Saturday, 29 November 2008

Creation or Evolution - "Evolutionary Creationism" (Chapter 8)

We're now in the middle of the book, and having done all the spade work DA now summarises his main idea, which he calls "evolutionary creationism", but which is normally called "theistic evolution", i.e., the Darwinian process is God's chosen method for the creation of the world. After this chapter DA will go on to look at some particular areas of interest or difficulty in more detail, in particular how this thesis deals with various theological questions that arise.

DA first of all sets himself the task of clearing the ground by explaining that evolution need not carry any atheistic overtones, and to parade a list of names of those who from Darwin's day downwards (including the man himself) either did not believe evolution had to imply atheism, or who ardently advocated both evolution and Christianity. Concerning the latter, not all the names were familiar to me, but DA was very sloppy in handling two who were. Henry Drummond, despite his involvement in Moody's campaigns, was not as DA describes him an evangelical, but an outright down-grader. DA also uncritically quotes Benjamin Warfield's words describing himself as a "Darwinian of the purest water", with no hint that he is aware that Warfield spoke those words at the beginning of his theological career as a 17-year old freshman (though granted, somewhat above the usual grade of such - he had memorised the Westminster Shorter Catechism by the age of 6!), and that in later years he developed a number of criticisms of Darwin and was not unambiguous in his support of evolutionary theory - certainly he could never have written a book like DA's!

The former point though is more important - it's granted that Darwinism has been a massively successful theory in terms of gaining adherents including legions ready to proclaim their belief that it can be harmonised with Christianity, evangelicalism, etcetera. DA's basic approach to the question of Darwinism's implications is a naive dualism. Scientific theories have no inherent ideological implications; all those are later encrustations welded on by philosophers. Scientists and philosophers work in different spheres, and scientists just go where the evidence leads, leaving it to others to do what they will with their findings. It's amazing to believe that anyone can believe that kind of nonsense in these post-modern days, and I find it hard to believe DA can really believe what he's penning when he writes along those lines. Later on, DA gives some good explanations of how various ideologues used Darwinism to support their various theories (in such fields as economics, Marxism and medicine (eugenics)), but he never gets close to penetrating the heart of why they did so. The closest is when he remarks that some of what happened in the world of eugenics had to do with "the aspirations of nineteenth ccentury educated Victorian gentlemen to create the world in their own image" (p 179). A more incisive insight would have been to observe that all these competitive and individualist theories hung together, including evolution, and that Darwin's theory, far from being a neutral insight into scientific reality, was in many respects simply this kind of 19th century educated Victorian gentleman seeking to form a theory of biology that fitted his views on the world.

DA notes that Darwin was a deist (in the part of the chapter where he's arguing that Darwinism doesn't have to imply atheism), and in another part of the chapter gives a short denial that his view of creation is basically deistic, but that's the closest he gets to actually examining the question of what form of theism evolution implies - that question has already been side-stepped into irrelevance by the conveniently thesis that scientific theories are ideology-free zones. But even Professor Dawkins is ready to concede the compatibility of Darwinism with theism - provided that the brand of theism involved is deism. Darwin's deism is not a coincedence, and his biological theory was not a neutral ejaculation of an unbiased mind. Darwinism is essentially the theory that the laws of nature (however those are conceived of in terms of their relationship to God) make the rise of more complex life forms from simpler ones inevitable - a view well summarised in a Darwin quote DA approvingly supplies:

"There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

As long as certain rules are followed, complex life is inevitable by small and successive stages. That view of "creation" may be compatible with theism, but this point is not under dispute and so DA is offering us red herrings again. The real question at the heart of the disagreement between creationists and theistic evolutionists is, is Darwinism compatible with Biblical theism? i.e. is is compatible with essentially Christian theism? DA defends the legitimacy of believing in both God and Darwin - fine. But what about the Biblical God and Darwin? This is a question that DA is ill-equipped to get to grips with because of his starting point - which is to insist a priori that the Bible just tells us naked theology, science tells us about the physical world, and our job is just to find a nice harmony for the two. DA's answer to the charge that theistic evolution is basically deism is to insist that his theory insists on God's immanence in all the processes in creation, whereas deism is a theory of an absent God who merely set the rules and started the machine going but then takes a leave of absence. But this difference is entirely theoretical - it has no "cash value" as regards anything that ever happens in the physical world. Perhaps these physical events happen by the inevitable working out of natural laws; perhaps they happen because God is immanent in creation and working things according to a perfect order and harmony - but that's an entirely theological question totally unrelated to science or history. The point is that "evolutionary creationism" is functionally the same as deism, whatever it is philosophically - and functional deism is not Christian theism.

