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Atheist philosopher reflects on new atheist Jerry Coyne’s diatribe against philosopher Alvin Plantinga

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In “Whatever Happened to Jerry Coyne’s Sensus Divinitatis?” (The Best Schools, 17 December 2011), James Barham discusses the two kinds of atheists, the new atheists and the traditional atheists, in more detail. (He himself is the second kind and, in what appears to be a trend, has little use for the “new atheists.”). The occasion is another mouth off from Jerry Coyne:

First, he claims he has read “some of Plantinga’s books” and was not “terribly impressed” by them. That’s interesing. I would love to know which ones, and I can’t help feeling curious about what, precisely, the verb “to read” means to Coyne in this context. But let that pass.

He goes on to discuss a number of points from the new book with which he takes issue. I don’t have space to discuss them all here, so I will focus on Coyne’s discussion of the sensus divinitatis. Here is what he has to say on this topic:

“Sensus divinatis” [sic] is a fancy term for “lots of people believed and still believe in God.” But in that case the sensus divinatis [sic] is not working properly in more and more people all the time. In fact, it’s almost disappeared in Scandinavia and much of Western Europe, and is waning in the US.

What is fascinating is that Coyne—who of course thinks he’s being cleverly ironic—has hit the nail on the head. Just not in the way he thinks.

How is that? This will take a little explaining.

First, I must note that I am myself an atheist …

Barham’s got this right, of course, but from a media perspective one senses somehow that there is more to the story. Jerry Coyne, like Richard Dawkins, does not need to make sense. Dawkins doesn’t even need to respond to legitimate challenges. Neither  needs to do science, let alone philosophy. They need only front new atheism to an eager media.

Does anyone with genuine social power hold them to account? Not only do few do so, but listen to this PR hackery from Darwinist philosopher Michael Ruse (who appears in key opinion leader media) on their behalf:

However, Dawkins is simply the most brilliant science writer of his generation, a person whose writings are so good that they infiltrate right up to the highest levels of professional thought. The selfish gene metaphor changed our way of thinking about natural selection. Coyne is arguably the best evolutionary biologist in America today. His work on speciation is ground-breaking; his demolishing of Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory is definitive; and he can write brilliantly for the general reader. Why Evolution Is True was probably the best book published celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin (in 2009).

Indeed? Let us look at the evidence: Coyne and Dawkins are clearly losers and has-beens, most recently heard grousing in unison because the New York Times had just published a tribute obituary of Lynn Margulis. Why Evolution Is True may not be a bad book, but even with Ruse’s recent puffery, it just hasn’t taken the field by storm. During which decade did Dawkins last do any serious science, as opposed to science writing?

Ruse knows perfectly well what he is doing: Right there on page one of the guide to media coverage of science, Fast Science Facts for Hair Models, we learn, “Science facts are hard to understand. Fortunately, some people have been identified as brilliant Top Scientists, so we can treat whatever they say on any subject as fact. Dissenters are just talking heads or even creationists so, if needed, we just find someone to say something negative about them.”

Ruse knows that he is catering to this hungry market, and he knows full well the consequences.

Does everyone know? Now consider, reader: Ruse has been made welcome at gatherings of ID scientists because he claims that he is not “friends” with these people? Scientists, as it happens, are not usually politicians, but it’s still not clear to some of us why the ID theorists shouldn’t smarten up and look for Darwinist discussion partners who offer challenges other than treating the ID theorists as obvious dupes of some very simple media tricks, repeated again and again.

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29 Replies to “Atheist philosopher reflects on new atheist Jerry Coyne’s diatribe against philosopher Alvin Plantinga

  1. 1
    Joe says:

    LoL!

    In that blog Jerry Coyne sez:

    A brief correction first: natural selection is not a “random process.” It’s a process that combines the random production of mutations with the deterministic process of natural selection itself. I hope he understands that.

    Yet we are also told by other evolutionary biologists that “natural selection” is a result of three processes, one requiring the other two to be true first-> (1)differential reproduction due to (2)heritable (3)[random] variation.

    So natural selection combines not only the random production of mutation, but also the random nature of inheritance and the random nature of fecundity, and the result is natural selection.

    But the kicker is it ain’t all encompassing! That’s right some outreproduce others “just because”, which means natural selection is tough to pin down and even tougher to follow.

    Not only that you could have any number of different/ competing beneficial traits.

    The only thing “deterministic” about natural selection is the dead don’t reproduce- so given death no more reproduction will happen, ie determinism.

