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Detecting design (2): A reply to John Loftus

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I’d like to thank skeptical philosopher John Loftus for his prompt reply to my post, Detecting the supernatural: Why science doesn’t presuppose methodological naturalism, after all. In his post, which is titled, Heads I Win Tails You Lose: Another Christian Apologist’s Trick, Loftus zeroes in on what he sees as the fatal weaknesses in my argument. Let’s take a look at them.

(The image at the top, by the way, is of a humpback whale breaching, courtesy of Whit Welles and Wikipedia.)

When discussing biological Intelligent Design, I calculated that by a very generous estimate, there had been perhaps 10,000,000 “acts of intervention” (to use Loftus’ term), during the 4,000 million year history of life on Earth. I also emphasized that an act of intervention need not be miraculous, as it may or may not violate a law of Nature. But even granting that all of these “interventions” were miraculous, I argued that these miraculous interventions were still relatively rare events, and therefore posed no threat to science. As I wrote in my post:

The point I wanted to make is that even if we postulate 10 million separate interventions in the 4,000 million-year history of life on Earth, that would still work out at only one act of Divine intervention every 400 years. If I were a scientist, I wouldn’t be too troubled by that… Why, then, should scientists be perturbed by supernatural events that occur once every 400 years, especially when these miracles don’t affect their laboratory experiments?

Loftus replied:

Torley is contrasting the past, which presumably could represent 10 million divine interventions, with present day laboratory experiments that are taking place between these supposed interventions. But that’s not representing science accurately. For if there have been 10 million divine interventions in the past then astronomy would not be possible, nor would geology, paleontology, or plate tectonics, since if God had intervened in these areas those sciences would not be possible. He admits there is a 4 billion history of life on earth. Science can investigate earth’s history, and the history of galaxy, star, and planet formations. Since these sciences have produced a massive amount of knowledge God did not intervene in the past in these areas. Torley must therefore arbitrarily exempt these sciences from God’s invisible intervening hand. Upon what basis can he do this? … Torley needs to show why the science of astronomy, geology, paleontology, and plate tectonics detects no divine intervening hand but that when it comes to biological evolution there is one.

There are two issues which Loftus is conflating here. First, would 10 million divine interventions in the past pose a threat to the sciences of astronomy, geology, paleontology, or plate tectonics? Second, why do I confine my “divine interventions” (as Loftus describes them) to biology?

According to Seth Lloyd’s paper, Computational capacity of the universe (arXiv:quant-ph/0110141 v1), the universe can have performed no more than 10^120 operations during its long history. I’ll take that as a working approximation of the total number of events that have occurred during the 14 billion-year history of the observable universe. 10,000,000 is 10^7 – an insignificant figure by comparison. So even if there had been 10,000,000 “divine interventions” in the areas of astronomy, geology, paleontology, and plate tectonics, they would likely have no impact on the reliability of scientific predictions made in these fields (e.g. regarding the dates of eclipses, or the time taken for the continents to move from one point on Earth to another).

I should add that I do not by any means wish to exclude the possibility of “divine interventions” in the fields of astronomy, geology, paleontology, or plate tectonics. Indeed, I am very impressed by the arguments put forward by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards in The Privileged Planet showing that not only is our universe fine-tuned for life, but our Earthly location is extraordinarily well suited to allow us to make scientific measurements of the cosmos and discover its origin and history. The Earth appears to have been tailor-made for intelligent beings, so I would not be at all surprised to find evidence of a “divine intervening hand” manipulating the events leading to the formation of the Earth and Moon, as well as the initiation of plate tectonics on Earth. As Gonzalez and Richards state in their book, our planet is the only one in the solar system known to have plate tectonics at all. Recently, scientists have learned that tectonic movements occur on Saturn’s satellite Titan, but NASA admits that “they do not happen in the same way as plate tectonics, which is a process unique to Earth.” The possible occurrence of plate tectonics on exoplanets outside our solar system remains scientifically controversial.

