Thursday, March 08, 2007

Reality Isn't an "Assumption"

Here is a really good example of a really dumb argument I have encountered a few times before.

Let's demolish it, shall we?

Why is it [what the author calls "Darwinism"] so stoutly defended? Mainly for religious reasons, actually. Darwinism is the creation story of materialism. "In the beginning was natural selection, acting on random mutations" - a creation without design.

The probability that one assigns to a given account of the origin and development of life - apart from evidence - depends in large part on one's preexisting assumptions. [emphasis mine]

That is, a materialist - and most of the members of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States are materialists - knows that a materialist account of origins is true. So the facts must be made to fit.

Please understand: He has not, using the methods of science, discovered yhat [sic]materialism is true. He has assumed that it is true. To him, science is applied materialism. And he will fit any evidence he does discover into his materialist view.

Hmmm. There's a whole load of incoherence right off the bat here. She says that one's assumptions will determine what probability one assigns to various explanations for the origin and development of life, but makes the caveat that this is true apart from evidence. Which, if true, would mean that evidence can be the deciding factor, presumably if it is compelling enough to trump our "preexisting assumptions."

In that case, then, the author would have to show that the evidence for the theory of evolution is lacking before she can attack it on the basis of a "materialist" bias. But, as usual, she sidesteps the issue as if the mass of evidence for the theory of evolution is not compelling. Additionally, if evidence is really an important factor, then the author's preferred theory -- intelligent design -- would need the balance of the evidence to weigh in its favor in order for us to accept it based on evidence rather than "preexisting assumptions." But, of course, intelligent design is nothing more than a critique of the theory of evolution that presents no actual claims of its own.

In fact, in the realm of intelligent design it is axiomatic that evolution is wrong. This is proven by the fact that intelligent design proponents, when presented with evidence proving that their critiques of the theory of evolution are wrong, refuse to accept the evidence. As such, we can conclude that evidence is irrelevant to them, and thus that the proponents of intelligent design, by the author's own logic, accept it as true based solely on their "preexisting assumptions." Her argument actually works against the point she wants to make.

In addition, her definition of "evidence" is incoherent. She says that a materialist "will fit any evidence he does discover into his materialist view." What sort of "evidence" is she talking about?

If she is speaking about material, physical evidence -- the sort of evidence that buttresses the theory of evolution -- then she is trying to shift frames of reference on us without cause to do so: why would one interpret evidence discovered in the physical, material realm as anything but indications of what happened in the physical, material realm? By what measure could we take a piece of material evidence and determine that it points to some non-material cause? It isn't an "assumption" to interpret physical, material evidence in terms of physical, material theories and causes. Unless we adopt solipsism, we know that physical, material effects can result from physical, material causes, and that they are of the same type and kind -- not even intelligent design advocates refute that physical, material causes can result in physical, material effects.

Whereas supernatural effects or causes would be of a different type and kind and, logically, would leave evidence of a different type and kind than natural ones. Specifically supernatural effects or causes would leave evidence utterly different than evidence left by physical, material causes, effects that could not possibly be explained by a physical, material explanation. Therefore, such evidence would obviate the "assumption" problem, as it wouldn't matter if one is a "materialist" or not, as the evidence would be of a kind beyond explanation without a supernatural or spiritual cause.

Alas, the evidence for evolution is not such evidence, as it has, in fact, been explained without needing resort to a supernatural or physical cause. In fact, logically, non-material causes would be evidenced by non-material evidence (whatever that means), just as material causes are evidenced by material effects. It is only through an unproven, unwarranted "assumption" can one conclude that physical, material evidence is the result of a non-material cause, since there is no evidence of any mechanism by which the non-material can interact with the material in the first place, even if we "assume" that the non-material exists. We have no evidence that the non-material can affect the material or vice-versa, and, as such, no reason to believe it does. Thus, without reason to think otherwise, we have no reason to think that non-material causes would leave behind material evidence. Rather, non-material causes would leave non-material evidence, just as material causes leave material evidence. Without a mechanism for the material to interact with the non-material, we would expect never to see evidence of a non-material event. And, guess what? We don't!

And thus, to say that science has not "discovered that materialism is true" is a non-sequitir. Once again, unless intelligent design proponents are solipsists, there is no argument between them and scientists about whether the material world exists, based on the evidence of our senses. In legal terms, both sides agree to that fact as stipulated.

Science is the process of examining evidence, proposing theories to explain that evidence, and testing those theories to determine which one is most likely true. Since we have evidence only that the physical, material world exists, and no evidence of the existence of the non-material (which would, in any case, manifest non-materially anyway), and can only observe material causes and effects, science is naturally limited to those.

When and if we can observe non-material effects, then we can base on theories on the non-material. But, until and unless a mechanism for the non-material to interact with the material is discovered, scientists have no basis on which to propose theories involving non-material causes, and they are therefore disallowed. In effect, in order to propose a non-material cause without any known mechanism for the non-material to interact with the material, any theory of non-material causes would fail, since there would always be a missing step: the step that explains how the non-material interacted with the material.

As such, material evidence cannot be explained by theories of non-material causes, and physical, material evidence is therefore interpreted as having physical material causes because that is the only known method of creating physical, material evidence. As such, scientists never need to "fit... evidence into [their] materialist view," because they know that physical, material evidence can result from physical, material causes, and thus the evidence always fits the so-called "materialist view."

In other words, reality has a well-known material bias, and scientists do not ignore this fact as intelligent design proponents wish them to. And, thus, the theory of evolution is defended because the physical, material evidence indicates it is true, and no coherent theory allowing an alternate, non-material cause has been presented. It is not for "religious reasons." After all, positing a material, physical cause for an event is not to say that the non-material does not or cannot exist, but rather that no evidence exists that the non-material can interact with the material, and thus, without such evidence, we must choose material explanations for material evidence.