    Is that what you mean Jerry? That’s some powerful stuff, yessiree…

    (of course I put that on my blog and so far the only response I have received is pure cowardly spewage)

  2. 2
    Neil Rickert says:

    Yet we are also told by other evolutionary biologists that “natural selection” is a result of three processes, one requiring the other two to be true first-> (1)differential reproduction due to (2)heritable (3)[random] variation.

    That sounds like nonsense.

    Natural selection is differential survival. They are different names for the same thing. It is not that one depends on the other.

    Go checkout a kids toybox. The robust toys last longer than the fragile toys. That’s already a kind of natural selection. It does not depend on anything heritable or random.

    Evolution depends on heritable random variation. But natural selection does not.

  3. 3
    ScottAndrews2 says:

    Natural selection is differential survival.

    The robust toys last longer than the fragile toys. That’s already a kind of natural selection. It does not depend on anything heritable or random.

    Pure tautology. In neither case is any process described. Each thing has attributes, and then selection is added as a post-hoc explanation which, by definition, always fits. No exceptions.

    Something is alive? It was selected.
    Something is extinct? It was selected until it wasn’t selected.
    Something is endangered? It was selected, but now it apparently isn’t being selected enough.

    In each case natural selection is not a process, but a catch-all term that rewords what it describes.

    Notice how the condition of the toys in the box is attributed to a process, with no explanation of what that process might have been.

    If Johnny’s Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader action figures have a light saber battle every day, but every day he throws Princess Leia at the wall, it quickly becomes apparent that two are robust and one is fragile. Two are selected, one breaks and therefore was not selected.

    But notice how the same explanation immediately fits any other outcome, with no exceptions. All three can be selected, any two, one, or none. It follows that selection is in no sense a description of any process. It is a one-size-fits-all tautological explanation of any outcome.

    Not only is the post-hoc explanation useless, but the only way it possesses any degree of accuracy is when viewed as a tautology. The only way to know that a living, reproducing thing was “selected” is to define a selected thing as one that lives and reproduces.

    That’s why we can say for a certainty that at some point Archeopteryx was selected and then wasn’t selected. It’s synonymous with saying that it lived and then it didn’t. If it’s not synonymous then what is the difference? The only meaningful difference would be to explain what that process of selection was, how and why it was selected. Not only are such explanations entirely missing (except for the occasional wild guess) but no one even seems to care. The process supposedly guided the history of all biology, but historically no one even bothers attempting to describe it. The process is synonymous with the result, therefore the result is always attributable to the process.

    You can say that it’s not a tautology because natural selection has a separate definition. But the definition doesn’t matter. It’s how you use it. The process and the result are interchangeable, indistinguishable. It is absolutely a tautology.

  4. 4
    Street Theatre says:

    During which decade did Dawkins last do any serious science, as opposed to science writing?

    Hahaha!

    People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

    Really, the ID movement has managed to produce less ‘serious science’ in its entire history than Dawkins has lost down the back of his sofa.

  5. 5
    Neil Rickert says:

    Pure tautology. In neither case is any process described.

    LOL

    Thanks. Much appreciated.

    Yes, I realize that you probably thought that you were criticizing me. However, my previous post was an explanation of the meaning of “natural selection.” And an explanation of meaning is necessarily tautologous, unless it is wrong.

    I’ll have to take your comment as expressing agreement.

  6. 6
    woodford says:

    Let us look at the evidence: Coyne and Dawkins are clearly losers and has-beens, most recently heard grousing in unison because the New York Times had just published a tribute obituary of Lynn Margulis.

    I’m not sure that the “evidence” put forward here that Coyne and Dawkins are “losers” makes any sense. Sure, they disagreed with elements of the obituary of Margulis, but somehow that makes them losers? And given the book sales, blog activity, and demands for speaking engagements etc, I’m not quite sure they are has-beens either. As usual it seems another unclaimed (and somewhat incoherent) bit of wishful thinking not the part of the UD “Newsroom” (lol).

  7. 7
    Street Theatre says:

    Editors: Street Theatre is no longer with us. Coming onto this site and making arguments: Always welcome. But if you do nothing but spew invective, you will be shown the door.

  8. 8
    Upright BiPed says:

    Street Theater,

    You seem awfully confident as you run your mouth. Do you throw stones in hiding, or are you willing to come out and talk about some of the actual evidence for design?

  9. 9
    Joe says:

    Neil,

    I can support what I said about natural selection, can you?

