Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Defending Evolution

For a portion of my youth, my Attenborough-inspired self wanted to be a palaeontologist. But I outgrew dinosaurs around the same time as high school started, so physics drew me in. But again that was not to be, as learning to program in my later youth and an unhealthy fascination with video games pushed me towards becoming a programmer. Now, armed with a Computer Science degree, I've come full circle and wanted to learn all I can about nature.

Why do I bring this up? Like all posts on here, anything I write is an extension of myself. This is Kelosophy, my philosophy, my understanding of the universe being placed on the information superhighway. So when I write about why I'm such a staunch defender of evolution. And there are two main reasons I do defend evolution. Firstly evolution is the focal point of the religious assault on science, and secondly that science works so it is worth defending.

The embodiment of naturalism
As far reaching as evolutionary theory is, it is also limited to digitally-replicating bioorganisms. So while it can explain the diversity of life, it doesn't explain the origin of life or anything outside of the domain of biology. In 2005 I first started using the internet for social purposes, and I found that it wasn't enough just to be an atheist, I had to be able to explain: life, the universe and everything, otherwise God did it. And the focal point of these attacks? Evolution.

Creationist websites are filled with "gotcha" points, pseudoscientific claims about nature that are meant to undermine naturalism. But naturalism meant evolution, as it is so often used. In effect, I was forced to learn about evolution beyond what is taught in schools because at each point the attacks on evolution were used in an attempt to undermine my atheism.

I'm not saying I learned in order to fulfil my atheist world-view, I had a lot better background in physics and especially astronomy so I knew that the claims were false, and there were many claims I knew were biologically wrong. But that's the thing with "gotcha" attacks, if I didn't have an answer for a particular creationist assertion then it must have meant that evolution is wrong, God made us from clay some 6000 years ago and I'm completely immoral, leading a meaningless life and going to hell.

Evolution is strongly defended because evolution is constantly under assault, and this feeds a divide between science and religion. I used to think that science and religion were compatible, that evolution doesn't kill God and that ultimately science and religion are reconcilable if one is that way inclined. But this exposure has shown me otherwise, it's hard to keep saying "science and religion are compatible" while the attacks on science come so strongly from those religiously motivated.

An idea worth defending
If the evidence tomorrow were to show comprehensively that evolution did not occur, then I would abandon the theory. I support it now because it is the best explanation for life on earth in all its diversity, and backed by 150 years of empirical evidence. It has survived millions of papers, millions of different evidences, completely new fields of study and lines of evidence, made successful predictions about what to see in the fossil record and genetic code. Despite the constant attacks on evolution, it has survived.

To throw out evolution would be to throw out what is really important: the scientific method. Science works, and it is worth defending as a process. The methodology of science itself is what is important. Theories are tentative and always subject to the evidence. There's no evolutionary dogma, what we understand about evolution now is not as Darwin understood or wrote about it, but where the evidence points to today.

Evolution is just one theory of many, but evolution is seldom ever attacked on it alone. It's not about the mechanisms by which life diversified, but the general picture painted by science itself; one of an old earth, an even older universe and the gradual emergence of life on scales not easily comprehended by the human mind. Even if evolution as we understood it turned out to be false, it doesn't change cosmology / astrophysics / nuclear physics / geology / palaeontology / genetics or any other discipline that exists external to the truth of evolution.

The scientific process is worth defending, as so eloquently put by Ken Miller in Only A Theory. Science works, the process shows validity not only in consistency but application. Theories can predict future results to a staggering degree of accuracy, Quantum Electrodynamics is so accurate that it's like measuring the distance from one side of the United States to the other to the width of a single human hair.

The Church Of Darwin
Even if evolution were defended for nothing more than for its own sake, it wouldn't impede on the validity of the theory. Just as whether one defends the claim of Jesus' divinity because they are Christian, the truth of the matter is external to belief in it. So even if everyone who defends evolution is doing so out of faith, there's still the underlying claims of the scientific theory worth scrutinising.

I defend evolution because I defend science; it is fundamental to our society and the only tool we currently have that can adequately measure and comprehend the natural world. Evolution is the front that most anti-science theists use to attack the scientific endeavour as a whole.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Absurdity Of The Presupposition

Most of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are what I call diffuse arguments, that is they use an abstract use of the word God in the philosophical proof then once the proof is over claim that the diffuse God of the reasoning is the Judeo-Christian construct they happen to believe in. At the core of this reasoning lies presuppositional apologetics, that is the presupposed deity brought forth must be the god they happen to believe in. Some forego this argumentative sleight of hand and use the presupposition explicitly, that the Christian worldview is superior to the atheist worldview because the presupposition accounts for more.

From His noodly appendage...
Let's try a thought experiment. Let's presuppose that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created created reality. That any imperfection in the universe was caused by the FSM's drunkeness and that the scientific appearance of age is caused by the FSM changing results with his noodly appendage. In short, the FSM is the source of all reality including ourselves.