Nevertheless, I would be the first to acknowledge that the case for “divine interventions” (to use Loftus’ term) in the fields of astronomy, geology, paleontology, and plate tectonics is much, much weaker than the case for intelligently guided events in the history of biological evolution on Earth. Why is that? In a nutshell, because specified complexity is a hallmark of life. As origin-of-life researcher Leslie Orgel put it in his work, The Origins of Life (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1973):

In brief, living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures that are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity. (p. 189)

Proteins are highly specified biomolecules, and living things are even more so. And as Jonathan McClatchie points out in his 2011 post, Michael Behe Hasn’t Been Refuted on the Flagellum, “The synthesis of the bacterial flagellum requires the orchestrated expression of more than 60 gene products.” I should add that McClatchie’s 2012 paper, The Bacterial Flagellum: A Paradigm of Design is well worth reading, and makes an excellent case that the flagellum is indeed the product of intelligent design, contrary to the claims of Professor Behe’s critics.

Loftus argues:

…[I]f God had intervened as often as Torley supposes then evolution would never have come to be established as the fact it is. He disputes this but I don’t see how. Since evolutionary science is a science then it could not have won over so many scientists if God intervened so many times.

Left: Indohyus major, an alleged whale ancestor from the Middle Eocene of Kashmir. Image courtesy of Nobu Tamura and Wikipedia.
Right: Pakicetus innachus, a whale ancestor from the Early Eocene of Pakistan, after Nummelai et al., (2006). Image courtesy of Nobu Tamura and Wikipedia.

A diagram showing the evolutionary history of cetaceans. Image courtesy of G1noah and Wikipedia.

But as I argued in my post, even 10,000,000 acts of biological Intelligent Design amount to no more than one every 400 years, and if we divide that by the number of families that have ever lived (which I calculated as 10,000 x 100, or 1,000,000), we get 10 “divine interventions” in the history of each family. To see how this is compatible with evolution, I’d refer Loftus to my post, Darwinians concoct a whale of a tale about the evolution of the ear, in which I accepted the scientific reconstruction of the family tree of whales (which I believe are descended from land-dwelling animals), while arguing at the same time that there was powerful evidence for intelligently guided evolution in the lineage leading to modern whales. As I wrote:

…[W]hen I investigated the evolutionary transformations of the ear bones in the lineage leading from the earliest whale-like creatures to modern whales (see the chart above), I was surprised to find that each of the alleged evolutionary intermediates appeared to have undergone not one but multiple modifications from its predecessor, in the design of its ear. A striking illustration of this can be found in Figure 7 on page 282 of Dr. Zhexi Luo’s article, “Cetacean Ectotympanic Structures” in The Emergence of Whales: Evolutionary Patterns in the Origin of Cetacea edited by J.G.M. Thewissen (Plenum Press, 1998) and also in Figures 27 and 28 on pages 77 and 78 of the (dauntingly technical) 1999 monograph by Zhexi Luo and P. D. Gingerich, entitled Transition from terrestrial ungulates to aquatic whales: transformation of the basicranium and evolution of hearing in Papers on Paleontology (Monograph) 31: 1-98, Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Even if you don’t understand most of the anatomical terminology in Dr. Zhexi Luo’s articles, two things stand out at once.

First, if you examine the evolution of hearing in whales, it is immediately apparent that each of the alleged evolutionary intermediates is strikingly different from its predecessor, in structure. This may simply be because there are many intermediate forms which scientists haven’t yet discovered. But my point is that given what we know, the evolutionary “stepping stones” are still very far apart from one another.

Second, hearing in whales is a very complex process, which requires the co-ordinated interaction of multiple parts. I am not saying that the ear of whales is irreducibly complex, in the sense defined by Professor Michael Behe. What I am saying is that the sheer complexity of the cetacean ear and the inter-dependence of its many parts renders the claim that an unguided process could transform the ear bones of (say) Indohyus or Pakicetus into those of a modern whale highly implausible. It is incumbent on those making such a claim to “show workings” – that is, put forward a plausible step-by-step pathway, showing how it could have happened.