    Here is my support:

    “Natural selection is the simple result of variation, differential reproduction, and heredity—it is mindless and mechanistic.” UBerkley

    “Natural selection is the result of differences in survival and reproduction among individuals of a population that vary in one or more heritable traits.” Page 11 “Biology: Concepts and Applications” Starr fifth edition

    “Natural selection is therefore a result of three processes, as first described by Darwin:
    Variation
    Inheritance
    Fecundity
    which together result in non-random, unequal survival and reproduction of individuals, which results in changes in the phenotypes present in populations of organisms over time.”- Allan McNeil

    And even though I disagree with Allan- NS is NOT non-random- the rest supprts what I said.

    That said do YOU have ANYTHING to support YOUR claim? Anything at all?

  10. 10
    Joe says:

    Yup and you shouldn’t throw stones as your position has absolutely nothing.

  11. 11
    Joe says:

    They are losers because they spew a lot of nonsense and NEVER support the claims of their position.

  12. 12
    Joe says:

    However, my previous post was an explanation of the meaning of “natural selection.”

    The problem is your explanation is wrong because you don’t understand the meaning.

  13. 13
    Joe says:

    Belligerent, not confident, that’s what you meant, right? ST seems awfully belligerent as she runs her mouth.

    And haven’t you heard? They have hundreds of years of evidence- apparently locked away in some super-duper top secret vault

  14. 14
    News says:

    Wow! Hitler’s bunker … we thought we wuz just a news desk. We get tied of the puffing of done to death celebs. It’s true.

  15. 15
    Neil Rickert says:

    The problem is your explanation is wrong because you don’t understand the meaning.

    Do make up your mind. Is it wrong, or is it tautological? It cannot be both.

    I am not a biologist. I can only comment on the meaning as I use it.

  16. 16
    Joe says:

    Your explanation is wrong. Apparently you do not understand the meaning of natural selection.

    see comment 1.1.2

  17. 17
    ScottAndrews2 says:

    Tautologies are never wrong. That’s the point.
    Natural selection is a meaningless circularity. Some people call it a process, but it is a name for a result that doesn’t really need another name. In the case of living things, that result is living. Just existing. That’s selection.

    Used in that sense, it is always correct. It can’t be incorrect. But if I can say that bats have wings because of natural selection, I’m guaranteed to be 100% correct, and I can make that statement without any detailed consideration of how or why they were selected, it follows that the conclusion is not dependent on any evidence, and is therefore not derived from any.

    Let me rephrase it this way: A conclusion reached without considering evidence is a guess. But a conclusion that is always true without requiring the consideration of evidence is true, but useless. To tell me that a thing was selected is to tell me that it is or was alive. It requires no evidence on top of the evidence I already have that it is or was alive. And knowing that is was selected means that I know nothing more about it than that it is or was alive. In particular, if I didn’t know why it is or was alive, knowing that it was selected doesn’t help me any. If I knew that a squirrel was selected but I still don’t know why there are squirrels, of what use is knowing that is was selected?

    I’m quite puzzled if you think I’m agreeing with you. You’re agreeing that it is a post-hoc tautological add-on, a period that fits as well on the end of one sentence as it does on the next. Okay, good for you.

  18. 18
    champignon says:

    Wow. It’s amazing that the “natural selection is a tautology” meme manages to stagger on after all this time. Stephen Jay Gould must be rolling over in his grave.

  19. 19
    ScottAndrews2 says:

    Why? Gould wasn’t amazed.

    Later evolutionists, Bethell argues, recognize the failure of Darwin’s analogy and redefined “fitness” as mere survival. But they did not realize that they had undermined the logical structure of Darwin’s central postulate. Nature provides no independent criterion of fitness; thus, natural selection is tautological.

    This is revealing:

    ut let me first admit that Bethell’s criticism applies to much of the technical literature in evolutionary theory, especially to the abstract mathematical treatments that consider evolution only as an alteration in numbers, not as a change in quality. These studies do assess fitness only in terms of differential survival. What else can be done with abstract models that traced the relative successes of hypothetical genes A and B in populations that exist only on computer tape? Nature, however, is not limited by the calculations of theoretical geneticists.

    So it’s not a tautology. Most researchers just have to view it that way because they have no way of knowing what the selection criteria might be.

    There are, of course, selection criteria. Once you apply the tautology and determine that the thing is or was selected, then you go back and make up the reason why. That way the reasoning isn’t circular.

    Anyway, Gould says that it’s not just me who has it wrong. It’s all the evolutionary scientists, too. He says Darwin got it right, but points out that Darwin based it on a flawed analogy.

    Let’s agree with Gould and say that fitness does not equal survival. Okay, then how about an example of something that was fit but was not selected. Why wasn’t it selected? I think I’m as likely to get a good answer if I ask how archaeopteryx was fit and then wasn’t fit, unless it was the exception and then why was it the exception?

    Like I said, who cares whether it’s a tautology by definition if it is one in practice?