Currently there are many things in the universe that cannot be explained through naturalistic causes so the FSM presupposition beats the presupposition of the atheist. After all, an atheist cannot account for the breaking of supersymmetry or the forming of the protocell. It alleges that these have natural causes, but it doesn't have a mechanism to guide it. Likewise the presupposition of pastafarianism beats Christianity as intelligent design doesn't explain all the unintelligent design seen in the world. A presupposed Flying Spaghetti Monster is the only rational basis for belief.

Now surely this type of argument is self-evident in its flaws. Being able to account for more doesn't make it better, especially given that observing reality does give us a limited understanding of what we should expect in nature. We can account for many things through science that have evidential backing that show Christianity to be absurd. Our nature is evolved, original sin is a poor explanation for what evolution explains so well. The aspects of ourselves that need explanation have explanation.

Furthermore, it should follow that just because something explains better than others, it doesn't mean it automatically correct. Being the (subjectively) least wrong doesn't make it right, 200 years ago appealing to the watchmaker argument over Lamarkian evolution doesn't mean that the teleological argument is right. We know now that neo-Darwinian evolution is correct, not because there are any other challenges but because there is strong evidence supporting common ancestry and the mechanisms at play in nature have been deeply studied and the theory has been strongly vetted for 150 years now.

The necessitation of a meme
Science is a naturalistic process, it has derived where it is from observing and deriving theories from the universe itself. It is natural philosophy. Thus our understanding of evolution is not based on any presupposition of evolution's truth, rather a consequence from observing the universe. Evolution is the story that life tells us, that Darwin and Wallace both came up with Natural Selection independently shows that it's not just a meme.

My main criticism of any logical proof for God is that it relies on the notion of what god is. You can't prove logically that Jesus died on the cross or that the bible is an accurate account of history. So the presupposition forms the basis of all logical arguments. Take Aquinas' Prime Mover. What does it mean to say that the first cause is God? Does it follow that because there was an uncaused cause that the cause was the Judeo-Christian construct of God? Does it follow that God has any properties at all beyond being the logical consequence (i.e. the uncaused cause)?

Regardless of the validity of such arguments, the use of the word God in there has no merits. Now there may be a causeless cause, but all we can say about the causeless cause is that it is a causeless cause. We cannot say anything about the causeless cause, whether it has any consciousness, intelligence or interest in the actions of the human species. It definitely does not follow that Jesus rose on the third day and that eternal life comes from believing this notion.

Can one be a Christian without being exposed to Christianity? I would contend not. Hypothetically if all knowledge of Christianity was lost, would a future generation be able to derive the Christian God? That is, if one wasn't exposed to Christianity would these arguments lead them to Jesus? For how could they know of Jesus' sacrifice without the bible or the Church? Maybe God could reveal Jesus' sacrifice to others, but this does not stem from philosophy.

I would contend that no philosophical argument works to prove any God, it at best is a justification for positions already held. Ultimately the argument is an argument from dogma, that the bible says it is true so it is true. Because there is nothing to even suggest that any of the presupposition is valid, this takes a leap of faith. And that's fine, it's better to be honest about the reasons for belief than to engage in sophistry.

One more thought. The Teleological Argument is one that does make the case for an intelligent agent, though among the many multitude of things wrong with such an argument, it begs the question of who designed the designer?

Thursday, 20 August 2009

I Sense An Ignobel Prize Coming...

Millions of scientific papers are published every year, each one on the frontier of where the known meets the unknown. The strive to understand nature pushes the boundaries of human knowledge and in some cases extends it further. Occasionally something so absurd comes out that one has to sit up and take notice, just like research released recently on what to do in the event of a zombie attack.


Tuesday, 18 August 2009

TV and Patternicity

This really should come as no surprise, but here is a case of the paranormal being fuelled by entertainment. After the release of The X-Files, reports of UFO sightings surged. Now while this doesn't explain away UFO sightings, it does demonstrate that there's at least correlation between what patterns we are exposed to and what patterns we use to explain unusual phenomena. If nothing else, statistics like this will hopefully make people think about what they observe, that they separate the experience from the explanation they give it.

This I find is the hardest part about playing the sceptic. That by denying the explanation it's taken as denying the experience itself. So when there's a clear link between what patterns the mind sees and what is fed into the mind through cultural transmission, surely one would want to try as much as possible to externalise what they have experienced. By this I mean look towards more objective notions that could explain the same events.

Understanding the limitations of the mind and the processes to get around those limitations is vital in order to properly understand reality. It may be that aliens are visiting earth, and it was shows like The X-Files that gave us the pattern recognition to see it. But if a pet theory (in the colloquial sense of the word) wants to take an idea from the paranormal and into the mainstream, it needs to be backed up with more than eyewitness tales. It needs hard objective evidence, and the mind just cannot be trusted when exploring the unknown as our pattern recognition module(s) in the brain just cannot handle it.

Monday, 10 August 2009

A Matter Of Perspective?