Third, a lot of evolutionary innovations (or apomorphies) seem to have occurred over a very short period of evolutionary time, in the lineage leading to whales. For instance, Zhexi Luo, on page 274 of his article, “Cetacean Ectotympanic Structures” in The Emergence of Whales: Evolutionary Patterns in the Origin of Cetacea edited by J.G.M. Thewissen (Plenum Press, 1998), listed the following six apomorphies in the ear bones as hallmark traits of the “post-Pakicetidae” Cetacea – in other words, creatures in the whale line after Pakicetus, which means the Protocetidae, as well as their descendants, the Basilosauridae and the Dorudontidae, the latter of whom gave rise to modern whales, which fall into two groups – baleen whales (Mysticeti) and toothed whales (Odontoceti):

(a) An incipient conical apophysis.
(b) The tympanic opening for the external meatus is reduced.
(c) The sigmoid process is twisted and has involuted margins.
(d) Elongate posterior process of the ecotympanic to cover the entire length of the mastoid process of the petrosal. The posterior portion of the posterior process is a horizontal plate (not vertical).
(e) A median furrow on the ventral surface of the bulla.
(f) Double pedicles for the posterior process of the tympanic bone…

So there were six evolutionary innovations which appeared for the first time in the protocetids! That’s a whole lot of evolution going on, and all in the one organ: the cetacean ear.

To be clear, I’d like to point out that Dr. Zhexi Luo is no friend of Intelligent Design: he discusses the homologies between whales and their near relatives within a Darwinian framework, and he also invokes embryology to explain some of the distinctive traits of whales. That’s fine, but I have to say that I found no detailed explanation for the origin of any particular structure in the ear of whales.

Comparison of skeletons of Ambulocetus (above) and Pakicetus (below). Image courtesy of Thesupermat and Wikipedia.

It is therefore perfectly consistent to argue (as I do) that the fossil evidence for the common descent of whales and land mammals is very strong, while at the same time maintaining that the transformations which are known to have taken place over a relatively short 15-million-year period, from an animal resembling a mouse-deer to modern whales, appear to be beyond the reach of chance and necessity acting in tandem. Towards the end of my post, I concluded:

I conclude that it is time for neo-Darwinists to show some intellectual modesty. The intricacy of the cetacean ear should fill us all with awe. While there might turn out to be a matter-of-fact explanation for its development, which does not invoke Intelligent Design, I’ll believe it when I see it – with quantitative calculations attached. Until then, color me a Darwin skeptic.

Neo-Darwinians are fond of citing a recent paper by Herbert S. Wilf and Warren J. Ewens, entitled, There’s plenty of time for evolution (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 28 2010, vol. 107 no. 52, pp. 22454-22456, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016207107), which claims to show that there’s plenty of time for Darwinian evolution to occur, even if multiple mutations are required. Most of them will not have read the response to Wilf and Ewens’ paper by Dr. Douglas Axe, of the Biologic Institute. In a short post, which is mockingly titled, Breaking News from the Academy: There’s Plenty of Time for Evolution! (January 14, 2011), Dr. Axe points out the fallacious logic employed by Wilf and Ewens in their paper:

So here we have a new research paper that reads very much like a mathematically embellished version of the simplistic “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL” argument put forward twenty-five years ago by Richard Dawkins.

In case you missed it the first time around, here’s my two-sentence synopsis. Although it would take eons for unassisted random typing to generate the Shakespearean line METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL, the task becomes very manageable if something can select the best line from among the many lines of random gibberish, where ‘best’ means most resembling METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL (however slight that resemblance may be). Couple this with the ability to breed slight variations on what was just selected, and voila! – a line from Shakespeare materializes right before our eyes.