DA writes that it is ironic that young earth creationists agree with Dawkins that evolution is inherently atheistic. This is not ironic; it is simply true. He then goes on to blame them of "playing right into Dawkins' hands" by "confusing theology with science" and "setting up a false antithesis". This reflects DA's dualism - Genesis is theology, Darwinism is science, and in principle there's no reason why the two should ever have a problem. The problem is, though, that Genesis makes historical claims and so does Darwinism - it's no "confusion" to compare the two and observe that they differ; the confusion comes in an approach which conveniently side-steps the question at each turn.

Side-stepping is what DA does when he comes to address the issue of "naturalism" and whether it's at heart an anti-Christian theology. As seen many times now in the book, the question is neatly dealt with by a clever re-definition of the issue that is then inevitably easy to deal with. DA re-defines "naturalism" to mean "scientific language which does not mention God", and then proceeds to explain the reasons why Christian scientists don't stuff their papers with God-language (because God is everywhere and always present in creation, not just at some parts - we don't want to invoke a false "God of the gaps"). Neat, but useless. The problem with naturalism was never that it didn't include enough God-talk. The problem is the removal of the necessity of a mind - the philosophical decision to rule the questions of intentionality and design out of court, not on the basis of scientific evidence or necessity, but for ideological reasons. Darwinism, view from this angle, is simply the accomodation of biology to the philosophy of naturalism. It's not the absence of "God-speak" that causes Biblical theists issues with it - it's the absence of any necessity for a mind or purpose in the process. That's why Charles Hodge, a predecessor of B B Warfield at Princeton Seminary who DA didn't mention in his survey of responses to Darwinism, concluded his book "What is Darwinism?" with the conclusion "What is Darwinism? It is atheism."

Thursday, 27 November 2008

"Creation or Evolution" - Chapter 7 - "What about Genesis?"

This chapter will make the discerning reader want to take a step back. There are even larger issues raised by this chapter and its role within the book than the subject of the book itself. The larger issues point to an ongoing "downgrade" in the world of evangelical theology which are part of the reason why much of the evangelical world is willing to come to an easy compromise with Darwinian thought.

We have now reached chapter 7, and Dr. Alexander has set out what he claims are proven and certain facts about the history of the world, its age, and the manner in which life developed. After settling all those issues, we now come to chapter 7, to ask - what does the word of God have to say about these things? Perhaps sensing that someone reading the book might have an uncomfortable feeling about the orthodoxy of his methodology, DA begins with a page of disclaimers to protest his submission to the Word of God as his final authority. He doth protest too much. Authentically evangelical methodology means that the Scriptures come first, and set the parameters of the debate. We do not ask fallen men for their best conclusions from their own investigations first, and then see whether we can harmonise it with Scripture afterwards - which is just what DA does, despite the protest that he wouldn't dream of such a thing.

DA's general approach to the early chapters of Genesis is to set up a false dichotomy (which is never formally stated, but is continually implied) between the historical reality of the Genesis account, and the theological truths which that history teaches. A first necessity is to ask what kind of literature Genesis is. Most of the ink is, as in a previous chapter, spent on refuting the suggestion that nobody makes - that Genesis is to be treated like a modern scientific treatise. But, in amongst this, we do get one - yes, a whole one and not just a half - sentence to discuss the idea of whether Genesis records not modern science but accurate historical narrative (whether with or without poetic elements in the presentation). Here it is
It is describing creative events that occurred before anuyone was around to describe them, so it cannot be history in any normal use of that term.
And that's it. What DA means by "normal use" of the term "history", we are not told. Whether God himself, inspiring Moses, might be an even better historian than the normal human ones who weren't around and therefore whether we don't need to worry about their absence, doesn't seem to be worth discussing. Nope - if it happened before any men were here, then even if God himself records it it just can't count as "history" in a meaningful way and there's nothing left even worth dicussing. This kind of "clever" word-game, by which DA entirely side-steps the central and relevant issues in order to swiftly proceed on to some display of intelligence on some other side-issue is what makes this book a deeply frustrating one for anyone looking for an informed critique of young earth creationism.

