Science

Debating Evolution Skeptics on YouTube (with a little help from Stephen Jay Gould)

Evolution untenable?

Evolution untenable?

I get a bit worked up about evolution deniers. So much so that I spend much more time than I should engaging individuals in online discussions and forums, who, for whatever reason (okay, the reason is always religions) deny evolution. Without a doubt, they get most upset when I use the word “fact” to describe evolution by natural selection.

“Isn’t that very unscientific of you, to say evolution is a fact? It is just a theory after all.”

Well, yes and no. That last sentence betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the what a scientific theory is, relative to other types of “theories”. A scientific theory is a very specific thing, it’s not the same thing as a theory about who killed Kennedy or a theory about who will win the Superbowl or even a theory about market behavior in economics. A scientific theory is an idea that has broad explanatory power, has been tested and verified by different objective observers, is consistent with other bodies of scientific knowledge, and explains particular facts. Facts, in turn, are just things that happen: e.g., apples fall when you drop them, humans evolved from apelike ancestors, the earth is an oblate spheroid. Scientific theories explain these facts – the theory of gravitation in the first (and last) instance, and Darwin’s theory of evolution in the second. It is possible these theories will be modified in the future, as Newton’s was by Einstein, but apples will still fall and humans will still have evolved from apelike ancestors – the facts don’t change.

A few individuals seem to be under the impression nothing can be proved or rightly called a “fact”. These people are playing a game with semantics. In any real sense, evolution is a fact, and descent with modification (Darwin’s preferred term) is the profoundly powerful theory that explains it.

If I could ask the American public to sit down and read one essay, it would be the late and inimitable Stephen Jay Gould’sEvolution as Fact and Theory” – he says everything I just have with much more eloquence. Go read it, and consider offering it up the next time you’re spending too much time in a debate on YouTube.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Destructive Power of “Maybe Not”

I came across another interesting Sean Carroll video today (watch here) on the strengths and weaknesses of God as a theory (not a purely scientific theory either, but simply an “idea about the universe which may or may not be true”). Carroll briefly covers the Kalam Cosmological Argument, a deductive attempt to prove that some sort of prime-mover or first-cause was necessary to create the universe. I last saw this argument while attending a Reasonable Faith seminar in Dallas entitled “Does Science Bury God: A Refutation from Physics”. Here it is in full (there are various forms):

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Now, the first thing to note is that this argument is not a refutation from physics. That’s because it’s not physics – it’s metaphysics. The second odd thing is how often this argument is still used. It’s been so badly beaten by so many people that I’m a little confused  as to why it keeps getting offered (most notably and skillfully, or greasily, by William Lane Craig). You don’t have to be a professional philosopher to refute it, but Carroll offers you the easiest way:

Just look at the first premise and say, “maybe not.”

It certainly has not been proven that everything which begins to exist must have a cause. Lots of things do, but if experience has taught us anything it’s that our observations are limited and generalizing can get you in trouble, especially in areas you cannot conceivably test (such as the rather broad spectrum of “everything”). As soon as one premise fails to be completely established, the deduction fails and the argument is of little use. There are obvious additional flaws as well – namely that most theologians will exempt God from the first premise (saying something like, well, He didn’t begin to exist, He always existed, and therefore doesn’t need a cause) but that begs the question and assumes the conclusion the argument is setting out to prove.

Then of course there do seem to be examples in physics of things coming into existence without causes – see Victor Stenger. The verdict’s still out on the the universe having a beginning (that is, there are scientifically consistent models describing situations in which the universe does not have a beginning). And, just for kicks, even if we were to accept the premises as all true, it wouldn’t get us any particular God. You would still have all the work ahead of you to demonstrate the truth of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any tiny, single, pitiful attribute of any creator.

How would the Kalam Cosmological Argument look using the scientific ethos? Simple:

  • Everything which begins to exist might have a cause
  • The universe might have begun to exist
  • Therefore, the universe might have a cause

Well. Waters it down a bit, no?

Finding God In Arby’s – A Lesson in Self-Deception, Pattern Seeking, and Religious Tolerance on RadioLab

Ah, Radiolab. I just came across Season 11’s “Are You Sure?” episode themed, incidentally, around doubt and certainty. The first segment, which is what I’ll focus on here, is about religious doubt and leaves you feeling, as Radiolab often does, both fascinated and slightly melancholy. You should listen to the episode, because I’m going to comment on it below, and the summary won’t do it justice.

