Saturday, June 30, 2007

"The Edge of Evolution" from the horse's mouth

If you'd rather hear someone who knows more about the issues under consideration, Michael Behe, the author, responds directly to reviews on his blog at Amazon.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Jonathon Edwards

I'm naturally upset that Jonathon Edwards, former Olympic Triple Jump gold medal winner and well-known Christian, should be expressing doubt about his faith. However, I'm not convinced the rejection of Christianity is as unequivocal as the interviewer for the Times Online suggests.

Also, I have to say that if the following really represents the heart of his intellectual crisis, then you have to wonder what exactly was the foundation of his faith.
Edwards says. “During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.”
Firstly, think about what happened at the time of Paul's conversion. From seeking to wipe out the proto-church, Paul went through his own crisis of faith, which lasted several years (though within days, he was arguing that Jesus was the promised Messiah), following which he travelled round the Roman empire, planting churches and intellectually challenging the prevailing worldviews. In this context, describing what happened to Paul as "an epileptic fit" is a bit like describing the start of the universe as "a big bang" - litotes, if ever I came across it.

But then, suppose we were to observe what happened to Paul today and conclude that it was an epileptic fit. If there is a God like that described in the Bible, doesn't he have authority over such things? Doesn't he oversee the circumstances in which these things happen?

I can't see why the possibility that the vehicle used by God was an epileptic fit is any grounds for a person to lose confidence in what the Bible says. I'm sorry that Edwards should have done so, and I hope to be more faithful in praying for him now than I was when he was the Christian that the media loved.

More on "The Edge of Evolution"

It's hardly surprising that Behe's book, "The Edge of Evolution" (EoE), should have aroused the mixed anger and ridicule of the darwinist community. Had he done no more than say there were limits to what evolution could achieve, he would have been accused of being typically ID and saying something that was unfalsifiable. Where in "Darwin's Black Box" he said that the evolution of irreducibly complex systems was impossible, the response had several contradictory strands - one being that his claims were unfalsifiable, others being attempts to falsify them by proposing evolutionary mechanisms that overcame the irreducible complexity.

But in EoE, Behe ups the ante by saying to his readers: forget irreducibly complex biochemical machines. The edge of evolution is actually much closer than that. Evolution is pretty much incapable of producing any complex protein interactions. Obviously, if what he has to say has any credibility whatsoever, then the whole concept of undirected evolution would be seriously undermined. So opponents of the concept of intelligent design are bound to do what they can to ensure that what Behe says is not treated with any credibility whatsoever. Even engaging in a meaningful way with the issues he has raised would do them too much damage - better for them to pretend that nothing of any significance has been said. I can understand this - as (I believe) Scott Adams put it in a Dilbert cartoon, the noise you hear is "a paradigm shifting without a clutch".

However, there is a real issue here which the responses to EoE from darwinists seem to have skated around. The HIV and the malarial parasite have been studied in greater depth than any other organism. Thanks to the large populations in host organisms and high rates of reproduction in both cases, they ought to be excellent examples of evolution in action. If we are going to be able to learn anything at all about how evolution actually works in real life, then surely we should see it in action in both.

So what exactly do we see?

Behe says, basically, not much at all. HIV continues to work in the same way that it did when it was first observed; despite the billions of mutations (in a single infected human, most possible single and dual mutations are statistically likely to be explored every day), the virus has no more weapons in its armoury than when it first appeared. The same goes for the malaria parasite. Again, billions of organisms mean billions of opportunities for evolution to try new options. But do we see them? We see single mutations that achieve the short-term goal of providing resistance to treatments - but since once the treatment is withdrawn, this mutation disappears from the population, resistance to this treatment seems to be achieved with a reduction in general fitness (Behe likens this to "trench warfare" rather than an "arms race" - burning a bridge to prevent the advance of an enemy, rather than the appearance of a fantastic new weapon). The same applies to resistance to malaria provided by mutations in humans - in all the years and all the cases of malaria that have been seen, the number of appearances of mutations that provide increased resistance to malaria without a general reduction in "fitness" otherwise is very small.

