powerful forces as gods, there had better be some very compelling reasons.

And it had better explain something important.

But a god theory explains nothing
It's here that theism's application to join science must be denied. In relation to any scientific dilemma (say, universal origin) for which a supernatural being could be posited as a solution, that being itself immediately becomes the most weighty and implausible element of the proposition.

In illustration: The concept of "natural selection", at first glance, seems profoundly complex. Tiny components, evolving in place over millennium, through billions of generations, to create eyeballs and immune systems...I mean, wow! That really is incredible, in that it literally strains one's credulity.

Our experience (and Sherlock Holmes) suggest that all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be correct (also known as Occam's Razor). Well, natural selection does seem (initially at least) to be anything but simple.

So let's look about for a simpler explanation. How about creation theory? What does it posit? Well, "god created life" - how much simpler can it get? Occam's Razor would seem to agree.

For about 30 seconds.

In contrast to faith, the scientific method demands that we continue the analysis. Okay great - a supernatural being created life. Science wants to know where to look for the artifacts of this event; we need to analyze them. And where should we look to learn the mechanics of this being? What is its mass? What does it eat? How does this being's existence fit into the observations of Genetics, Physics, Astronomy, Geology?

Science is not a matter of "belief" - we need to identify (and test) the evidence, in order to progress toward understanding how and why. Or it is simply not science.

If these questions can only be answered with "god did it", "it's a miracle" or "have faith" - then our understanding of the universe is no further than before we undertook this "god science". In fact, we are considerably poorer for the effort of this "augmentation", because...

God theory is the most complex solution possible
Ignoring the fact that "god did it" simply doesn't objectively answer anything, it is still itself problematic. Because science will not (must not) stop with solutions like "god did it".

Where did this god come from? If a god was created, we can't avoid a recursion ("what created that one?") that never ends - therefore the answer can only be that the supernatural being already existed.

Creationism explains the mystery of origin by way of a mystery whose origin cannot be explained. That is not intellectually profitable - or even remotely satisfying. We've traded a mystery for a supernatural deity and an even less plausible mystery.

A god theory will always be a far more complicated solution than any mystery it could hope to address - because the existence of a supernatural being would be the most complicated thing ever.

Occam's Razor epic fail
There is no scientific dilemma to which theism can be proposed as a solution, without that solution introducing a Pandora's Box of far more complicated problems.

God theories are simply not useful in the resolution of scientific dilemma. That is why they are not part of science. Well, that and the fact that they're usually nonsensical and self-contradictory.

Next up
How "creation science" argues itself right out of validity. Or, possibly, why science routinely, voluntarily, "throws the ball" to theism - and why theism never fumbles that interception. I haven't decided which topic, yet.

Until then, keep your thinking caps firmly on your heads! ;)