Invisible Golf Balls and Fairytales

Another post from the past, this time October 2005.

A few weeks ago, The Git was on the UTas campus where he met his philosophy teacher from last year: Dr Richard Corry. Unfortunately for The Git, though perhaps not for the good Doctor, the meeting was all too brief. Richard asked what The Git was thinking about; philosophers are like that. Not “How’re the children?”, or “How’s your Bert’s lumbago, then?”. As it happened, The Git was thinking about belief in God, atheism and agnosticism, and mentioned this, as well as that he was agnostic on many things and this seemed to be a trend; he holds firm beliefs about less and less, the more he learns.

Now Richard Corry is one of those invaluable people who has the happy knack of triggering trains of productive thought with his keen-minded comments. This made his classes a delight for those who don’t mind brain-ache, but rather less comfortable for those who prefer to be spoon-fed. On this occasion, Richard asked The Git to believe in his invisible golf ball. Sadly, The Git had an imminent doctor’s appointment at that juncture, and hied off to ponder.

Presumably, Richard meant the invisible golf ball to be a metaphor for God. Like God, the golf ball is detectable only by those who believe it’s there. Some, like that other academic Richard, Dawkins, believe that since the golf ball is not amenable to detection by science, it cannot possibly exist. The Git’s ex-friend, Roland Seidel, who was once the president of the Victorian Skeptics (that is Victoria, Australia, not a reference to a bygone age), scoffed at The Git’s belief that people have minds. Like invisible golf balls, minds cannot be detected by science; only brains can. To cap his argument, Roland declared that Dan Dennett had written that minds do not exist, only brains. As if an appeal to authority would sway The Git ūüôā

Sadly, this rather put The Git off reading Dennett until about a year ago, when he purchased Dennett’s¬†Freedom Evolves. And lo! Dennett¬†doesn’t¬†disbelieve in minds. He emphasised that he believed we have not only a brain, but that mind is an¬†emergent property¬†of the brain. He wrote that he was more than a little annoyed at being misinterpreted in the past as not believing in minds. What he didn’t believe in was the¬†Cartesian Mind. The philosopher and mathematician, Ren√©e Descartes, famous for his two rather naff arguments for the existence of God, believed that mind and body were distinct entities and it was this concept that Dennett was at pains to put to rest. Mind/body dualism is alive and well in some, though not all, philosophical circles. And it’s certainly very much the case that we now live in a Cartesian (mathematised) world, though that’s a discussion for another time.

So, back to the invisible golf balls. Most of us seem to have little difficulty in believing that humans have minds, and funnily enough, a huge number believe in God. Are these ideas related? Descartes thought that since his concept of God was “clear and distinct” and God was not a deceiver, then (QED) God must exist. The argument is of course circular, and therefore fails. Descartes was not alone in this belief in “clear and distinct” ideas; Leibniz, and Spinoza both use some version of the premise that “all clear and distinct ideas are true” as an integral part of their respective versions of the ontological argument. Conversely then, “unclear and indistinct ideas” are untrue. We proceed from here to ideas that proponents claim are “clear and distinct”, but discover that pondering demonstrates that they are far from that — rather they depend upon non-existent observations (invisible golf balls?).

So, back to God and his supposed existence, or non-existence. The Git’s friend Robert wrote: “as someone interested in the ID side of the debate, do you think ID should be taught in schools; taught in science class; what aspect of ID do you think falls into the category of science?” The Git’s interest in ID is largely historical and philosophical. The claim that it’s something¬†new, while it is agreed between the NeoDarwinists and the Creation “Scientists”, is belied by Thomas Aquinas’¬†Summa Theologica, where Intelligent Design is number five in the list of proofs for God’s existence. The main interest this document holds (which incidentally remains in print several hundred years after it was written) is Aquinas’ attempt to meld Aristotelian (Natural) Logic with Christianity thus laying the groundwork for what eventually became what is now called Science.