The observations that Behe makes are significant, but perhaps they are capable of alternative explanation. For example, if both malaria and HIV fit very well in their ecological niche, could it be the case that there is little pressure from natural selection driving change? It has been observed before that the fossil record is one of stasis accompanied by sudden change, rather than gradualism, and we also see some species today that have survived unchanged in the fossil record for hundreds of millions of years. The fact that HIV and the malaria parasite survive largely unchanged through the passing of generations would suggest that the physiological stasis is matched by genetic stasis.

However, this is of limited value as a response to Behe - firstly, because it means that we can't see evolution in action in the most obvious natural examples, which will lead us to wonder if we can ever expect to identify it, and if not, whether it is itself unfalsifiable - and therefore, no more scientific than Intelligent Design, if that is the charge levelled against it. Secondly, because the environment in which HIV and the malarial parasite are present in does bring evolutionary pressures to bear on them. In an "arms race" evolutionary scenario, surely the sickle cell mutation which brings a measure of protection from malaria to some humans would have been met at some stage with a mutation that could overcome it. It isn't conceptually impossible either that HIV could develop and utilise a different mechanism to invade host cells, allowing it to overcome the resistance present in some humans - and yet it hasn't.

I've no doubt that this won't be my last word on the matter ....

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More about "The Edge of Evolution"

On Pharyngula (sorry, I just can't bring myself to give it a link), PZ Myers quotes Ken Miller's review of EoE.
he overlooks the existence of chloroquine-resistant strains of malaria lacking one of the mutations he claims to be essential (at position 220).
Incorrect.
Although some other mutations in some other proteins are thought to contribute to chloroquine resistance, none are nearly as effective as that in PfCRT. EoE p.62
Now, was what Behe actually said correct or not? That is a much more interesting question.
Behe waves away evidence suggesting that chloroquine resistance may be the result of sequential, not simultaneous, mutations
Does he disregard sequential mutations?
"More rarely, several mutations can sequentially add to each other to improve an organism's chances of survival. An example is the breaking of the regulatory controls of fetal hemoglobin to help alleviate sickle cell disease." EoE p.101
And the implication was that this was more likely than simultaneous
"Very, very rarely, several amino acid mutations appear simultaneously to confer a beneficial effect, such as in chloroquine resistance with mutant PfCRT." cont.
I have yet to see any attempt to determine what evolution could achieve from the anti-ID side. So who's doing the science here? Those people that are trying to tease out the implications of how evolution might work? Or those people who just sit there picking holes and sneering? Perhaps the opponents of ID could give reasons why AFGP's have appeared in notothenioid fish and yet malaria parasites require a warm climate - Behe has given his.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Respect, I think...

... to Panda's Thumb. Given the desire to have a means of discrediting Michael Behe, it would have been understandable had they crowed about a paper which purported to show an evolutionary mechanism for the bacterial flagellum.

But they don't. Instead, they offer a critique and draw attention to their reservations. I suppose it might be because the person offering the critique has his own theory ....

Quote mining in "The Edge of Evolution" - well, not really ...

EvolutionBlog has a post that has been syndicated to Panda's Thumb, relating to Behe's "Edge of Evolution" (EoE).

It doesn't bother engaging with any of the scientific content of the book. Actually, come to think of it, I haven't seen anything that does, yet. It is more concerned with allegations against Behe of being "not fair" - specifically, by "quote mining" - that is,
the practice of compiling quotes from large volumes of literature or spoken word. The term is used derogatorily to accuse the "quote miner" of cherry picking and misquotation, where favorable positions are amplified or falsely suggested, and unfavorable positions in the same text are excluded or otherwise obscured. (Wikipedia)
Actually, despite the post title, the first third of Rosenhouse's post doesn't relate to EoE at all, but rather to Darwin's Black Box, Behe's previous book, and to one specific instance, a quote by Jerry Coyne.

