Creation Science 101

Gambling at Rick’s Bar

According to New Scientist, Francis Collins’s BioLogos site (wherein Collins, an evangelical Christian, advocates theistic evolution) not only faces the wrath of the neo-militant atheist secularists like Coyne and Myers, but has also been criticised by the Discovery Institute, who advocate Intelligent Design. They have a new site at Faithandevolution.org where they explain why Collins is wrong by quoting the Bible.

I’m a bit puzzled by this, as I thought that Intelligent Design was a hack get around the firewall that is the United States judiciary. The courts say you can’t teach religious opinion as fact in state schools, so if you want to get creationism into public education, you attribute creation to an anonymous Designer. You can then claim that you’re shocked, shocked I tell you (your Honour), that some kids might reach the conclusion that the Designer is the Christian God. I don’t want to tell these people their business, but setting up a web-site full of New Testament quotes gives the game away, doesn’t it?

Sun, moon and bumper sticker cry “Jesus is Lord”

Anyhoo, as it happens, the Discovery Institute quotes Romans 1:20, which I’ve mentioned before as a verse that supports the common evangelical belief that everyone knows there’s a God really, even if they don’t want to admit it. The DI say that Collins’s argument that God could have made stuff happen in such a way that his intervention was undetectable goes against the Apostle Paul’s statement that God’s existence is visible from what has been made.

I got into a discussion of undetectable divine intervention over on gerald_duck‘s LJ. gerald_duck had criticised atheists for saying that evolution proves there is no god, which is a valid criticism (if indeed there are any atheists saying that), but he’s oddly attached to the idea that it’s desirable to be agnostic about unwarranted beliefs, like Collins’s belief that the Christian god did it and carefully hid his tracks. I don’t really understand this. I accept that evolution is sufficient to explain the history of life after abiogenesis, because I think there’s good evidence for it. If evolution is sufficient, I require further evidence before I can conclude that, say, a god was involved. Without that evidence, I do not believe a god was involved (if gods there be: again, this isn’t an argument about their existence), just as I do not believe that any Flying Spaghetti Monsters were involved. I can’t strictly rule it out, but gods and FSMs are one of an infinity of possible additions to the hypothesis which I don’t seem to need, so why bother with any of them?

Over at the Discovery Institute, the cdesign proponentsists part company with Collins on whether evolution is in fact a sufficient explanation. If they could show that it isn’t, and further show evidence of design, they’d be on firmer ground than Collins is. Unfortunately for them, they can’t, but they were really following the evidence (which there’s some reason to doubt), their methods would be more rational than Collins’s.

New Scientist‘s Amanda Gefter has summarised it well:

Watching the intellectual feud between the Discovery Institute and BioLogos is a bit like watching a race in which both competitors are running full speed in the opposite direction of the finish line. It’s a notable contest, but I don’t see how either is going to come out the winner.

16 thoughts on “Creation Science 101”

  1. Designer==Christian God; whilst this is true of the Discovery Institute there are also works of Islamic Creationism out there. I don’t think that ID has to imply Christianity. (I still think it’s Wrong).

  2. it’s desirable to be agnostic about unwarranted beliefs, like Collins’s belief that the Christian god did it and carefully hid his tracks. I don’t really understand this.

    It makes some sense to me; it seems to me that it’s a matter of what your underlying aim is. If your aim is to decide what you do or don’t definitely believe about the nature of reality, then yes, intellectual rigour does require you to keep in mind all the possibilities that haven’t been conclusively disproved; to assert a belief in some hypothesis definitely not being the case just because it doesn’t seem very plausible would be sloppy thinking. One might just as well start drawing conclusions about things like the Riemann hypothesis from mere experimental evidence.

    But if your aim is to decide on the model of reality (or, if you’re Blaise Pascal, a probability distribution of such models) which you’ll use as the basis on which to make your actual in-practice decisions about how to behave, things look rather different, and you can’t let questions like “just possibly there’s an insanely powerful entity which is deliberately hiding from me but which will punish me infinitely if I choose this course of action” have too much influence over you because otherwise their applicability to any side of any decision will paralyse you! So you only start worrying about such possibilities if there’s evidence to skew the perhapses in a particular direction.

    So I don’t think these are mutually exclusive positions, and in fact I hold both myself. I unhesitatingly act and anticipate as if there isn’t a god, but if quizzed on the subject at the level of rigorous mathematical or experimental proof of his nonexistence I have to admit that (as you put it) I can’t strictly rule him out. My feeling is that a lot of acrimony happens when people fail to be clear about which of the above sorts of question they’re considering…

    1. to assert a belief in some hypothesis definitely not being the case just because it doesn’t seem very plausible would be sloppy thinking

      But isn’t this a massive straw man? Does anyone actually adhere to this kind of position on any issue?

      One might just as well start drawing conclusions about things like the Riemann hypothesis from mere experimental evidence.

      What exact conclusions are being drawn from the evidence? Is anyone in fact being dogmatic about the hypothesis on the basis of the number of zeroes found on the critical line?

      1. The very existence of the term “strong atheism” suggests to me that there are people who would claim to definitely believe God does not exist, and I’d have to presume that not all of them hold that position based on thinking that there is incontrovertible evidence supporting it.

          1. No, I can’t convince you; that’s a guess based on my mental model of what else you’d have to think to take each position. But why should I have to? You appear to be objecting to my original comment on the basis that the position I defended as not completely unreasonable is in fact so reasonable that you don’t think anyone disagrees with it. Well, my guess is that some people do, but it’s not critically important to me that they should: it isn’t me putting the point forward as the most vital element of the debate.