Compared to The Bible, it’s a remarkable read. While the Creationists claim that The Bible is “the inerrant word of God”, and fully explains the geological record, some Creationists at least have never examined the claim. What we refer to locally as God-botherers frequently knock on our doors attempting to convert us to their particular beliefs. The Git usually greets them with delight and for starters asks for their opinion on that most interesting of books in The Bible: Leviticus. Not a single one has been able to cast any light whatsoever on The Git’s difficulties with Leviticus, mainly on the grounds that apart from knowing there¬†is¬†a Leviticus, they are woefully ignorant of its contents and therefore in no position at all to discuss it.

The Git would like to report that NeoDarwinist Evolution can fully justify its claims in regard to explaining the geological record, but despite repeated pleas for assistance in untangling the knots, he remains as confused as ever. First and foremost in The Git’s mind has been the obvious development from simple, single-celled organisms through various forms of multicellular life engaging in ever more sophisticated behaviour. Darwin wrote:

And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [Emphasis mine]

Robert tells me that this is simply wrong: “Increasing complexity with time is not a prediction of evolution theory. The most evolved life forms on earth are bacteria, which are single celled organisms.” Well, I never used the word “prediction”, though I often use the complementary term “retrodiction” in regard to evolution. Now try as he might, The Git has been completely unable to find any evidence for bacteria having evolved as complex a society as humans; there are no hospitals for bacteria, no churches for worship of whatever passes for invisible golf balls among bacteria, not much at all in the way of complexity. Ants, somewhere intermediate in the scale of complexity between bacteria and humans appear to have developed air-conditioning and farming, but nothing resembling hospitals, or churches. Nor for that matter can he find any evidence that bacteria evolved from multicellular life, or as Robert seems to be implying, that amphibians evolved from mammals, or invertebrates from vertebrates. The process seems to be¬†invariably¬†the other way.

The Git’s interest (not to mention Brig Klyce and others) is in how these complexities can evolve through what are claimed to be random processes. Note that we are not saying it’s impossible, but it behoves those who make the claim that it does to¬†make a logical case. Pretending that the claim does not exist is a cop-out, but Robert claims that’s what the latest crop of NeoDarwinists has done.

The Git is also taken by the other claim regarding randomness. Robert wrote: “Evolution theory would say that if you reran the evolution of the earth 1,000 times, you might well get no humans evolving on any run” which is a paraphrase of Stephen Gould who said as much in¬†Wonderful Life. The latest version of this is that eyes, described in a Stanford University Press Release as “so important for survival they have evolved 60 to 80 times in the history of the earth”, like humans would likely never evolve in a thousand reruns of Earth’s evolution. The reasoning is that evolution follows an entirely random path. We might expect some evidence for this and The Git read a paper about¬†Richard Lenski‘s massively parallel evolutionary experiment in the hopes of finding the evidence.

Unfortunately, Lenski’s experiment resulted not in evolutionary divergence, but convergence. “Apparently all 12 populations had evolved in the same way–perhaps, Travisano suggests, because bacterial physiology offers just one way to do better in maltose, forcing all of the populations down the same evolutionary path.” While this might worry lesser beings than NeoDarwinists, Robert triumphantly declared: “We would expect to see convergence where similar selection pressures exist, and phenotypic diversity where there are numerous environmental niches to exploit.” So, a rerun of Earth’s evolution would have different selection pressures than this Earth, and this Earth has few environmental niches to exploit compared to this non-existent other Earth. Or maybe it’s a case of expecting divergence¬†and¬†convergence. To use a probabilistic phrase: heads we win, tails you lose!