It’s an old argument with an embarrassingly obvious flaw. Yes, meaningful text can evolve very rapidly if selection has foresight or (equivalently) if miraculously helpful fitness functions can be assumed. But alas, neither of these happy circumstances follows from the impersonal kind of selection that Darwinists are committed to.

Axe concludes:

In the end, whether evolution has plenty of time or not depends on what you want to ascribe to it. It copes well with the most favorable adaptations conceivable (those offering substantial benefit after a single nucleotide substitution), but even slightly more complex tasks involving just two or three mutations can easily stump it. The key question, then, is this: What, of all life’s marvels, can be accounted for in terms of the single-change adaptations that Darwinism explains? And the answer, if we take Dawkins’ illustration seriously, is: Nothing that approaches the complexity of a six-word sentence.

You don’t need a biology degree to see that this leaves Darwinism in a difficult position. In fact, oddly enough, it seems that biology degrees only make it harder to see.

The real problem for neo-Darwinian evolution, as I pointed out in my post, is that “scientists currently have no way of calculating the probability of a complex structure arising by Darwinian processes within a population, over a specified period of time.” For that reason, they typically cover up neo-Darwinism’s lack of mathematical rigor (which I highlighted in my post, At last, a Darwinist mathematician tells the truth about evolution) by employing the twin devices of rhetoric (“What more evidence of evolution could you possibly want?”) and ridicule (“You’re making an argument from personal incredulity! Besides, why didn’t your Designer make whales instantly, instead of taking 15 million years to do it?”) In the face of such bombastic rhetoric, Intelligent Design proponents should stick to their guns, and continue to insist that even if we don’t know the Designer’s modus operandi or possible motives for taking 15 million years to produce modern whales, the evidence for design needs to assessed on its own scientific merits.

Loftus: “Go with the probabilities!” – Sure, why not?

This is what a real protein looks like. The enzyme hexokinase is a protein found even in simple bacteria. Here, it is shown as a conventional ball-and-stick molecular model. For the purposes of comparison, the image also shows molecular models of ATP (an energy carrier found in the cells of all known organisms) and glucose (the simplest kind of sugar) in the top right-hand corner. Courtesy of Tim Vickers and Wikipedia.

Near the end of his post, Loftus responds to my criticism that he employs a question-begging uniformitarian postulate when he argues that if God doesn’t intervene in the world at present, then probably He never did in the past either. In my post, I had asserted that miracles are by definition singular occurrences, which don’t happen with a set frequency, at predictable intervals. Loftus replied:

If miracles are by definition singular occurrences, without any statistical probability to them, the question becomes whether they have ever occurred at all. Sure, God may have done a plethora of them in the past and will do so in the future, but we live in the present where they don’t occur. He’s certainly not miraculously healing any amputees, that’s for sure. Reasonable people must go with the statistical probabilities and the probabilities are that miracles by their nature are improbable to the point where they are impossible on natural grounds.

Well, I’d certainly dispute Loftus’ claim that God doesn’t heal amputees (see here and here), but let’s leave that aside. The point is that there’s an important difference between the alleged one-off healing of an amputee in Spain in 1640 and biological Intelligent Design: the latter is a phenomenon which applies to a whole class of occurrences. For instance, it is claimed that all organic molecules belonging to the class of proteins could only have originated as a result of intelligently guided agency; or that all functional modifications occurring in living things which require seven or more mutations are beyond the reach of unguided natural processes. These are scientifically testable and falsifiable claims that are being made by Intelligent Design proponents.

Finally, I’d like to turn Loftus’ argument on its head, by substituting “Mother Nature” for “God,” and replacing “miracles” with the term, “mouse-deer-to-whale transformations”, which will serve as a convenient short-hand for the alleged 15-million-year evolution of a creature resembling a mouse-deer (Indohyus, or a near-relative) into a modern whale, as a result of unguided natural processes:

If “mouse-deer-to-whale transformations” are by definition singular occurrences, without any statistical probability to them, the question becomes whether they have ever occurred at all. Sure, Mother Nature may have done a plethora of them in the past and will do so in the future, but we live in the present where they don’t occur… Reasonable people must go with the statistical probabilities and the probabilities are that “mouse-deer-to-whale transformations” by their nature are improbable to the point where they are impossible on natural grounds.