Another such gem of schoolboy logic is the old chestnut that as the sun and moon weren't created until the fourth day, therefore the days can't be of the 24-hour kind because there was nothing there to mark them. This absurd argument wrongly assumes that the passing of time and the marking of the passing of time are the same thing. But does not even an infant know that time has passed long before mum or dad tells them what it is or how to count it?

There are several other such glaring logical howlers in the chapter, and more besides with historical misrepresentations, and hand-waving-smoke-blowing-strawman-destroying of possible objections, but I won't bore you with them. Such things can easily be detected by a critical reader who goes off to any of the big creationist websites to search for discussion of the common arguments. The big issue raised by the chapter is that of principles of interpretation and the place of the Word of God in forrming our theology and world-view. It's not enough to say that you abide by the Bible's authority. DA seeks to harmonise Genesis with evolution, but the Bible is not just one book alongside others; it must rule them all, and that in evident practice and not just in theory and disclaimer. DA makes a continual false dichotomy, urging us to not focus on Genesis' historical details and then to miss their theological import for us. Fine, but DA makes the opposite error; he divorces the two, aiming to give us the theological fruits but without the real-world, time-and-space events that actually give rise to them. This is trying to eat your cake without having ever had it to begin with.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Atheism is too easy to forget...

The modern West is dominated by secularism. God and religion must be banished to the private sphere - personal, individual preference, with nothing relevant to say to public policy. i.e., de facto atheism.

The trouble with atheism, though, is that it doesn't work. Unfortunately for the atheist, reality has an ugly habit of interfering with the godless utopia he tries to build.

I was one of many forwarded an e-mail this week, concerning the cruelly murdered "Baby P", which included these sentiments concerning those involved:

"May God grant them ALL they deserve.


Please pass this on to everyone to sign The Sun petition to get justice for that poor little boy. Rest in peace little man."

I read also in the press that the atheists have been taking out adverts on buses recently, urging us all to forget our thoughts of God and just get on with life. Trouble is, real life isn't actually the bed of roses that allows us all to just sit back on our sun-loungers and pretend that we are the ultimate reality. Evil really exists, and from time to time we get some shocking reminder that it's a moral universe and that we are moral beings whose inner-most parts cry out for justice, meaning and all kinds of other things - things hard-wired in us from our creation.

Or perhaps the atheists will be putting new adverts on the buses next week? To remind us that Baby P was just one insignificant little leaf on the tree of life - that one tree occupied alike by baboons, artichokes, bacteria, fleas, lettuces and all kinds of creatures whose deaths we count as utterly insignificant? I don't think so. That's the trouble with atheism - it doesn't deal with real life, and doesn't allow you to be consistent. It only works when everything sails along smoothly. Otherwise, it's totally useless.

Modern Britain

An instructive insight into life amongst the ruling elite in modern Britain and what things they think are important...

Things to note:
  • The press for gay "super rights" - i.e. to make homosexuals a privileged group with rights that trump every other groups - goes on.

  • It's possible in 2008 for a government minister to suggest that you should be fast-tracked into parliament merely on the grounds of how you derive sexual pleasure, without that government minister being openly ridiculed, shuffled out of office immediately, taken out by the party whips and shot, or whatever.

  • According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of open homosexuals in parliament is already more than double the number required to give the whole homosexual community a proportionate representation.

  • The modern political parties don't even bother to pretend any more that MPs are really ultimately chosen by the people - nope, it's a party stitch-up (aided by the media) that decides who's represented in parliament.

  • Long live Ann Widdecombe and the few remaining of her ilk who still have enough courage to speak obvious truths in defiance of the elite's canons of politically acceptable speech.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Creation or evolution - chapter 6 continued ("Objections to evolution")

5. What use is half an eye?

This bit is more technical. I found it irrelevant, because DA misses the point and spends some pages telling us about already formed systems, though limited ones, rather than telling us what use half a system would actually be!