The Git is far from alone in noticing this¬†Alice in Wonderland¬†contradiction. Simon Conway Morris, ironically the hero of Stephen J Gould’s¬†Wonderful Life, has devoted a book to the issue:¬†Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Funnily enough, apart from attacking Gould’s proposal of evolutionary divergence and promoting in its stead convergence, it commences with a long section on the origin of life. While the origin of life occupies the beginning of every overview of evolution The Git has ever read, Robert wrote: “Evolutionists’ claim that life spontaneously creates itself from random chemical interactions” is erroneous in the extreme — it is a working hypothesis and nothing more.” Yet this is the very stuff that NeoDarwinist Evolutionists want to be taught in classrooms and prevent Creation “Scientists” from teaching their version of events. Would it help the ID brigade to refer to their ideas as “a working hypothesis and nothing more”? Probably not…

It is a matter of record that the Urey-Miller experiment is regularly trotted out as one of the “facts” of evolution. As The Git quoted Dr. Mark Tuszynski, neurologist/neuroscientist at UCSD some weeks ago:

A very simple experiment performed decades ago showed that when a mixture of simple chemicals was placed in a closed chamber and energy was added, the building blocks of life (amino acids) spontaneously formed. The conditions of this experiment mimicked the state of the primordial planet billions of years ago.

Thus, the building blocks of life can easily be made through natural processes, and have been available for hundreds of millions to billions of years. It is not hard to conceive that, over this extended time, chance events and selective environmental pressure would create the remarkable and beautifully diverse forms of life we have today.

Simon Conway Morris points out that there are several things awry here. First, the experiment is far from simple. The apparatus is remarkably sensitive to a variety of things and often staunchly refuses to produce any amino acids at all. Only a lunatic would call overcoming the difficulties involved as “spontaneous”. In any event, most of what the apparatus produces is a sort of goop, rather than amino acids, despite the earnest intervention of scientists who claim they demonstrate what happens when there’s no intelligent design involved. The Git heartily concurs with the lack of intelligence involved! Amino acids¬†alone¬†have never been known to do anything other than take up space. To do anything in the least bit useful, they need a living cell to execute the code in the genome, much like a floppy disk needs a computer to execute the code it contains. Just as we fail to see floppy disks arising spontaneously, The Git agrees with Robert that the concept falls far short of explanatory.

Mind you, if “”life spontaneously creates itself from random chemical interactions’ is erroneous in the extreme” then there appear to be only two explanations left:

  1. God done it
  2. Life never began (i.e. it’s eternal)

Of course point 2 conflicts with The Big Bang Theory that just about every scientist claims is “fact” and number 1 is the point of contention with the God-botherers. Perhaps there is no explanation and we are all just pissing in the wind.

Referring to the floppy disk just now reminds The Git of another howler in NeoDarwinism: the sociobiological account of the “problem” of altruism. Darwin’s original account, also perpetuated through the NeoDarwinist revision, states that living organisms (including mankind) are in a perpetual struggle to survive at each other’s expense (more on this below). That this¬†contradicts experience¬†is thus a problem for NeoDarwinism. Many organisms, most notably the birds, humans, primates, hippopotami, even parliamentarians, go to considerable lengths to feed their offspring, and offspring are arguably competitors for food. The reason for this, we are told, is¬†kin altruism. According to DW Hamilton, we are altruistic towards our offspring just because we are related and that altruism is in direct proportion to our genetic relatedness.¬†The concept is¬†that an individual should sacrifice itself in order to save “two siblings, four nephews or eight cousins,” since siblings share 50% of an individual’s genes, nephews 25% and cousins 12.5% (in a diploid, randomly mating and outbred population). Thus identical twins are twice as altruistic towards each other than parents are altruistic towards their children since they have a mere 50% of genes in common.

The Git notes that he has 50% of his genes in common with his sperm. Perhaps his ongoing desire to eject them from their home is similar to his fervent wish for The Gitling to overcome his present difficulties and leave home once more. He also notes that bacteria and amoebae have 100% of their genes in common, thus making them twice as altruistic as humans are towards their offspring! On the other hand, The Git’s sperm have 100% of their genes in common with The Git and one supposes, therefore, they might exhibit 100% altruism towards him. Alas, they have failed utterly in this and The Git’s hope of a happy retirement at his sperm’s expense is but a passing fantasy.