Rosenhouse says that Behe is guilty of lifting the quote out of context
to make a small criticism about an esoteric part of the theory appear to be a criticism of the whole shebang
Is that what Behe is saying? Behe prefixes this series of quotations with:
It is not just paleontologists looking for bones, though, who are disgruntled. A raft of evolutionary biologists examining whole organisms wonder just how Darwinism can account for their observations.
Rosenhouse helpfully expands the quote from Coyne and Orr:
Although a few biologists have suggested an evolutionary role for mutations or large effect (Gould 1980; Maynard Smith 1983: Gottlieb, 1984; Turner, 1985), the neo-Darwinian view has largely triumphed, and the genetic basis of adaptation now receives little attention. Indeed, the question is considered so dead that few may know the evidence responsible for its demise. Here we review this evidence. We conclude--unexpectedly--that there is little evidence for the neo-Darwinian view: its theoretical foundations and the experimental evidence supporting it are weak, and there is no doubt that mutations of large effect are sometimes important in adaptation. We hasten to add, however, that we are not “macromutationists” who believe that adaptations are nearly always based on major genes. The neo-Darwinian view could well be correct. It is almost certainly true, however, that some adaptations involve many genes of small effect and others involve major genes. The question we address is, How often does adaptation involve a major gene? We hope to encourage evolutionists to reexamine this neglected question and to provide the evidence to settle it.
My understanding of this - and I've no doubt people will correct me if I'm wrong - is that Coyne and his co-author are saying something along the lines of: "The assumption is that a neo-darwinist process is assumed to be the basis of evolution - evolution is driven by successive, slight genetic changes - but this is assumed - there is little experimental evidence or theoretical basis. However, we're keeping the faith, and we hope that scientists will make good this shortfall having read this." In their area of special interest, they say, the evidence is missing.

Behe goes on to add, on the next page:
Before going further, we should note the obvious: if a poll were taken of all the scientists in the world, the great majority would say they believed Darwinism to be true. But scientists, like everybody else, base most of their opinions on the word of other people. Of the great majority who accept Darwinism, most (though not all) do so based on authority. Also, and unfortunately, too often criticisms have been dismissed by the scientific community for fear of giving ammunition to creationists.
So, is Behe saying that Coyne, Orr, or anybody doubts "the whole shebang"? I don't see that - just that they are saying that in their own area of knowledge, there is a lack of supporting evidence. Which was the point he was making - and is also what Coyne and Orr are saying.

Of course it's irritating when something that you say in one context gets used in another, particularly if you don't agree with the person who uses it. But has Behe misrepresented what Orr and Coyne said? Did they actually say the opposite - that is, "There is lots of evidence in support of evolution in the area in which we are experts." Had they said that, it would have undermined Behe's argument - but they didn't. You can only find Behe guilty of quote mining in this case by quote mining both Behe and Coyne.

"The Edge of Evolution" - some quick points

... based on the first few chapters, without much commentary for now (I'm still reading).

0. Darwinism is defined as common descent + random mutation + natural selection.

1. Behe believes in an old earth.

2. Behe believes in common descent (on the basis of compelling scientific evidence), and natural selection (on the basis of it being trivially true).

3. However, he doesn't believe that random mutation is a sufficiently powerful mechanism to produce either complex structures, or the apparatus that engineers those complex structures in the cell. So in terms of where the "intelligent design" happens, he would presumably suggest it was in the presence within cells of DNA that encodes these complex structures - whether this is "front loaded", or inserted at some later stage in the development of life.

4. He spends time defining the sort of change that darwinism could achieve. The examples he gives are thousands of years of battles between the malaria organism and humans. Malaria has managed, through single or double changes to bases in DNA, to defeat the attempts of human intelligence to artificially wipe it out. And yet Malaria has not managed to find a way of overcoming the sickle cell mutation that conveys protection for humans to the organism. This is again a mutation of one base. There is a mutation of a second base that conveys the same protection against malaria, without the harmful effects of sickle cell disease. And yet this has not become widespread amongst humans. He spends some time talking about what this means in terms of population genetics, in "layman's terms".

He also talks about the fact that the evolutionary explanation for the appearance of antifreeze glycoproteins in notothenioid fish is reasonable. As, for that matter, have I - and I feel quite smug that I should have identified the means of fish reproduction as assisting the evolutionary process in this regard, though nobody else has picked this up yet! A series of small, relatively high-probability evolutionary steps allows this to occur. And yet, the malaria organism, which would also benefit as a species from being able to move to cooler climates, hasn't done so, despite a population of 1018 organisms in the world at any one time (around a million infected humans, around a trillion organisms per person infected). And in any case, the evolutionary change to notothenioid fish could be described as an "additive" - no complex new structure has appeared.