One interesting bit was where he contradicts the approach to Darwinism, chance and providence he takes elsewhere in the book. He tells us that the human optical system is sub-optimal because there is a blind spot due to the optic nerve having to cross the retina to get to the brain - a defect the octopus does not have. He then remarks, "This provides a good illustration of the various ways in which our organs reflect their own sometimes idiosyncratic evolutionary histories." This idea of defective design due to idiosyncratic history, though, cannot be made compatible with his earlier assertions (e.g. in the answer to the first objection) that Darwinism is not a random process but perfectly superintended by God at every point to bring about the well-formed creation he desired. Either the human eye is a idiosyncratic hodge-podge limited by its own evolutionary history, or is what a perfectly wise designer intended it to be. You can't posit one of those ideas when the objection at hand makes it convenient to do so and the other when it suits you on another occasion.

6. "Surely if evolution were true, God would have told us in his Word so that we don't need to have all this discussion?"

Three-fold answer here, and a dud on all accounts:

a) The Bible is about spiritual matters such as salvation, not about the natural world.  Ugh. That dichotomy is an Enlightenment dualism that is unbiblical.

b) God, like a wise parent, does not just give us all we need to know on a plate - he allows us to explore and find the truth. Humph. This answer has a load of false assumptions, such as: that whether creation is a long, upward process full of struggle or death or whether it was a supernatural event perfect at completion which then fell, is a distinction with no theological consequence and so the Bible doesn't need to inform us. Another: that telling us that creation was through a multi-billion year process would somehow be "telling us all we need to know on a plate". Hardly. That one sentence doesn't give you an iota of knowledge about genes, DNA, and so on.

c) That if the Bible were to tell us about evolution, it would then be an impractially long book. Balderdash. The Bible could say something to indicate that the universe is billions of years old, or was formed through slow and gradual processes, in just a few words. When we're debating creation versus evolution, we're debating two broad frameworks with considerably flexibility on squillions of biological details which could be accomodated by either system. This answer is exceptionally weak.

7. "Perhaps God made the original kinds by special acts of creation which then underwent rapid evolution to generate the species diversity that we see today."

The answer to this objection is a bit special, because DA actually condescends to name an actual creationist, albeit a dead one (Henry Morris). But it's not accompanied by any references to his works or quotes so that you can check out if he's accurately represented or not... I think DA's intention throughout the book is to imply that doubting Darwinism is beneath his intellectual contempt, and he doesn't demean himself by actually touching any of their works: so neither should you!

DA's ridiculous answer to this objection is that it amounts to "throwing out the whole of current science", because if you reject speculative evolutionary dating scenarios then, well, those scenarious are based upon irrefutable scientific principles which if you were consistent you should reject everywhere else too. i.e. It's a thin end of the wedge - reject it here, you should for consistency reject it everywhere, so let's say that that's effectively what you do do!

By this kind of reasoning, I should set DA a maths test, and if he gets one single question wrong then I'll give him 0% on the entire test because maths is after all a coherent system - and if you mistakenly get a sum wrong in one place then, well, that mistake if consistently applied everywhere else would falsify the rest of mathematics too! Great stuff. But in terms of logic, this argument is pants.

The other part of the answer is that there simply isn't enough time for rapid enough speciation to occur. I find this answer also incredible, because the objection itself doesn't state just how many different specimens of each created kind there were, or any figure for how much genetic diversity was present in their original state. It just states that there were several original created kinds, rather than just one common ancestor for the whole family of life. How many species there were within those kinds and how long would then be needed for further diversifaction to today's levels is not stated in the objection, so the answer that there's "not enough" needs to be argued with some numbers, not just boldly asserted.

Creation or evolution - chapter 6 continued ("Objections to evolution")

2. "The theory of evolution is not truly scientific because it does not involve repeatable experiments in the laboratory."