See what I mean?

Loftus will of course respond that we need more time to observe something as improbable as the six evolutionary transformations which suddenly occurred within the ear of the ancestral whales that followed Pakicetus – never mind the rest of their anatomy. Maybe we do and maybe we don’t. But there’s one thing I do know: no-one has any doubt that an Intelligent Agent could easily have wrought such a transformation. The causal adequacy of intelligent agency is not in question. By contrast, the causal adequacy of neo-Darwinian evolution to bring about evolutionary transformations beyond the level of the species or genus remains to be demonstrated. Until neo-Darwinian evolution (or any of its naturalistic alternatives) can be mathematically quantified at this higher level, skepticism regarding its adequacy as an account of life is not only legitimate; it is a scientific obligation.

Loftus concludes his post with a paragraph that is long on passion but short on logic:

The lack of divine intervention in our world is counter-productive for a God who wants us to believe or fry in hell. We are supposedly created as reasonable people. Reasonable people need evidence. Reasonable people must go with the statistical trends. Reasonable people must compare comparables. Given the fact that science works precisely because God does not intervene, then it seems to reasonable people that he doesn’t intervene at all. And if that’s the case it’s reasonable to think he didn’t raise Jesus up from the dead either. It’s also a good reason to think he doesn’t exist at all.

So Loftus rejects the notion of an “interventionist” Creator because he thinks it would be wrong of such a Creator to fry non-believers in Hell, given the evidence available to inquiring minds. That may be so, but perhaps someone should tell Loftus that those are not the only two alternatives. Loftus is projecting a particular personality – one he utterly abhors – onto the Creator, and he finds the result so hideous that he feels compelled to argue the Creator out of existence. Loftus seems to have had the unfortunate experience of being told as a child that “the overwhelming majority of Jews will go to hell, where Judas is right now”; happily, I – and, I suspect, most other Uncommon Desecent readers – didn’t have that experience.

Let me be clear. If life was designed by a supernatural Agent, it in no way follows that this Agent expects us to believe this fact, given the present state of the evidence. (For instance, the Agent may be happy for us to go on collecting more and more scientific information about the limits of evolution for the next 200 years, before coming to a firm decision on the question of a Designer of Nature.) Still less does it follow that the Agent Who designed life on Earth wishes to punishes those individuals who disbelieve in His existence – let alone fry them forever. Loftus’ animosity towards the idea of Intelligent Design appears to be the result of failing to keep his science and his theology in separate boxes. The former relies on publicly verifiable evidence and logical reasoning; the latter on private revelations. The hypothesis of a Designer of Nature, like the hypothesis of Darwinian evolution, needs to be assessed on its scientific merits, independently of the ways in which that idea may be abused by its adherents.