Few readers of NeoDarwinism will be unaware of Richard Dawkins book, The Selfish Gene. As Richard Dawkins points out in this book, in order to propagate as many offspring as possible, mothers should be grateful when their children are stolen for this allows them to get back to what they are programmed to do by their genes: reproduce as often as possible. Of course women whose children are stolen do not seem noticeably at all grateful; rather the reverse. Dawkins therefore postulates that although our selfishness is hidden away under a thin veneer, at root we are controlled like robots, by our genes. These genes, he informs us, are selfish and they are selfish just because they make exact copies of themselves.

This leads The Git to ponder on two improbable things. By analogy then, floppy disks are selfish just because their sole purpose is for the information they contain to be copied (just like genetic information)! Less frivolously, this is a direct contradiction of DW Hamilton’s claim that maximal altruism, that is minimal selfishness, is attained by commonality of genes!

The origin of what we now call Darwinism came from Charles Darwin’s reading of Malthus’¬†Essay on Population. In this work, Malthus proposed that food increases in arithmetic proportion and population increases in geometric proportion:

Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.

Thus population rapidly expands to the limit of the food supply, leading to mass starvation of all but the fittest. Indeed, one is willing to concede that this might very well apply to Lenski’s E coli in a test tube, but is it true of, for example, humans, frogs, kookaburras or kangaroos? There is no noticeable starvation in the case of humans, except where there is political interference in the distribution of food for example. The reason that Iraqis are starving is because they are being denied access to food by the occupying American army. True, kookaburras, kangaroos and frogs starve during prolonged drought, but that is not a constant occurrence, only an occasional thing (in this part of the Holocene at least).

Consider also that food and population are very much the same thing. That is, grass plants constitute population as do the kangaroos that feed on the grass. In turn, the kangaroos are food for humans and bacteria, both of which, unless The Git be very much mistaken, also constitute populations. Thus Malthus and Darwin and the NeoDarwinists would all have us believe that something can increase in arithmetic proportion and geometrical proportion¬†simultaneously. That is, the numerical series 1, 2, 3, 4… is identical to 1, 4, 9, 16…

Conclusion

The Git has canvassed a few of the more lunatic beliefs inherent in NeoDarwinism in order to indicate that while¬†Evolution¬†is a fact, the commonly accepted explanation of Evolution,¬†NeoDarwinism¬†is not fact, but speculation undeterred by what may be clearly observed. Indeed, the commonly accepted explanation may very justly be compared with that proffered by the Intelligent Design (aka Creation “Science”) brigade. Both are based on invisible golf balls. What we are told are “observable facts” frequently turn out to be mere chimeras. The controversy over teaching of ID alongside Evolution in schools is¬†not¬†one about fact, but due to differing interpretations of the world. If it was about fact (verified information about something that is the case), there would be no controversy.

As it happens, The Git is very much in favour of the teaching of ID in schools — NeoDarwinism, too. Not because he is in the least disposed toward the concept of ID, but rather believes we need all sorts of heresies: the teaching of mathematics in art and music classes, the teaching of history and chemistry in cookery classes… Why should students be denied the opportunity to evaluate arguments for themselves? Confining comparisons between differing world views to the law courts is tantamount to a cover-up by people afraid that students may evaluate the issues the “wrong” way. One might then suppose that what they are most afraid of is teaching students how to think for themselves; to learn the difference between truth and mere faith, whether that be the NeoDarwinistic Faith, the ID Faith, or any other Faith. ID is very much a scientific claim as Michael Ruse seems to have recently concluded and even Richard Dawkins accepts. Here’s what Dawkins has said:

“A universe with a God would like [sic] quite different from a universe without one. A physics, a biology where there is a God is bound to look different. So the most basic claims of religion¬†are¬†scientific. Religion¬†is¬†a scientific theory.”

[Emphasis emphatically¬†not¬†The Git’s]

Richard Dawkins also wrote in¬†River Out of Eden: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” While Dawkins may well want us to believe that there is no purpose, no evil and no good, he has also claimed that the only reason for communication is in order to selfishly deceive those with whom we are communicating. Some of us have noticed that the universe’s inhabitants, Adolf Hitler, or GW Bush for example, demonstrate purpose and that it’s evil, rather than good. By contrast, the world has had Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa, who also appeared to demonstrate purpose, except their purpose seems to have been good, rather than evil. Yes, The Git knows the Post Modernist philosophers also claim there’s no such thing as good, evil, truth and so forth, but only a halfwit would pay them in the least bit of attention. As I said to one such recently, “if it’s definitely not true that $50 bills are worth more than $20 bills, why do you refuse to make a handsome profit by selling me your $50 bills in exchange for my $20 bills?”