If anyone has ever had the unfortunate experience of stumbling upon Answers In Genesis, then they may be familiar with the tactic of claiming different perspectives. That evolutionists see a 14 billion year old universe because they have Darwin as their presupposition while creationists see a 6000 year old world because of the bible as their presupposition. At the face of it, this concept may have some validity. After all, each of us have our own biases when interpreting the world around us. So when it comes to looking at nature, is it really just two different perspectives?

The age of things
It should first be asked, why do scientists see a 14 billion year old universe? Does it need to be 14 billion years old? Why not 5 or 50 billion years? If we were going off Darwin, one would only need to posit that the universe is a few hundred million years old. So why in the billions? Certainly there needs to be an amount of complexity in the universe, the early universe by scientific accounts was filled with almost exclusively simple elements, so the heavy elements would need giant stars to form heavy elements then go supernova to put the material for building planets and life itself. The universe has to be old enough to allow for us.

So why ~14 billion years? This is where evidence comes into play and where the notion of interpreting based on presuppositions is put under the test. All observational data points to the speed of light being a constant in a vacuum. So when a star like Alpha Centauri is said to be 4.3 light years away, it means that the light that left Alpha Centauri left 4.3 years ago. When one looks at Alpha Centauri, they are looking at light that was emitted 4.3 years ago.

So when the distance of distant galaxies are measured, we are looking back in time at the distant light. To see a dwarf galaxy orbiting our own being 168,000 light years away means that the light was emitted 168,000 years ago. This means that the universe has to be at least 168,000 years old. Likewise a galaxy 2.3 million light years away means that the light we see was emitted 2.3 million years ago. And there are galaxies seen that have been over 13 billion light years away. So that, among other reasons is why the universe must be at least 13 billion years old.

So how does this fit in with the creationist presupposition? If the universe is only a few thousand years old, then all observations of galaxies beyond our own have to ba accounted for. One could deny the observational evidence exists, but that wouldn't be giving a different perspective. One could say that the speed of light was faster then, though that causes many more problems than it solves, it would have to be sped up by a factor of over 2 million and that causes problems with e=mc², not to mention there's no observational support.

Then there's the option of saying that the light was created en route to earth, that what we are seeing is the light that God created as opposed to the objects themselves. So when to us 1987 a star in the LMC went supernova, it meant that God created the light to demonstrate a supernova as opposed to the star going supernova itself. There may be other options too, but in all cases it is explaining away observation to adhere to a presupposition as opposed to following the evidence like science does.

Preserved in the rocks
Another claim that Ken Ham likes to espouse is that dinosaurs lived alongside humans in the Garden of Eden, and the fossil record was caused by the great flood. Evolutionists like to assert that fossilised remains have been preserved over the course of millions of years. Perspective again, right? After all, the earth needs to be hundreds of millions of years old if evolution were to be true. So why 4.55 billion years?

Radiometric dating on old rocks on earth has yielded rocks over 4 billion years old. The oldest dated earth material is some 4.4 billion years old. The date for the earth has to be in the billions. Multiple dating techniques all with different half lives point to the same date. Doing radiometric dating on meteorites and the moon has also yielded similar values. These absolute dates fit with relative dating of rocks too.

The fossil record isn't one random blob either. Non-avian dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, long before there was any ape - let alone hominids. From the earliest rocks showing unicellular life to the period from 600MYA to now where complex life has emerged, the pattern of life that fits evolution is there. Tetrapods emerged from the water sometime around 375MYA, with transitional forms found. Mammals came from reptiles just over 200MYA with transitional forms found. Birds came from dinosaurs with transitional forms found. etc.

Transitional forms litter the fossil record, and the location of fossils too is consistent with evolutionary theory. Kangaroo fossils are only found in Australia, for example. The isolation of Australia as a continent for the last 30 million years has crafted a multitude of animals found nowhere else in the world. Marsupials dominate this country, while the only large placental mammals have been introduced by humans.

So how does this fit in with the creationist presupposition? It doesn't. The proposed cataclysmic event does not explain what we see. It doesn't fit with radiometric dating. It doesn't fit with relative dating. It doesn't fit with geological observations about the type of environment to make the rocks, and it certainly doesn't fit with the fossil record. Again, it's explaining away the facts in order to adhere to a presupposition as opposed to following the evidence like science does.

A matter of presupposition
Is there a presuppositional difference? There is, but it is not in interpreting the evidence. It's in what is accepted as evidence. When one takes a position that the bible is inerrant, it comes into conflict with what the evidence tells us. A supernova exploding 168,000 years ago is not evidence for a 6000 year old world, it clearly contradicts it. Just as the progressive fossil record does not support a catastrophic event.

The presupposition is clear, that if one follows the bible then it doesn't matter what the evidence says. If they want to take that position, that's fine. But it is downright intellectually dishonest to pretend that it is interpretation of the evidence. The scientific world-view supports the evidence because it is based on the evidence, creationism is apologetics for why the evidence doesn't fit.