This objection seems to be aiming to make the distinction that creationists often make, between "operational" and "origins" science. One is based upon repeatable observations, whereas the other is a degree of magnitude more speculative, being based upon inferences about unique events. The world only began once, and we can't run back the tape; science can only observe the present and try to piece together the bits. Origins science by its nature must be much more humble and tentative, much to the chagrin of atheist apologists who'd love to assert that they know we're just a cosmic accident.

A truly Christian scientist trying to reconstruct the past has a great advantage. He believes that God has spoken many words about  the past These words are infallible and without error, and recorded for us in Scripture. By studying God's word, we can gain a much better interpretation of God's world. True, the Bible's principle subject is to reveal the glory of Christ and draw a chosen people to salvation in him; but that Christ and that salvation are not timeless, a-historical entities, but have come in flesh and blood. Thus the Bible contains a great deal of history, as God has unfolded his primeval promises until the coming of his Son and caused it all to be recorded so that we might believe. The Christian origins scientist can thus use this infallible word as a framework in which all the valid activity of investigation, speculation and so on can take place.

Unfortunately you won't get any idea of the above from DA's answer to this objection. His is simply to assert that whilst, yes, scientists investigating the past are building a case, yet they do it very carefully, according to accepted rules of evidence, and thus its conclusions can after all be treated as certain. With no sense of irony, he compares this to the work of the legal system, with its forensic experts, judges, lawyers and court cases. Here I wanted to say "precisely", because even with all that, yet horrendous miscarriages of justice occur and occur continually - because man in his fallenness is not as objective, clever or rational as he flatters himself to be, and the nature of original sin is that no matter how many layers of procedure, counter-balances and checks you build in, that's how it will always be apart from the grace of God intervening. Another feature of DA's answer has been commented on before - the refusal to explain that science works in terms of paradigms, and contrary evidence is often explained away or just put on the shelf; in DA's explanation, the whole Darwinian community would drop its theory at the first instant if you produced a single fact that contradicted it. All together now, in our best Jeremy Paxman voices... "oh come on, pull the other one!"

3. Evolution runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics

Here DA gives a short and not particular relevant answer. That was easy for him to do, because he doesn't state the objection in a strong or accurate form, so there's not much refuting needing to be done. He doesn't answer the question in terms of an increase in organised complexity. The impression given in the answer is that simply providing a large amount of heat (from the sun, which is gradually winding down) will be enough to account for the "winding up" of the earth. But, since when did just naked heat bring about organisation, information and complexity? DA's answer does nothing more than shoot down a straw man.

4. Perhaps God makes things look old, although in reality they are much younger, in order to test our faith?

Whereas a good question, from the second law of thermodynamics, got just one page, this silly objection gets three - three pages which I think may be the most tedious and pointless in the book. DA goes to town to patronise and re-educate the simple and naive creationist who might believe such things as this, making God a liar - though it's not a viewpoint you'll find expressed by any mainstream creationist ministry or speaker. Such is the author's luxury when he grants himself liberty to choose his own objections without reference to the actual literature of the strongest representatives of the opposing position.

There is a real question that could have been answered here. On the day Adam was created, how old was he? And how about Eve? By the Bible's testimony, they were created as adults. Eve was made from Adam's rib and brought to him as a mature woman. The anthropologist examining them would have declared them to have been alive for several years - but he would have been wrong, because his underlying assumptions of gradual development instead of instantaneous creation were wrong. The real question here is over the mere assumption of gradualism - that we can wind back the clock on today's world as far as we like, with no dramatic interventions or catastrophic events to worry about. That real question, though, is overlooked in favour of an amusing tail about Philip Gosse and his Omphalus. DA reminds us that fake histories would make God a liar. The real point is, though, that God has given us his Word so we know how to interpret the history - but DA doesn't interpret creation history using God's word; he gives that whole task to Enlightenment-mode science, and then tries to harmonise what he finds in God's word with Darwinism after the event.

Creation or evolution - chapter 6 continued ("Objections to evolution")

So, what of the posited objections and their answers themselves?

1. "Evolution is a chance process and this is incompatible with the God
of the Bible bringing about his purposeful plan of creation."