The best that I.D. can come up with is the idea of a Tinkerer. Only a Tinkerer would have to create a cosmos this large with so many galaxies, stars and planets, and also create a cosmos this old in order to ensure that (probabilistically speaking) at least one planet out of that many and after all that cosmic time, a single species might arise, capable of speech and writing, all the while leaving behind an endless trail of dead-end cousin species, including mass extinction events. This Tinkerer also tinkers around with teensy portions of DNA over billions of years. So let's be honest, I.D.ists, and teach the Tinkerer Hypothesis. Because a truly Infinite Being of Infinite Intelligence, Infinite Power, et al, could have created a cosmos filled with life, and created it in far less time, and without leaving behind an endless trail of dead end cousin species. And while it was tinkering around with genomes, how nice of it to leave in all the genes linked to disease. As for the inability of evolutionists to predict specific changes wrought by mutations and natural selection, I.D.ists are in the same boat, they predict nothing either. They don't know how organisms are going to change or in what ways. Neither can they tell us what the cosmos will be doing for a billion years or so after some statistically predictable disaster wipes out life on earth. I have several posts on my blog concerning Intelligent Design, this is the latest, but the rest can be found via the index word Intelligent Design, and also Fine-Tuning. http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/search/label/intelligent%20design There is also a dedicated search engine at the top of every page on my blog and you can plug in the names of prominent I.D.ists and read what other scientists (including Christians like Denis Verema at BIOLOGOS) have to say about their arguments. EdwardTBabinski
The Mind Is Not The Brain - Scientific Evidence - Rupert Sheldrake - video https://vimeo.com/33479544 bornagain77
"Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion" by Rupert Sheldrake: - Dec. 1, 2012 "Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions.... Committed materialists have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads. These materialist beliefs are often taken for granted by scientists, not because they have thought about them critically, but because they haven't. To deviate from them is heresy, and heresy harms careers....Science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-rupert-sheldrake/why-bad-science-is-like-bad-religion_b_2200597.html?utm_hp_ref=religion bornagain77
@Kantian Naturalist Yeah, your point about the survey made me rethink what I was saying. I suspect many people would have their doubts if the question was put in such direct terms. What I think, then, is that it's more of an underlying assumption that sort of permeates everything. This is why, eg, something like Hawking's claim about a theory of everything is not scoffed at. And so it's almost like we've become a bit schizophrenic - believing one thing (the underlying reductionism that has been associated with science) while at the same time not really following that through to the point we will endorse a full-blown reductionism. djockovic
The Science of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander - Nov. 18, 2012 Can consciousness exist when the body fails? One neurosurgeon says he has seen it firsthand—and takes on critics who vehemently disagree. Excerpt: Many scientists who study consciousness would agree with me that, in fact, the hard problem of consciousness is probably the one question facing modern science that is arguably forever beyond our knowing, at least in terms of a physicalist model of how the brain might create consciousness. In fact, they would agree that the problem is so profound that we don’t even know how to phrase a scientific question addressing it. But if we must decide which produces which, modern physics is pushing us in precisely the opposite direction, suggesting that it is consciousness that is primary and matter secondary. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/11/18/the-science-of-heaven.html But then again he also said this in regards to overcoming his own materialistic beliefs that he had been taught before he really thought thru the 'hard problem' of consciousness: A neurosurgeon confronts the non-material nature of consciousness - December 2011 Excerpted quote: To me one thing that has emerged from my experience and from very rigorous analysis of that experience over several years, talking it over with others that I respect in neuroscience, and really trying to come up with an answer, is that consciousness outside of the brain is a fact. It’s an established fact. And of course, that was a hard place for me to get, coming from being a card-toting reductive materialist over decades. It was very difficult to get to knowing that consciousness, that there’s a soul of us that is not dependent on the brain. https://uncommondesc.wpengine.com/intelligent-design/he-said-it-a-neurosurgeon-confronts-the-non-material-nature-of-consciousness/ bornagain77
I do think one of the most interesting fallout aspects from the Nagel review is the fact that reductionist materialism has taken such a ferocious, if indirect, beating. It's pretty telling that the response by so many to Nagel has been to ditch said view almost entirely, taking on a kind of 'that view is crazy, only lunatics believe it' view. As for Loftus, his argument that 'if God intervenes then science isn't possible' is utterly stupid. That claim is what he hinges his discussion on, and it's trivial to destroy the claim - Torley's gone some way towards explaining that, and it's not very hard to rebut. nullasalus