            1. Well, if you don’t believe you can convince me, I’ll have to do it myself.

              I googled for “I am a strong atheist“, and here are the relevant statements on the first page of results that I was able to classify:

              1. Self-declared strong atheists who don’t fall into the sloppy thinking trap

              “When it comes to organized religion, I am a strong atheist. In the context of Deism I consider myself to be a weak atheist. Although I don’t believe it, I don’t rule out the existence of some sort of intelligence behind the rules of physics and quantum mechanics.” (K. Axel Brauch)

              “I am a strong atheist. My understanding of reality is all internally consistent as long as there is no god. I see no evidence for the existence of any god.” (“fhayashi“)

              “I am a strong atheist … Of course I’m not absolutely certain. I can’t be absolutely certain about anything, even if it is rendered as fact. I think being a strong atheist can be justified the same way that I believe gravity is always consistent but I am not absolutely sure apples will always fall to the earth.” (“snaf“)

              “I am a strong atheist in that sense. But, I can also admit that I do not really know the answer – I only BELIEVE that God doesnt exist.” (“so-crates“)

              “I do not know that there is no god, but I believe that there is no god. In that way I am a strong atheist” (“Guruite“)

              2. Self-declared strong atheists who are, in my opinion, sloppy thinkers, or at least express themselves sloppily

              “I am a strong atheist. This view is a little harder to justify, because then you have to prove that there is no god. I have tried to do that in my non-existence file … The step from not believing in something to believing in it’s opposite is a mere emotional step, and a small step too. It is important to understand that, unless the strong atheist feels that he can disprove god, he believes because of emotions and not evidence.” (Fredrik Bendz)

              “Any and all existing definitions of god (save the pantheist god, which is just a synonym for “all that exists”) are incoherent and/or impossible. Therefore, with respect to all gods that have been described, I can say that I am a strong atheist.” (“hambydammit“)

              So I’m convinced: there are indeed some sloppy thinkers out there. (Or possibly just some very sloppy writers.)

              Whether this amounts to anything more than the fact that you can find all sorts of nonsense on the Internets, I don’t know. Are any of these dogmatic atheists influential or respected thinkers or writers on the subject?

  3. My opinion is that insisting on carefully distinguishing believe-not-X from not-believe-X is a kind of over-generalization from the way that belief is sometimes modelled in logic, where an agent’s A belief in a proposition P is given by a Boolean predicate B(A,P).

    But in the real world, beliefs don’t really work like that. In particular, you can have a continuum of credence in some proposition. For example, as I said to gerald_duck, I believe that P≠NP. But what that actually means is that I am strongly convinced on the basis of the evidence available to me that the proposition is very likely to be true. But I’m also well aware that no-one has proved it yet, and the possibility remains that someone one day will disprove it. If that happens, I’ll have to admit I was wrong and revise my beliefs. So what’s the big deal about that?

    But in gerald_duck‘s ontology, my belief in P≠NP means that I have “faith” in the proposition and therefore I am “religious”. This seems to me to be a complete devaluing of the currency of these words (or, if you prefer, the fallacy of equivocation). If all you have to do to be “religious” is to believe something that you cannot prove to be true, then we’re all “religious” and the word is useless.

    1. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen similar arguments used in apologetics, sort of “You already have faith, why not try Christianity?” I’m not sure why Christians think it’s a great apologetic, because it seems to boil down to “If you already believe a bunch of stuff without very much evidence, why not try Christianity?” The fix is not to believe stuff without evidence, not to accept more stuff for consistency.

      In a comment on the post I just mentioned to elemy, Saunt Eliezer says that he thinks of probabilities rather than beliefs. That sounds sensible, although I find it hard to assign numerical probabilities to things.

  4. Intelligent design? Pah. Take one look at my spine and tell me that design is intelligent. Your average Honda engineer could do better.

    Dolphins, on the other hand, were designed by somebody with a brain. So aerodynamic! And also cool-looking.

  5. I don’t think you’re being entirely fair to theistic evolution – I’m far more convinced by “God did it and hid his tracks” than by “God did it, and tried to hide his tracks but we caught him out”, which is what intelligent design seems to amount to.

    And anyway, I’d have far more respect for a God who invented an elegant solution like evolution, than one who went in for all that mucking around with dust and spare ribs for seven days.

    I’m not sure if it’s good science, but it sounds like a far sounder theological position than the alternatives.

    1. IDists (or at least, the Discovery Institute) don’t think that God tried to hide his tracks: that’s their objection to Collins. They think the Bible says it should be obvious that the Christian God did it, therefore it must be obvious, therefore they’d better find some evidence along those lines.

      I don’t think evolution is terribly elegant. It’s pretty wasteful, it involves a lot of animal suffering, and it produces sub-optimal solutions like the human eye. If there’s a god behind it, it’s more likely to be Azathoth than the Christian god, as Yudkowsky says. He also mentions that it’s more likely to be a bunch of competing deities than a single one, which makes some sense to me. I wonder whether there are polytheistic evolutionists?

      1. I think evolution is elegant – it has a single, simple driving principle, which produces an incredibly diverse, resilient, flexible system. When you say it’s wasteful, what are you comparing it to? To having those animals never having lived because they couldn’t have evolved in the first place? To all of them dying out at the first slight change in habitat, rather than leaving a core popuation that can adapt and carry on? To having an entity or entities redesigning them all the time?

        1. If we’re considering what the Christian God, an omnipotent, benevolent being, might do, it seems odd to me that God would use evolution. He could just create the life he wanted. One motivation to do that might be to reduce suffering, and also to get a better design than evolution would produce.

          True, evolution does work pretty well, but why would a God who could do better use it? What does God need with a starship?

          What Richard Carrier calls the Original Christian Cosmos sounds much more compatible with faith than the cosmos we find ourselves in.

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