  20. 20
    markf says:

    Indeed? Let us look at the evidence: Coyne and Dawkins are clearly losers and has-beens, most recently heard grousing in unison because the New York Times? had just published a tribute obituary of Lynn Margulis?. Why Evolution Is True may not be a bad book, but even with Ruse’s recent puffery, it just hasn’t taken the field by storm. During which decade did Dawkins last do any serious science, as opposed to science writing?

    I seemed to have missed something – where is the evidence that they are losers and has-beens? That they recently wrote a critical piece about Margulis? That “evolution is true” is only about 12,000 in Amazon sales rankings (comfortably above signature in the cell at 18,700)? That Dawkins has spent the latter part of his career communicating science rather than doing research?

    I think there is some wishful thinking going on here.

  21. 21
    woodford says:

    I completely missed the “evidence” too. It would be nice to say that this was just a one-off mis-statement. But unfortunately it isn’t, and frequently what passes for journalism on this site is really just pure hyperbole. It seems to me there is a goal to have 9-10 posts a day…yet many of them are like the one above….rushed, full of conjecture and assertions. I’d like to see fewer, better thought out posts, rather than these “News” posts that frequently are just drive-by jibes at evolution and scientists. I find it ironic that Street Theatre was “banned” for spewing invective, but frankly that’s really the majority of what the “News” posts are doing too! They really don’t add much. Can’t Dr. Dembski be persuaded to write here again? Or can others here start up a new site?

  22. 22
    Joe says:

    That Dawkins has spent the latter part of his career communicating science rather than doing research?

    Except Dawkins has spent the latter part of his career spewing propaganda rather than communicating science.

  23. 23
    cricket says:

    Dear Scott

    I follow your posts with interest and am currently working on an argument against the explanatory power of NS, which was initially inspired by Jerry Fodor’s work on a ‘similar’ argument…. Fodor has strongly suggested, in a very brief period of correspondence, that my interpretation of his argument is mistaken. I am therefore thinking of publishing the argument in a philosophy journal and claiming it as my own, or at least, as a clarification of Jerry Fodor’s arguably abstruse exposition of the same argument.

    In this regard, I would be much obliged if you would take a look at an informal (one page) and ‘formal’ (four page) draft of an essay that I am working on. If you’re interested, do you perhaps have an email address I could send it too?

    Yours sincerely,
    Paul

  24. 24
    champignon says:

    Scott:

    So it’s not a tautology.

    I’m glad we agree on that. Let’s put that ridiculous idea to rest.

    Most researchers just have to view it that way because they have no way of knowing what the selection criteria might be.

    If it’s not a tautology then there’s no need to view it as one. Evolutionary biologists don’t.

    It’s also not true that biologists have no way of determining selection criteria. There have been many experiments that do just that.

    Let’s agree with Gould and say that fitness does not equal survival. Okay, then how about an example of something that was fit but was not selected.

    Fitness is certainly not defined as survival. Otherwise, NS would be a tautology. Fitness is correlated with survival — that’s the whole point of Darwin’s idea — but it does not equal survival. A fit individual can die through sheer bad luck, and an unfit individual can survive and reproduce through good luck. Luck is “noise” that averages out over time and across populations.

    There are, of course, selection criteria. Once you apply the tautology and determine that the thing is or was selected, then you go back and make up the reason why.

    Imagine an experiment in which a number of arctic hares are captured in the dead of winter. Half of them have their coats dyed black, and the others remain white. They are released into the snowy wilds, where researchers monitor their survival and reproductive success.

    Would it surprise you if the white hares survived and reproduced more successfully than the black ones? If the researchers concluded that natural selection favored white coats, would you cry “tautology”?

  25. 25
    ScottAndrews2 says:

    champignon,

    Imagine an experiment in which a number of arctic hares are captured in the dead of winter. Half of them have their coats dyed black, and the others remain white. They are released into the snowy wilds, where researchers monitor their survival and reproductive success.

    In practice no cases are ever so, well, black-and-white. As I said, the concept may not be tautological, but in practice it is.

    One of the primary reason is that in most cases, the reasons for selection are guessed after-the-fact. It’s obvious that having feathers and wings is beneficial for birds. But why were the initial transitions toward these attributes selected, or any intermediate states? The answers are, without exception, pure guesswork. The conclusion is assumed that every variation must have been selected, despite not knowing why the individual variations were selected or what they even were.

    How can we conclude that selection was responsible without knowing what was selected, how, or why? Easy. We assume that conclusion. The evidence, if any, can be guessed at or filled in later. We know that they were selected because they exist. There is no correlation, only an assumption.

