Over at The “Skeptical” Zone they continue to be skeptical about literally everything; everything that is except the unquestioned verities of the scientific and cultural establishment. As I periodically do, I made a run though their last few months’ of postings. The denizens of the Zone are if nothing else impressive in their consistency. As usual, I was unable to find a single word in a single post that would make the occupants of the average faculty lounge mildly uncomfortable. Far less did I find anything even remotely “skeptical” of or a challenge to conventional wisdom or established ideas.
Could it be that the folks over at the Zone don’t know what the word “skeptical” actually means? A perusal of their writings certainly leads to that conclusion. Maybe they have an esoteric definition of “skeptical.” If so, I hope they will share it with the rest of us. That would help us by eliminating the confusion that comes when we observe them saying they are doing one thing (i.e., being “skeptical” as that word is ordinarily understood) and what they actually do (i.e., accept established ideas without question and fight like hell against anyone who would challenge those established ideas).
All of that as prelude to my response to “kieths” Barry Arrington digs up the ‘tautology’ argument, which kieths wrote in response to my Engineering Tradeoffs and the Vacuity of “Fitness”.
Before I get into the specifics of kieths’ post, I would like to offer some free and unsolicited advice to all of our dear friends over at the Zone: Scoffing is a very poor substitute for argument.
Now, to keith’s post. It ain’t much. Here it is in its entirety.
Barry Arrington should stick to what he’s good at — banning blasphemers. [link to where I banned someone for blasphemy]
Instead, he has disinterred the corpse of the “natural selection is a tautology” argument, propped it up in a chair, and is now attempting to engage it in conversation. [link to my Engineering Trade Offs post]
Trust me, Barry – that corpse is dead, dead, dead. Among the coroner’s findings:
1. Even the dimmest of IDers and creationists accepts that “microevolution” occurs. Insects become pesticide-resistant. Finch beaks change in response to drought conditions. Microbes acquire antibiotic resistance. How does this happen? Through natural selection. It ain’t a tautology.
2. The tautology mongers miss a basic point about fitness. Fitness is not defined in terms of the reproductive success of an individual. An unfit individual who gets lucky and reproduces successfully does not get reclassified as fit. A fit individual who gets hit by a meteorite isn’t reclassified as unfit. To claim that “the fittest” are “those who survive”, as the tautology mongers claim, is ridiculous.
Back to hunting down blasphemers, Barry. Leave the science to those who understand
Let’s fisk this post:
[I.] Barry Arrington should stick to what he’s good at — banning blasphemers. [link to where I banned someone for blasphemy]
Not an auspicious start. Irrelevancy coated with ad hominem. Yes, the secular echo chamber at the Zone probably goes into paroxysms of giggles at the very concept of “blasphemy,” or that anyone would be banned for blaspheming. Here’s a clue keiths since you obviously need one. Graham2 was a guest on our site. Guests have duties to their hosts. One of those duties is to refrain from outrageous, intentionally inflammatory and offensive behavior. Graham2 violated that duty. He was banned. That he and his friends at the Zone scoff at the very idea of blasphemy does not justify his behavior. His comment was beyond the bounds of civil discourse and decency.
[II.]Trust me, Barry – that corpse is dead, dead, dead.
Red faced insistence does not strengthen an argument. Also, an idea is not dead merely because those who oppose it insist upon it. Sorry.
[III.]1. Even the dimmest of IDers and creationists accepts that “microevolution” occurs. Insects become pesticide-resistant. Finch beaks change in response to drought conditions. Microbes acquire antibiotic resistance. How does this happen? Through natural selection. It ain’t a tautology.
We finally get to an argument of sorts. Indeed, I do accept the examples of microevolution you mention. But the issue is not whether in some instances we are in fact able objectively to identify engineering criteria that resulted in differential survival rates, such as those you mention. The issue is very different. Please read the following Talbott quotation carefully:
However, the appeal to engineering criteria in the abstract does not by itself get us very far. As philosopher Ronald Brady reminded us when discussing this dispute in an essay entitled “Dogma and Doubt,” what matters for judging a proposed scientific explanation is not only the specification of non-tautological criteria for testing it, but also our ability to apply the test meaningfully. If we have no practical way to sum up and assess the fitness or adaptive value of the traits of an organism apart from measurements of survival rates (evolutionary success), then on what basis can we use the idea of survival of the fittest (natural selection) to explain evolutionary success — as opposed to using it merely as a blank check for freely inventing explanations of the sort commonly derided as “just-so stories.”