The gist is that this young guy named Jeff Viniard, who had been a devout believer all his life, found himself having a crisis of faith only a short while before he was to be married to his fiancé, Megan (also a devout believer – and I’m probably spelling her name wrong). Jeff was literally struck with the thought, “I don’t believe in God” while doing the dishes and was so shocked by it that his fiancé asked him what was wrong on the spot. He demurred, but a short while later explained what had happened, and, long story short, they postponed the wedding.

So Jeff took off on a bike trip across the Nevada desert, hoping to find some evidence for God. He couldn’t, and they called off the wedding (Megan was adamant she wanted her husband to share her faith). Another year goes by and Jeff finds himself still lost, still searching, having lost his faith and the girl he loved. Along the way he has a few encounters that he thinks could be divine evidence, like a minister talking to him at Arby’s and the wind pushing at his back as he walks up a mountain (really), but he still can’t make up his mind. Another year goes by and we find that…almost miraculously, all is well. Jeff had started attending church again, though still with doubts, and Megan began to cope with the fact that her husband’s beliefs would be different than hers. Jeff now says he does believe in God, though you can tell it’s not the kind of certain faith that Megan has (and you can also tell she still wants him to have her particular type of faith), but they make a choice to love each other and the wedding goes through.

It was quite a rollercoaster story, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Jeff, even though it did all work out in the end.. It’s painfully obvious that he was essentially forced to admit a belief in God because he loved Megan, and because that was the only way he could conceivably be with her. He admits to looking for signs, which in his desperate state was clearly priming his brain to recognize false patterns (see Michael Shermer’s TED talk below this post on the funny things our brains can do). He seems so desperate, in fact, that I’m actually surprised he didn’t have a better religious experience/hallucination during his search. A proselytizing minister at Arby’s was the best he could offer up. I think his journey is an example of the depths people will go through to be with the one they love, to not be alone – which in this case is both sweet and slightly sad since it seems Jeff has forced himself into a delusion.

I wish Megan, and other believers, could learn to be more understanding of someone like Jeff’s position. Why make him go through all that? Why call off the wedding immediately? The fact is there just isn’t any credible evidence for God. If He exists, as Bertrand Russell would say, He’s gone through great pains to hide himself. So I find it silly that someone would break off their marriage to an individual they presumably loved, just because they can’t believe in the thing you believe in for which there isn’t any reason to believe in in the first place (other than you were taught to as a child and it makes you feel good).

Perhaps I’m simplifying it too much, but it seems more reasonable to me that marriages and relationships should be built on loving the other person, and not on what you each think happens after you die.

“Too local, too provincial” – Richard Feynman on beauty in (probably) the best video on YouTube

This has to be one of the best videos on YouTube – Feynman just has a perfect voice for this type of thing. I’m in the middle of his biography, Genius, by James Gleick, and it confirms what you can pretty much tell from the clip – he was a force of nature and easily one of the top scientists of the 20th century.

And also very sweet. You can read the letter he wrote to his first wife, Arline, two years after she had died of tuberculosis.

Why Anyone Wanting to be Scientist Should Avoid Ball State University

No doubt you are aware by now of the controversy at Ball State University (public, by the way), where Assistant Professor Eric Hedin has been formally accused by the Freedom From Religion Foundation of violating students’ first amendment rights by injecting religious views into a supposed “science” course. I won’t rehash in detail – you can find a good summary of events here, but I did want to comment on the issue both because BSU is in my home state of Indiana (I briefly considered attending…phew!) and because I’m personally torn on what should be done.

First of all, there really is no question that what Hedin is teaching is poor science. Just look at his reading list (bottom of post) and note the silly amount of religious accomodationists, ID-advocates, and apologists. I mean Lee Strobel! In a science course!?! If I found this list on the street, I would assume it could only be an elective at a Theological Seminary in the Bible Belt. So, obviously Hedin is injecting religion and poor science into his class – but the question is, has he crossed a line, and to what extent do we defend academic freedom?