Let’s leave the last word to Charles Darwin:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Sources

Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, Simon Conway Morris, Cambridge University Press 2003. Morris is Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology at Cambridge University. This book is a response to the claim by Stephen J Gould that evolution proceeds randomly. It’s an excellent summary for the case against and some 25% of its pages are devoted to references to scientific papers from which the argument is drawn.

The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life¬†and¬†The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex¬†by Charles Darwin. In The Git’s opinion it’s futile to make argument about Darwinism without having read either of these books.

The Selfish Gene,¬†Oxford University Press 1976 and¬†River Out of Eden,¬†Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1995 by Richard Dawkins. You might want to read one of Dawkins’ books, but mostly they become very repetitive. They read well the first time around, but as one delves deeper into the issues of evolution, gradually become less and less convincing.

One Long Argument¬†by Ernst Mayr Penguin 1991. A better introduction, less polemical and better argued than anything by Dawkins. It’s also fine history which always makes The Git happier with a book.

Thoughts for the DAY:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so.¬† —¬†Richard Dawkins

-oOo-

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence. —¬†Richard Dawkins

-oOo-

What are all of us but self-reproducing robots?” he asked. “We have been put together by our genes and what we do is roam the world looking for a way to sustain ourselves and ultimately produce another robot ¬≠ a child. —¬†Richard Dawkins

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4 thoughts on “Invisible Golf Balls and Fairytales

  1. > … is belied by Thomas Aquinas‚Äô Summa Theologica, where Intelligent Design is number five in the list of proofs for God‚Äôs existence.

    A lot of Thomists would disagree with that statement. Edward Feser has written quite a few posts on the subject; two good entries:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/03/thomism-versus-design-argument.html
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/05/id-versus-t-roundup.html

    I highly recommend his (semi?) gentle introduction to the Thomist arguments in his 2009 book “Aquinas” (ISBN 978-1851686902). It can be considered dense reading, which is not surprising given the subject matter, but quite coherent and fairly easy to follow along.

    His last few weblog posts have been on arguing why eliminative materialism is incoherent, using a recent paper by Alex Rosenberg as a foil.

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/

    As for Richard Dawkins, I point you to Terry Eagleton (who used to be a fellow Socialist with Christopher Hitchens in their Oxford says) who has no patience for him (or Hitchens on the same matter). It should be noted that Eagleton is also an atheist:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Eagleton

  2. Hi David

    Here’s what I understand Aquinas’ argument to be:

    “The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things that lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”

    I find it hard not to believe that William Paley was following his master’s footsteps when he wrote Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.
    I will take your advice and read Edward Feser.

    • While Feser’s weblog is often a good read, with many long-form posts that exercise the brain, I would recommend reading his books if you want to actually get at Aquinas’ arguments. The weblog articles on the subject are scatter through a multitude of posts as he’s responded to various books and papers that have come out over the years, and so getting a good picture of the topic can be a bit frustrating.

      He also has “The Last Superstition” (ISBN 978-1587314520) which I have not personally read, but is supposedly a bit more polemical, and more of a tract against the so-called New Atheism and some of the more modern objections against Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics.

      Having read his “Aquinas”, I can say it is more of an academic work strictly focusing on explaining the the Scholastic worldview first for historical context, as well as vocabulary. The latter is important because what we mean today by “move” and “intelligence” are different than some of ways Aquinas uses them. Even more so is the word “cause”, which has different variations depending on context:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_causes

      Modern Western philosophy has generally abandoned the idea of final causes, which Feser argues ends up creating metaphysical complications that folks like Descartes ran into with their dualism.

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