There are some bits I like about the answer offered here, and some bits
I don't. I do like some clarifications about the idea of chance in
general. I don't like the way that the issue regarding evolution is
side-stepped with yet another word game.c

Christians do need to think through their ideas about "chance". I hear
phrases like "good luck" and "I was lucky" tripping readily off the lips
of believers, yet I know they don't really believe in the idea of luck.
They mean "God be with you" or "I was blessed", or somesuch. There is no
luck, because a sovereign God oversees the casting of the lot, the
fallowing of a sparrow to the ground, and so on. If people and events
are predestined (which they are, e.g. Proverbs 21:1, Romans 9:1, Isaiah
44:28ff, Daniel 4:34-35), then that means that God has overseen and
guided things at the most minute of levels. Alexander points out that
even in the event of fertilisation, it was millions to one that the
particular sperm that made you, you should be the one - and yet we
confess that it happened exactly according to the will of God. So far,
so good.

The problem with DA's answer, though, is that he then avoids sharpening
the objection a little to work within this framework. The fundamental
problem is that the Darwinian theory leaves no place for the idea of
final purpose. Random mutations and natural selection work together at
each stage, but without any knowledge of the end goal. There is no
inevitability to the rise of man or the world as we know it. For the
theistic evolutionist to say, "Ah, but God had that in mind and so
guided it in that direction" is a logical contradiction - Darwinism, if
guided according to an overall plan, cannot then be Darwinism. Either
natural selection selects merely for survival potential, or it selects
according to the climax of God's will for man with his immense
intelligence and abilities far beyond what is necessary for survival. If
the process was divinely superintended, then it was not a Darwinian
process at all, because the lack of superintendence is the essence of
the theory - the selfish genes just do what's needed for their survival.
What the theistic evolutionist is basically left doing is just making
the empty assertion that, well, it was a nice happy event that that
turned out to be exactly what was needed anyway to bring God's plan about.

Dr. Alexander's theory could explain how a deistic-type God could have
created through a Darwinian process; but the God if deism is not the God
of the Bible. The Bible's creation account is of a God who
supernaturally intervened - an immediate event, not a multi-age process.
That's why Richard Dawkins is willing to concede that a serious case can
be made for a God of the type conceived in deism. Some Christian
commentators seem to think this indicates a softening of Dawkins'
atheism in his old age. Not so. Deism posits a God whose influence is of
no practical effect - it makes no difference whether the Deistic God did
something, or if nature had inherent powers to work out its own way
according to immutable laws; the outcome is the same. No atheist is
worried about such a "God" - one whose existence has no cash value in
the real world. That, though, is the kind of God that Dr. Alexander
leaves us with.

As DA develops his answer, it goes off the rails. We meet again a line
of reasoning that he uses rather frequently - divide and conquer. Make
some subtle distinctions, blow some smoke, and do a runner before it
clears. Now, don't get me wrong. The making of careful distinctions is
the very essence of proper argument and logical inquiry. My problem is
that DA doesn't use this tool - he abuses it. The answer to this
objection is a case in point. DA proceeds to clarify that there are
three things that we might mean by "chance", so we must be clear. OK.
What are those three things? Firstly, events that are predictable in
principle if not in practice. Secondly, events such as quantum events
which are not predictable even in principle. Thirdly, "metaphysical
chance" - events without any ultimate metaphysical cause. This third
one, says DA, is the one whose existence, were it real, would concern
Christians But, there's nothing in the Darwinian theory that would imply
metaphysical chance, so all is well.

What, though, is actually the difference between the second and third of
those meanings? It's not a settled matter amongst physicists that
quantum events are actually inherently incomputable. Is DA actually
suggesting that not even God can know when an atom will undergo nuclear
decay? By saying that some events are not predictable even in principle,
does he mean to include God too amongst those unable to predict them?
This is now the horns of a dilemma. If he does, then aside from being
outside of theistic orthodoxy, then this makes this meaning the same as
the third - an event of metaphysical chance which is not controlled by
any agent or other cause. If, though, God can predict such events, then
this merges the meaning into the third: it is in fact an event
predictable in principle after all: it's just that our minds aren't big
enough to do the predicting like God's is.