As much as I want to say Hedin shouldn’t be allowed to promote this bunk in anything like a science department course, I am also concerned that censoring a professor would have very bad effects going forward. Wouldn’t the Discovery Institute like to pounce on this? They could easily paint it as another example of Intelligent Design being shut out of the discussion, which it should be, but to the untrained ear that sounds an awful lot like “unfairness” on the part of evolutionary scientists, which is already the perception of many evangelicals. So I tend to lean toward letting Hedin teach whatever he wants and hoping students have enough critical thinking capacity to withstand any religious proselytizing with poor science…or maybe enough critical thinking to just avoid Ball State University altogether (provided you want to be a scientist).

I encourage you to check out Jerry Coyne’s post about the issue (he helped bring it to the attention of the Freedom from Religion Foundation), and then P.Z. Myer’s disagreement.

And here, as promised, is the reading list for Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” course. If you’re not familiar with most of these authors, that’s because they’re very much on the “boundaries” of science…some very clearly do not even qualify as scientists, like…Lee Strobel (face palm). I still can’t believe it!

There's something a little odd about these "science" readings, don't you think?

There’s something a little odd about these “science” readings, don’t you think?

Today at 4 EST: 20-year-old Zack Kopplin to Debate Discovery Institute ID Advocates

Evolution Defender, Zack Kopplin

You can catch 20-year-old champion of evolution Zack Kopplin debate two Discovery Institute ID-advocates, Michael Medved and Casey Luskin, today on Medved’s radio show beginning at 4pm EST by clicking here.

If you haven’t been following the story, Kopplin, a current undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, became something of a sensation in helping to lead a campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which would allow public school teachers to use “supplementary materials” to criticize “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill recently died in committee for the third year in a row, but these brush fires continue to sprout up, and I’m glad we have individuals like Kopplin standing up for scientific integrity and separation of church and state. Should be a fun interview – I’m not sure exactly of the context, but Medved and Luskin would need to start debating 10-year-old’s to have any shot at winning a debate on ID in public schools.

Sophisticated Ignorance – An Evangelical Preacher’s Denial of Evolution

Matt Chandler is a likable guy. He really is. I don’t have any trouble understanding how he’s been able to turn what was originally a dying congregation at Highland Village Baptist Church in Flower Mound, Texas into a 10,000 member, four campus mega-community of worshipers now collectively known as The Village Church. I get why he was recently named President of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting initiative founded by Seattle-based preacher Mark Driscoll. I get why he’s got the #3 podcast in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of iTunes and a best-selling book, The Explicit Gospel. I get it. He comes across as real and genuine and somebody you want to be friends with. I’ve felt this way about him myself while sitting in on several of his sermons in Dallas.

But Matt Chandler is dangerous. He has that rare combination of charisma, ignorance, and influence that endears him to many and makes him seem trustworthy (…George W. anyone?). His book, The Explicit Gospel, has what must be the most frustrating section on science I have ever read (you can read my review of it on Amazon here, but just to give you a preview, he calls himself an “agnostic” on science…despite having just survived brain cancer). He of course denies evolution, but as you’ll see in the video below, he does so in a moderately sophisticated way, appealing to straw man arguments and misinformed rhetoric. When I first found this video, it had zero “dislikes” – I’ve tried casually to bump that up through initiating discussions in the comment section, but don’t think I can rest until that figure overwhelms the number of “likes”.

It isn’t just that Chandler is dangerous for people like me, who care about scientific integrity and truth, but he’s also, I think, dangerous for Christianity. He asserts a dichotomy between evolution and belief  (ie. you must pick one or the other) that I don’t think can survive the modern age of science and reason. Evolution is not going anywhere and Christians who insist on denying it will isolate themselves even further along the fringes. So, in a strange paradox, I think as many believers should be just as upset with Chandler as nonbelievers (I should point out that Chandler simply doesn’t seem to understand evolution…it’s possible, but not likely, that if he did he would come around).

Of course, I actually agree with Chandler that it is a dichotomy – that evolution is incompatible with evangelical Christianity – but I’d rather see moderate Christians embracing evolution (no matter how logically inconsistent the idea of “moderate” Christianity may be) than creationists continuing to insist that it’s “just a theory”.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.