Most scientists (most people), I would think, if they’ve thought of the issue at all, regard such a notion as almost self-evidently true.
I won't contest the point, though I do wonder if it's true. If one were to fashion a survey that said, "life and mind can be explained entirely in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry", and asked that of psychologists, biologists, chemists, and physicists -- using the standard 1-10 strongly agree to strongly agree test -- I wonder what the responses would be. Still, even if the vast majority said "strongly agree," I don't know how much that would show. Scientists these days are mostly highly-trained technicians whose chief intellectual competence lies in building a well-designed experiment. (Which is not meant in a disparaging way -- building a good experiment is hard!) It is to say that scientists might say very well say "strongly agree" without reflecting on the implications of that statement, or what they are really committing themselves to by endorsing it. It would also be interesting to compare the results from scientists and from philosophers. I suspect philosophers would express a lot less agreement with it, with the most agreement coming from philosophers of mind and the least agreement coming from philosophers of science. Kantian Naturalist
@Kantian Naturalist Successful examples of reduction might be uncommon, but the idea that such reduction is in-principle possible, seems to me to be pretty much universally taken for granted - perhaps not in philosophy of science, but certainly within the scientific community. Most scientists (most people), I would think, if they've thought of the issue at all, regard such a notion as almost self-evidently true. djockovic
In re: (11), Leiter and Weisberg point out (and this is not controversial among philosophers of science) that successful intertheoretic reduction is very rare in the history of science, and much less common than Nagel assumes it is. That's why they think that "reductive materialism" is one big fat red herring. In re: (12), of course Loftus is thinking dialectically here, trying to argue that the initial premise -- that humans were created as rational beings -- leads to a rejection of it. But what is rejected isn't that humans are rational, but that our rationality is best explained as a result of our being created. The problem here, of course, is that if one starts off being firmly committed to a Cartesian or crypto-Cartesian conception of rationality -- where rationality is fundamentally lodged within each and every individual mind, with no essential connection to social practices, and indeed transcends all social practices and communal forms of life -- then it will be, indeed, mighty hard to see how anything so exalted, so transcendent, so close to the nature of God could possibly have evolved from the cognitive processes of hominids and hominoids. On the other hand, if one adopts a pragmatic theory of what rationality is, the barrier to seeing it as somewhat continuous with hominoid cognition is drastically reduced. Kantian Naturalist
We are supposedly created as reasonable people. Reasonable people need evidence. Reasonable people must go with the statistical trends. Reasonable people must compare comparables. Given the fact that science works precisely because God does not intervene, then it seems to reasonable people that he doesn’t intervene at all. And if that’s the case it’s reasonable to think he didn’t raise Jesus up from the dead either. It’s also a good reason to think he doesn’t exist at all.
Is suppose that all follows, if we are indeed created as reasonable people. Odd that. Mung
The notion that a creative intelligence would need to VIOLATE the laws of nature to do the creating seems to depend on a certain type of reductionism that is supposedly no longer advocated. For example, in reviewing Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg say: "Nagel opposes ... what we will call theoretical reductionism, the view that there is an order of priority among the sciences, with all theories ultimately derivable from physics and all phenomena ultimately explicable in physical terms. We believe, along with most philosophers, that Nagel is right to reject theoretical reductionism, because the sciences have not progressed in a way consistent with it. We have not witnessed the reduction of psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics..." And they then add: "As the philosopher of biology Philip Kitcher pointed out some thirty years ago, even classical genetics has not been fully reduced to molecular genetics, and that reduction would have been wholly within one field. We simply do not see any serious attempts to reduce all the “higher” sciences to the laws of physics." Nagel, then, according to his reviewers, is arguing against a strawman - the notion that everything is reducible to physics. But as everyone knows, they claim, that notion is no longer held by anyone to be true. Thus the strawman. And yet, when someone argues for ID they have to find a way to circumvent (by supernatural means) the very causal chain that is no longer thought to exist. And this, I think, gets to the crux of the matter: on the one hand we have the theory of evolution framed in terms of a metaphysical reductionism which is taken to be so self-evident that it can be used to exclude any alternative account by the mere suggestion that any such account is incompatible with it, while at the same time this metaphysical reductionism is dropped like a hot potato when anyone attacks it as part of a critique of evolutionary thought. The point being, once you drop hard reductionism lots of other (levels of causation) get their feet not only in, but a significant distance through, the door. In short, intervention could be rife and science would still work just fine - exactly the way it currently does if Nagel's reviewers are correct. djockovic