You have appealed to concrete examples of engineering criteria to counter a criticism of appealing to engineering criteria in the abstract. Do you see how that just doesn’t work? If not, I will explain it for you.
No one disputes that in certain situations mutations have been observed that have resulted in differential survival rates. But what about the situations where we have had no opportunity to observe the animal in the wild (which category includes all extinct species)? That is what Talbott is getting at. For those animals it is all but impossible to isolate with any confidence a specific engineering trait that caused them to be more “fit.” Consequently, we are forced to fall back on: “they survived so long as they were fit and they ceased to survive when they were no longer fit, and by ‘fit” we mean ‘they survived.’”
Here is the key concept: With respect to an animal that existed in the deep and unobservable past, it is all but impossible to isolate a specific trait as “the” trait that lead to survival (i.e., fitness). A necessary corollary to that observation is that the only way to measure fitness of for that animal is the rate of survival itself. And to that extent we are stuck with “survival of the fittest” means “fit animals – by which we mean animals that survive – survive.” A second corollary to the initial observation is that any attempt to do the un-doable – i.e., isolate a specific trait as “the” trait that lead to survival for animals in the deep and unobservable past – is an exercise in the must-derided “just so” story making so beloved among Darwinists.
[IV.]2. The tautology mongers miss a basic point about fitness. Fitness is not defined in terms of the reproductive success of an individual. An unfit individual who gets lucky and reproduces successfully does not get reclassified as fit. A fit individual who gets hit by a meteorite isn’t reclassified as unfit. To claim that “the fittest” are “those who survive”, as the tautology mongers claim, is ridiculous.
kieths, perhaps you did not notice, but there is a large gaping hole in your argument. Let me explain. Consider the following two sentences:
An unfit individual who gets lucky and reproduces successfully does not get reclassified as fit.
A fit individual who gets hit by a meteorite isn’t reclassified as unfit.
In both of these sentences there is an unspoken assumption. That unspoken assumption is that the term “fit” has a meaning that is independent of survival rate. But that is the very issue we are debating. Simply saying that “fit” means something other than “survival rate” is a mere assertion. A mere assertion is not an argument. For your argument to work you need to show us why the term “fit” has a meaning that is independent of survival rate for animals in the deep and unobservable past.
Here’s a hint: Falling back on paragraph 1 to support paragraph 2 does not work. Yes, Darwinists always want to extrapolate and say that the same process that causes finch beaks to get larger in times of drought is sufficient to account for the existence of finches in the first place. That argument is, to say the least, unimpressive.
[V.]Back to hunting down blasphemers, Barry. Leave the science to those who understand
If you think that ad hominem adds to the strength of your argument, keep doing it. I have a pretty thick hide. But can you imagine an Einstein or a Godel writing a similar sentence at the end of one of their papers? I can’t. And from that I conclude that someone who is really confident in their position sees little need to launch personal attacks on their opponent.
[I had to do some actual work and was unable to finish.] Allow me to summarize keiths’ argument:
I. Irrelevancy and ad hominem. Fail
II. Bluster and mere assertion. Fail.
III. Misses the point of (and therefore fails to address) the argument he is criticizing. Fail.
IV. Relies on unspoken implied assertion that has not been established. Fail.
V. More ad hominem. Fail.
In summary, keiths’ is a terrible argument. I admit that there might be some good arguments that the Darwinists could bring to bear on this issue, but keiths’ post most certainly contains none of them. It fails at every turn.
Now I invite our readers to click on the link to keiths’ argument and examine the so-called “skeptics” responses. A lot of clucking and head nodding. No one takes keiths to task for his shoddy work.
Kantian Naturalist is especially reprehensible, because he is smart enough to know that keiths’ work is shoddy and gives him a pass. Also, his “Arrington steals this thought from Talbott” is beyond outrageous. I gave full attribution to Talbott; linked to his article; and included lengthy quotes from the original. In what sense is this “stealing”? KN should be ashamed. I doubt that he is.