Even where the evidence fits badly and inconsistently, as Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I show in The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007), the materialist prefers to live with the problems rather than to consider that materialism might not be true. Agnostic philosopher David Stove showed brilliantly where all that leads, in his systematic examination of Darwinism in Darwinian Fairy-Tales.

So when you hear people say that the evidence for Darwinian evolution is overwhelming, you might be wise to wonder whether a materialist could possibly
view the evidence in any other way. Even a straw of evidence that supports materialism is, for the materialist, of much more account than a mass of evidence identifying problems with it.

The author is changing frames of reference again, hoping through sleight-of-hand we won't notice it. She's conflating evidence for non-material causes with evidence for the theory of evolution. Even if the evidence for the theory of evolution did fit "badly and inconsistently," that would be evidence that the theory is wrong. But evidence that fits "badly and inconsistently" with one particular theory requiring a physical, material cause is not the same as evidence that a physical, material cause couldn't have left said evidence. We can only reasonably shift frames of reference from the material to the non-material if we have reason to do so, and the author's sleight-of-hand in conflating evidence conflicting with a particular physical, material theory and evidence conflicting with any physical, material theory is flawed.

Could a so-called "materialist," what sane people call a "scientist," interpret physical evidence any other way than with physical, material causes? Sure. We can posit that fairies or leprechauns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster did it. But, unfortunately, since we have no valid or testable theory by which a non-material cause can leave behind material, physical evidence, and, thus, no evidence that non-material causes leave material, physical evidence, we interpret physical, material evidence as caused by the only events we know leave physical, material evidence.

How would we do otherwise? The author does not say. She only points to what she perceives as flaws in how the theory of evolution explains the extant evidence and then leaps to the conclusion that the evidence does not support a physical, material explanation. But she does not posit any theory by which non-material actors can interact with the material nor does she give us any criteria by which we could distinguish material from non-material causes. Without such criteria, all non-material theories are equally valid and therefore explain nothing and allow us to learn nothing.

As such, once we leap to non-material explanations, science stops. And that is the real crux of the author's argument: she knows how life came about a priori without need of the evidence, so she wants us to stop looking at the evidence because she thinks she already knows what it says. Because scientists don't simply trust her word for it and instead stubbornly continue to gather and examine evidence -- what nerve! -- she accuses them of making "materialist assumptions" when what she is really upset about is that they don't adopt her own assumptions.

Merely by looking at the only evidence available -- physical, material evidence -- and then explaining it by the only demonstrable type of causes that create such evidence -- physical, material causes -- we are simply doing science the only way it can actually be done. Being restricted by the very nature of the universe in which we live to examining only material evidence means that there is only one way to learn anything in this universe, and it is not an unwarranted "assumption" to choose the possible the impossible. Or to choose to look at the evidence rather than just making shit up. "I reject shit that's just something someone made up" is not a crazy "materialist assumption."

When we come to understand the thing "that is not well explained" - human consciousness, for example, or the bacterial flagellum - we will see that there is no design. So if we think we have uncovered design, we must admit that we have not worked hard enough, and devote our efforts to explaining it away.

Er... no. She's very, very confused. Allow me to clear things up. In the past, we have looked at things and thought, "Wow, someone must have designed that!" Then, someone else came along and looked at it a bit closer, Darwin for instance, and said, "Whoa, wait a minute! I thought this was designed too, but when you look a little closer, you can see the signs that it wasn't." Through this process happening over and over in human history, we (some of us, at least) have learned that, though we thought we had compelling evidence of design many times in the past, we actually just hadn't examined the evidence sufficiently. As such, we have learned that we are often wrong when we assume design, and that it is therefore wise not to jump to the conclusion of design without very, very convincing evidence. In regards to speciation, that evidence is lacking, and trying to pick holes in the theory of evolution does help one bit in discovering evidence of design.

ID proponents like the author would have us act like some dumb squirrels I once heard a comedian talk about. He said there was a squirrel sitting on a branch. It sees an acorn further out on the branch and goes to get it. As soon as it does, a kid shoot sit with a pellet gun. The squirrel runs back to safety. But the pellet didn't hurt that bad, and it soon forgets it got shot, and sees... the acorn. So it goes for the acorn and gets shot again. And so on. As soon as the pain from the pellet fades, it forgets about the kid, and does the same thing over and over, never learning. That's what the author would have us do. Even though, over and over, we have learned that apparent design doesn't hold up under scrutiny, she would have us act as if we'd never learned this lesson, never been shot by the pellet gun, and just keep walking out on that branch.

We don't keep looking even when though something appears to be designed because we are "materialists" working on our "materialist assumptions." We do so because we've learned that there often is another explanation when one looks a bit deeper. If design were really to be found in the evidence around us, looking further wouldn't always result in our finding evidence that disconfirms design. We'd find evidence of design, which we haven't.

ID proponents don't have any, and that's why they persist in tearing down the theory of evolution rather than doing their own research and presenting their own findings. The author is essentially complaining that we don't stop investigating when she says, "It's obviously designed." But, the fact is, that scientists challenge and test every theory, not just theories of design, and so they don't just "identify evidence that looks like design" but then stubbornly "seek an 'explanation' that rules out design, even if it doesn't really work well." If the design explanation really were the best explanation, it would be confirmed by further investigation. If the alternative theory to design "doesn't really work well," then it will be further investigated and either modified to fit the evidence or discarded. Every theory is challenged and expected to hold up under scrutiny. The author wants to carve out an exemption for her pet theory, design, but she gives us no reason to do so other than her assertion that to do otherwise is somehow "materialist" and wrong.

You have to do better than that. Jeesh.


Post a Comment

<< Home