I see. So agency violating the laws of nature is not anything that really happens in the real world. It is more of a theoretical hypothetical about something that may or may not occur or have occurred at some unknown time and some unknown place. Seems to me people should stop talking about agency violating laws of nature. The whole concept certainly doesn't add anything to the discussion and just generates more heat than light. Actually, what it typically generates is a loophole: the materialist can then appeal to our broader sensibilities that -- surely we must think -- nothing can violate the laws of nature; and if there is something that does, surely it would then be so strange and unusual as to not be amenable to ordinary scientific observation and evaluation. Ergo, we can ignore this whole intelligent agency thing because it is outside the bounds of science. We'll stick with our strict methodological naturalism (in all senses of the word), thank you very much, because no-one can expect us to be so foolish as to try and bring within the walls of our hallowed Science something that behaves arbitrarily and violates the laws of nature . . . ----- As I'm sure you've encountered, this is a very common line of argumentation for the materialist. I'm simply not willing to let the materialist (or anyone else) put forward an argument based on the wholly unfounded and, frankly, rather silly idea that agency violates the laws of nature. Eric Anderson
Hi Eric Anderson, You make a good point. Certainly our own agency doesn't violate any laws of Nature. The $64,000 question is whether the addition of a sufficiently large amount of functional complex specified information to the universe would do so. vjtorley
Hi Nullasalus, Thanks for your comment. I wrestled with the question of what title to give John Loftus, before settling on "skeptical philosopher." Here's what I found :
John W. Loftus earned M.A. and M.Div. degrees in theology and philosophy from Lincoln Christian Seminary under the guidance of Dr. James D. Strauss. He then attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he studied under Dr. William Lane Craig and received a Th.M. degree in philosophy of religion.
Now, I could have called him a theologian, but as he's an atheist, I don't think he'd appreciate that. "Atheologian" might be more accurate, but some readers might be puzzled by that term. I couldn't bring myself to refer to a man with three Master's degrees as "just some blogger," so I eventually decided on "skeptical philosopher," as he has a Master's degree in philosophy and he's an outspoken skeptic. That was the best I could do. vjtorley
Re: the OP: Can anyone point me to a single example of volitional activity, intelligent agency, or intelligent design that "violates a law of nature"? It has never been clear to me how (or why) people get off on that tangent . . . Eric Anderson
djockovic @1: Excellent point. The whole enterprise of evolution is to try and explain the kind of functional specified complexity we see in living things. It is good to try and have decent definitions and keep our terms straight, to be sure. But we don't need to get all bogged down in hyper-technical philosophical definitions of things in order to assess the facts. Those who refuse to move off of the definitions to the actual substance are playing a smoke and mirrors game. Eric Anderson
I’d like to thank skeptical philosopher John Loftus
Correction: John Loftus isn't a philosopher, except in the sense everyone is. He's just some blogger. nullasalus
I expect only 'primordial soups' are 'into' front-loading in terms of inanimate matter. A 'free lunch' in the offing, by courtesy of the starters: a nice wee bowl of soup. Axel
Would trees and other vegetable items be considered, living systems? They clearly have some form of life, growth and reproductive capacity. Axel
Doesn't procreation entail 'front-loading' (design over time, a plan - necessarily purposive). I don't believe snowflakes procreate? Axel
I'm always puzzled by the argument against ID that involves the supposed inability to provide a rigorous definition of complexity such that living systems can be distinguished from, eg, snowflakes or a jumble of wood washed up on beach. This is because if those design critics are really saying there is no scientifically valid difference between these things then why the need for the theory of evolution to explain one and not the others. The mere existence of the theory of evolution shows that the difference is understood well enough even irrespective of whether it can be (at this timer) explicitly formulated. djockovic

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