    Who cares how you define it? What matters is that, in practice, it is a tautology. It was selected because it exists, and that which exists was selected. That’s the starting point, and the details that distinguish the two are made up later or not at all.

    Your peppered moth painted rabbit example is a poor comparison, as you provide both the specific variation and the reason for selection.

    I’m not denying that selection takes place. But neither you nor anyone else have shown how it provides a meaningful explanation for anything more substantial than your example. In every case it is applied tautologically. Creature X has feature Y, which we know was selected because it’s beneficial and that’s where beneficial traits come from as evidenced by all the beneficial traits which have resulted from selection.

    You’re welcome to respond with any evidence that doesn’t involve telling me what ‘all biologists know’, etc. You’ll come up empty.

  26. 26
    champignon says:

    In response to Scott’s out-of-thread reply at 1.1.3:

    Scott,

    Your peppered moth painted rabbit example is a poor comparison, as you provide both the specific variation and the reason for selection.

    But I didn’t provide the reason for selection! You did, which actually proves my point.

    You and I and anyone else doing that experiment would expect the white hares to do better than the black ones, for reasons which are so obvious that I didn’t even have to state them. If the black hares did better, we would be surprised. We’d look for sources of experimental error and we’d run the experiment again.

    If you were correct about NS being tautological “in practice”, then we would just shrug, say “the black hares are clearly fitter,” and publish our results.

  27. 27
    ScottAndrews2 says:

    Is there a term for the opposite of the strawman fallacy?

    You’ve constructed the simplest, most air-tight example, one step short of letting armadillos loose on the Indy 500 track, and suggested that it is a representative sample of the specifically determined cases of natural selection.

    I repeat that I am not denying that natural selection is an observable process. (There are so many good examples that I wonder why you contrived a poor one.) Again, this has nothing to do with the meaningless insertion of natural selection as an explanation where it has no basis and the cause is guessed at.

    In practice selection is first applied tautologically. Why do turtles have shells? It’s obvious – look at the benefit that shells confer, and the reasons for their natural selection are evident. They exist, therefore they were selected.

    Second, it is applied in a manner entirely inconsistent with the theory it would support. It is not turtle shells that were selected, but a gradual series of variations that began with no shell at all. What were those variations and why were they selected? There is no answer, and apparently no need for one. There were variations and selections, all evident because turtles have shells.

    In some cases a genetic or regulatory difference is identified, such as between the forelimbs of rodents and bats. But apart from the lack of a specific pathway, why were any specific variations selected? Who knows? They evidently were, as bats are different from rodents, with the added bonus that flying benefits them.

    That you can produce actual or sadly contrived instances of natural selection does not change that its insertion into evolutionary narratives is circular, tautological, typically undefined, and too dissimilar from any observed instances to be warranted.

    It’s like a con or a telemarketing vacation offer. It sounds nice until you learn where to look for the rip-off, and then you can spot it every time.

  28. 28
    champignon says:

    Scott:

    In practice selection is first applied tautologically. Why do turtles have shells? It’s obvious – look at the benefit that shells confer, and the reasons for their natural selection are evident. They exist, therefore they were selected.

    Not true. For example, why do humans love music? Steven Pinker, a Darwinian if there ever was one, does not believe that our love of music was selected for:

    But if music confers no survival advantage, where does it come from and why does it work? I suspect that music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.

    As Daniel Dennett puts it:

    Trivially, there are indefinitely many properties (e.g. the elephant’s property of having more legs than eyes, the daisy’s property of buoyancy) that are not themselves adaptations, but no adaptationist would deny this…
    The thesis that every property of every feature of everything in the living world is an adaptation is not a thesis anybody has ever taken seriously, or implied by what anybody has taken seriously, so far as I know.

    In other words, you are battling a strawman.

  29. 29
    ScottAndrews2 says:

    Champignon,

    You’ve responded to my assertion that natural selection is, in practice, applied as a tautological explanation by pointing out that it isn’t used to explain everything.

    I suppose I’ll call that progress, as we’re narrowing the gap between us on what it doesn’t explain. Someone had to give ground.

    I’m sure you must agree though, that for the more ‘innovative’ (just a word, pick your own) products of evolution, natural selection is required. That is the premise behind why evolution equips living things with so many cool features. Of course not every variation is an adaptation. But certainly orbital spiderwebs must be, or else what caused that development? I’m not clear anymore on whether that is supposed to be something that natural selection explains.

    But that’s fine. If you wish to narrow the field as to what natural selection does explain, then why not answer the very simple, reasonable question I posted in another thread? Specifically, use natural selection to explain something of your choosing.

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