5. In terms of the bacterial flagellum, he asserts that, whilst attempts have been made to provide a narrative explanation of how this might have evolved, none of these are really satisfactory, and they fail particularly to explain the complexity of the mechanisms that control assembly. He also points out that the cilium is probably an order of magnitude more complex, and talks about the engineering detail in its structure.

6. The aim of his book, then, is to define "the edge of evolution" - the sort of changes that evolution would be able to achieve through CD/RM/NS, and the sort of changes that evolution can't achieve, as the steps are too great. Before anybody says in an anthropic way, "No steps are too great, because we are here," Behe has made the point that there are some evolutionary changes, like malaria overcoming the sickle cell mutation or its temperature limitations, that are just the sort of things one would expect to happen in evolutionary terms, and the malarial organism population is large and able to try lots of variations to great effect.

The issue of the edge of evolution is also one that I have explored before - do a search for "specification" in this blog. Basically, I was saying that if too many low-probability events are required for evolution to proceed, then it won't proceed. I guess that's where Behe is going - I'll let you know.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Essay Question

"Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not least." (The Lord of the Rings)
"There will be a point, Harry, when you will be very glad you saved Pettigrew's life." (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)
Discuss.

Early adapter

(Relatively speaking - I didn't even find Darwin's Black Box until it was in paperback.)
I'll let you know what I think of it in the fullness of time.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Belief in God

bethinking.org, the UCCF apologetics website, has a good, meaty article by William Lane Craig here on religious epistemology. It covers lots of ground, including many of the issues raised by commenters here. If you'd rather listen than read, it's available to download as an MP3 file, apparently.

On the challenge represented by logical positivism to religious belief (which still represents the heart of the objection of many people from a science background to non-materialistic philosophy), he says:
In general, verificationist analyses of meaning ran into two insuperable problems: (1) The verification/falsification principle was too restrictive. It was quickly realized that on such theories of meaning vast tracts of obviously meaningful discourse would have to be declared meaningless, including even scientific statements, which the principle had aimed to preserve. (2) The principle was self-refuting. The statement “In order to be meaningful, an informative sentence must be capable in principle of being empirically verified/falsified" is itself incapable of being verified or falsified. Therefore, it is by its own lights a meaningless statement–or, at best, an arbitrary definition which we are free to reject. The inadequacies of the positivistic theory of meaning led to the complete collapse of Logical Positivism during the second half of the twentieth century...
Unfortunately, the word didn't really get out.

On whether a presumption of atheism is reasonable, in the absence of immediate evidence to the contrary, William Lane Craig writes:
Michael Scriven, for example, maintained that in the absence of evidence rendering the existence of some entity probable, we are justified in believing that it does not exist, provided that (1) it is not something which might leave no traces, and (2) we have comprehensively surveyed the area where the evidence would be found if the entity existed. But if this is correct, then our justification for atheism depends on (1) the probability that God would leave more evidence of His existence than what we have and (2) the probability that we have comprehensively surveyed the field for evidence of His existence That puts a different face on the matter! Suddenly the presumer of atheism, who sought to shirk his share of the burden of proof, finds himself saddled with the very considerable burden of proving (1) and (2) to be the case.
The author also explains why Pascal's Wager is not a good argument for Christianity, before explaining Plantinga's reformed epistemology, and extending it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reconsidering the Jesus We Never Knew

The Jesus we never knew was a thinker (even a philosopher) and moral reformer who did not bow down before the status quo nor accommodate moral mediocrity. He did not place blind faith over God-given reason. He did not place men over women. He also laid claim to the unique theological prerogatives that we may be more used to thinking about. Although the Gospels report Jesus as speaking with a divine prerogative, he also argued logically for his views in the face of considerable and well-schooled opposition. He did not evade, equivocate, posture, or propagandize. His view of politics and religion, of virtue and knowledge, of women’s significance, and much else are quite telling and of contemporary pertinence, whether one is religious or not. Perhaps it is time to open the Gospels once again, in order to bring new questions to ancient texts, and possibly to discover unexpected answers.
Douglas Groothuis (The Constructive Curmudgeon, I believe!)

Clipped from Bethinking.

Worth a mention...

A reformed, non-denominational Christian organisation in the US.

They were The Apologetics Group, but went for a name that was somewhat more distinctive ....

The Book of Acts - peer review

From here.
In his life Sir William Ramsay did extensive archaeological work in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Entering into this work he was an unbeliever who was thoroughly convinced that the book of Acts was the product of the 2nd Century (a theory taught in the German schools of higher criticism). As a matter of fact, one of his goals was to prove that the history given by Luke was inaccurate. However, his beliefs were drastically changed as his archaeological finds proved that the book of Acts was accurate to the minutest detail. As a result Sir William Ramsay became a Christian. He writes:

I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now seek to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavorable to it...but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. In fact, beginning with a fixed idea that the work was essentially a second century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations. (W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951), pp. 7-8.)

Luke is a historian of first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy...this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians. (W. M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953), p. 222.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The science of astrology

Michael Behe believes that astrology ought to be taught in classrooms. Actually, he doesn't. I wrote about this some time ago. However, it still suits various people, including commenters here, to believe that he does.

If you want to know more about the scientific status of astrology, today's "In Our Time" on Radio 4 was about astrology. Whilst it may surprise many people, the experts on the programme insisted that until around AD 1500, astrology had a similar scientific standing to other sciences, like medicine. And there was a rationale which underlay this view, as well.

Which was pretty much as Michael Behe said in the Dover Trial.

The experts all three also suggested, in opposition to Melvyn Bragg, the presenter, that there wasn't a sudden disappearance of the influence of astrology, even as late as Newton, and reformation was thought to be the way forward, rather than wholesale rejection.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

David Byrne again

He has some interesting things to say on his blog about changes in British society since his mother emigrated from the UK, presumably after the war. I think it's also interesting that he is still listening to what she has to say. It may not seem cool, but it's pretty important.

The image is from "Change the World for a Fiver", and can be found here.

He (David Byrne, that is) also has some thoughtful things to say about the clash between traditional and metropolitan morality. I suppose it's not surprising that somebody who could devise a "celebration of normalness" in True Stories, and write This Must Be The Place should not be unequivocally libertarian - but it's always warming when you find that people you admire for one thing can be admired for other things as well.
To me it seems that the ideas of the enlightenment have resonated out and are now tearing the world apart as they come into contact with traditional cultures, whether in Colorado or Lahore.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Should I be like Aragorn ...

... or Faramir?

Here are a couple of posts from "Lord of the Kingdom" which suggest the latter. Amongst other things.
We “get it” most of all because of the eternal perspective that we didn’t ask for but are compelled to live by. We are very much strangers and aliens in this life, residents of another kingdom. At times a DĂșnadan may be guilty of neglecting the “lesser” things of life but this is a mistake: God determines what is important and significant, not us. DĂșnedain are intensely involved with this world even as a firefighter is involved in a blaze: it’s not his house that is burning but he will risk his life to save it. We are charged with being faithful in a stewardship that God has determined, not the one we desire or like the most. God has said that this world matters.

But the eternal worldview is paramount. It guides our every step - although we stumble and misstep frequently - and provides us with the direction we implore others to follow. We are often ignored, but that does not change the job description of a DĂșnadan in the least. We are called to faithful stewardship and answer to the One who died for us. Like everyone else, we hope to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant . . .” when we behold Christ face-to-face.
I have a lot of sympathy and respect for what was written, although as with many such things, I worry that expressing this sort of thing can come over as somewhat pompous.

I'm sorry, but I don't know that there's a way around that.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Another round with empiricism

I think the heart of the empiricist objection to belief in God is that they are unable to observe anything supernatural.

But does the fact that a person is unable to observe something have any bearing on whether or not it exists? And if not, is empiricism any use at all as a metanarrative to provide guidance as to what is true and what isn't?

A blind person is unable to see things - by definition - although obviously he or she can observe things by using other senses. But does the fact that somebody is unable to see mean that he or she would be right to conclude that there is no such thing as vision?

A scientist living in the pre-modern era might have no means of detecting radio waves. Does that mean that radio waves didn't exist in the pre-modern era? (No - they are generated naturally, as are all sorts of electromagnetic waves). Does it mean that he would have been right to say that there was no such thing, as an empirical worldview might have led him to?

People who have an empiricist worldview can argue this in one of two ways. They could firstly say that from the perspective of the blind person, or the scientist, they would be right. If so, empirical truth becomes relative - something which I'm sure my commenters would thunder against! Or they can say that those people would be wrong. The fact that the blind person can't see doesn't mean that there is no such thing as vision. The fact that the pre-modern scientist can't conceive of radio waves doesn't mean that they don't exist.

What about God, or the supernatural. Does the fact that God can't be observed have any bearing on whether or not he exists?

NO!!!!!!!! Of course it doesn't. There are all sorts of reasons why God might not choose to be observed, why the universe might appear not to contain anything supernatural to a sceptical observer, why a reasonably plausible case might be made for the natural origin and evolution of the universe. But this has absolutely no bearing on the issue of whether or not there actually is a God.

Another question. What is the impact of an empiricist worldview on the pursuit of knowledge, compared to (say) a theistic one? The theist will continue to observe the universe, eyes and imagination wide open, looking for new things. The empiricist will work towards simply closing the gaps in knowledge, and not expect the unexpected.

I'm sure that this will provoke some response ...

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

"Why isn't evidence sufficient when it works?"

My anti-empiricism isn't fundamentally because the scientific method doesn't work. It's because it doesn't represent a sufficiently solid epistemological foundation. Let me try and explain.

Descartes, when he famously said, "Cogito ergo sum," was trying to derive a philosophical foundation from which it was possible to derive everything else in the universe - he was concerned about epistemology (how we can know). The statement is a good start, but unfortunately, you can't get past that foundation. You can't know that the rest of the universe is anything other than some aspect of your own consciousness.

The empiricist approach is to put this issue to one side, and say, "Well, the universe seems to behave itself - it seems to behave as though there is something really there, that acts in a tractable and reproducible way - I can do experiments on it, I can make observations in ways that I hadn't previously imagined, and it all hangs together properly."

The problem with this is, how can I know that this isn't simply my own consciousness constructing a world around me? How can I know that I am not a part of some Matrix-like construction? How can I know that, in fact, there isn't a god, and I am seeing exactly what he/she/it wants me to see? And the answer to all of those questions is, you can't. You start from your own consciousness, and make a leap of faith to conclude that there is a real universe beyond you. You then make another leap of faith to conclude that the real universe is all that there is - and in many ways, this is the oddest one. Given that you had to make a leap of faith to conclude that there was a universe at all, how can you then have any confidence that there is nothing more than the universe?

So what's the alternative? What do I believe that isn't empiricism?

Start instead from the proposition that there is an external absolute, a prime mover (if you like). Yes, this is a faith position, but so is the belief that there is a universe there at all, and nothing else. Both are presuppositions. Both are foundations for knowledge upon which the rest of our understanding of the universe is built.

Francis Schaeffer, in an essay entitled "Is Propositional Revelation Nonsense?" makes the case for the reasonableness of this position, and I could do no better than he has already. In addition to which, I need to go to work now ....

Monday, June 04, 2007

"The God Delusion" - review of review

Well, sort of.

The Daily Telegraph on Saturday had a brief review of the paperback edition, which has just come out.
He deploys scientific rationality ... to show that belief in God is a "pernicious" delusion.
That is, "tending to cause death or serious injury." Now Dawkins is a naturalist - in other words, he excludes the possibility of the existence of anything beyond the supernatural by definition. Within that context, the conclusion that a belief in God is harmful is hardly surprising. But what is of more relevance is whether the naturalist presuppositions can actually be philosophically proved. Because, the reviewer goes on to say,
Dawkins claims that faith is "evil"...
So one hopes he has pretty concrete absolute proof in the truth of naturalism, unless he is also condemning his own arguments. However, if he had that, then the Enlightenment project would have succeeded and the whole postmodern/existential thing would never have gotten off the ground.

Faith is "evil", Dawkins says,
because it "requires no justification and brooks no argument."
Freud's arguments start to look pretty shaky once they are exposed to his own analysis - why should our beliefs about God be a reflection of our thoughts about our own fathers? Wouldn't Occam's Razor suggest that this suggestion rather says something about Freud's thoughts about his own father? Similarly, what happens when we apply what Dawkins says about faith to his own arguments? What argument, exactly, does Dawkins brook? What justification does he present for his own philosophy?
He attacks the traditional proofs of God's existence, demonstrates the "mutual incompatibility" of omnipotence and omniscience ...
Now I have to confess that I haven't read Dawkins' book, and I'm also prepared to accept that there is a limit to the power of the traditional proofs of the existence of God. However, I personally believe that the existence of God is something that doesn't require proof. Also, I have read sufficient of Alvin Plantinga's book, "God, Freedom and Evil" to know that in philosophical terms, the argument about omnipotence and omniscience is actually not the trivial disproof of the existence of God that most atheists assume. Can somebody tell me whether Dawkins actually interacts with Plantinga - a serious Christian philosopher? Or does he do no more than the lazy interaction with straw men that we saw in his TV programmes?

One more thing. If we are ultimately no more than matter, then is there really any problem with beliefs being "pernicious"? Indeed, does "pernicious" have any real meaning if we are no more than ghosts in the machine?

Just think ...

... of a really original idea for a children's film. Then tell your friends about it. Two variations of that idea will appear in cinemas within two years.

It's obvious, really. There are teams in studios brainstorming ideas. "Insects? No - we've had those recently. Fish? Finding Nemo and A Shark Tale. Penguins? March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. Zoo animals ending up in the wild? Madagascar and The Wild. Rats? Flushed Away and Ratatouille. Wild animals interacting with humans? Open Season and ... well, you get the idea." When one studio gets its teeth into a really good idea, the likelihood is that another studio is also going to get its teeth into one very similar.

So what do you reckon? I think we must have a couple of bird films soon to appear. And a couple about trucks. Remember, you saw it here first.

Just think of a really sweeping generalisation ....

Sunday, June 03, 2007

My idea of heaven ...

... not.

But certainly more utopian than most countries in the world today ...

Cutabaria
UN Category: Liberal Democratic Socialists
Civil Rights: Very Good
Economy: Reasonable
Political Freedoms: Superb

The Most Serene Republic of Cutabaria is a very large, socially progressive nation, notable for its burgeoning starfish population. Its compassionate, intelligent population of 155 million love a good election, and the government gives them plenty of them. Universities tend to be full of students debating the merits of various civil and political rights, while businesses are tightly regulated and the wealthy viewed with suspicion.

The enormous government [??? How did that happen?!] devotes most of its attentions to Education, with areas such as Defence and Law & Order receiving almost no funds by comparison [and that was before the cutbacks in today's dilemma. If invasion were possible in this game, I think it would have happened by now!]. The average income tax rate is 33%, but much higher for the wealthy. The private sector is almost wholly made up of enterprising fourteen-year-old boys selling lemonade on the sidewalk, although the government is looking at stamping this out. [Oops!]

Hundreds of thousands of convicts work as slaves in Cutabaria's many privately-owned prisons, there has been a series of riots between local cannibals and health food advocates, genetic research is temporarily tied up in government red tape, and prime commercial land is being swamped with archaeological teams. Crime is well under control. Cutabaria's national animal is the starfish, which is also the nation's favorite main course, and its currency is the chocolate bar.

Cutabaria is ranked 45th out of 154 in the region [a particularly enlightened region, Rineu]and 16,743rd out of 90,392 in the world for Most Compassionate Citizens.

Changing times

I have a fairly visible, high probability gmail address, which means it gets hit with a lot of spam, relatively speaking. Until recently, this meant a couple of hits a day of phishing attempts from "banks" - websites pretending to be Nationwide, Co-operative, Egg and others, plus the usual assortment of dead and imprisoned millionaires' wives from the developing world.

Google almost always correctly identified these messages as spam - but also provided the option for them to be tagged as phishing, if so considered. Once reported as phishing, Google would also add a warning to them, and disable any hyperlinks in the message, further reducing the danger of people being taken in by them. I considered my willingness to tag such messages once received as a small, cheap favour I could extend to the rest of the internet community.

Well, the bank ones have stopped, almost completely. I simply don't seem to get spam messages on my email account any more asking me to confirm my security details. Have they finally met their nemesis somewhere?

Incidentally, I always thought that a 0.1 cent tax per email sent would provide a means of stopping spam - but since the "From" field seems to be forged on many occasions (judging by the number of automatic fail responses I get to a church email address that just isn't used to send emails at all), I guess this wouldn't work.