DA never explains what an event of genuine "metaphysical chance" would
look like, or how we'd know we'd come across one. He simply asserts,
ipso facto, that Darwinism doesn't include any such events, so there's
nothing to be worried about in there. We are told that it does include
"meaning two" events, but we are simply told that this has no
implications: we're not told why not. Actually I think if even God
cannot predict the effects of radiation on DNA (because they're
inherently, according to DA, unpredictable), leading to mutations and
evolutionary development, then we do have a serious problem; but DA
never considers this. We're simply assured that there are no "meaning
three" events, so we shouldn't worry - but not informed how we know
there aren't any such events, even if we knew what one would look like
to begin with.

So, the distinction which DA brings in to answer this objection does not
ultimately clarify, it obfuscates. The distinction made is not
well-defined, and not explained - but some hands are waved and we're
told all is OK.

An objection DA might have put, but didn't, is to point out that
evolution is a multi-million year process in which imperfection
gradually improves (but never reaches a state of perfection); whereas
Biblical creation was an event in immediate response to the Word of God,
such that all that was made was "very good", but then fell. Evolution is
a slow rise from chaos; Biblical creation is a complete event that is
then spoilt by sin. Such, though, is the luxury of the author who
chooses his own objections and never quotes from any literature from his
real-life opponents - you can pick and choose what things to answer and
if your reader is new enough to the subject area, he'll not know you've
sold him a dud.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Creation or Evolution (Dr. Denis Alexander) - Chapter 6 - Objections To Evolution

After the three chapters explaining what is meant by "evolution", DA gives us a chapter in which he answers a few objections. If you could voice seven questions concerning evolution, what would they be? Here are the seven that DA treats:
  • "Evolution is a chance proess and this is incompatible with the God if the Bible bringing about his purposeful plan of creation."
  • "The theory of evolution is not truly scientific bceause it does not involve repeatable experiments in the laboratory."
  • "Evolution runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics."
  • "Perhaps God maeks things look old, although in reality they are much younger, in order to test our faith."
  • "What use is half an eye?"
  • "Surely if evolution were true, God would have simply to us so in his Word so that we don't need to have all this discussion?"
  • "Perhaps God made the original kinds by special acts of creation which then underwent rapid evolution to generate the species diversity that we see today."
Why these seven? DA gives us two things here. Firstly, he recognises that the biggest theological concerns expressed usually concern Adam and Eve, death and the Fall, and there are going to be separate chapters on these topics. Under the last objection, this little phrase tells us what to expect then - "an idyllic non-violent pre-Fall world, as young earth creationists imagine it to have been" - because DA certainly doesn't imagine such a thing. But that's in later chapters. The main selection criteria (p131) is that tehse objections are ones that DA has come across personally as he's given loectures, or that he's himself "read in books critical of evolution."

At this points our hopes are raised that DA is actually going to interact with something an actual critic of Darwinism has said, or at least give us some references so that we can cross-reference what he's critiquing. But, it's not to be. The nearest we get is in the last objection, when DA mentions the name of Henry Morris and something he's supposed to have believed... but alas, without a reference, not even to the name of a book, much less the page. Having read the whole of DA's book, it seems to me that the most likely explanation for his refusal to even provide the most basic documentation or interaction with anything he says that "the other side" believe is that it's part of his rhetorical strategy. Darwinism is a fiercely controversial issue, but DA's overall aim is to paint it as utterly uncontroversial, fixed and settled, and to imply that those who question it are beneath his intellectual contempt as a bona fide scientist. To actually mention their names or indicate that he's really read their works would be like confessing to having waded through dog poo, and would spoil the impression that individuals with brains float several leagues above such unworthy activities.

It's a bit ironic, then, given this kind of methodology, to find that DA begins the chapter with a two-page general lecture on the proper scientific method. Because what we're then given in terms of the particular arguments answering particular questions, is anything but scientific. It's really a bit rich to give us two pages talking about the proper sifting of evidence and intellectual inquiry with integrity to then have it followed up with some supposed answers to objections that stedfastly refuse to actually interact in any meaningful way with any real live creationists (boo, hiss). The burden of the first two pages is to repeat a talking point we're more used to hearing from the atheists - science is a rational, free inquiry, and anyone can make any point they want as long as the back it up with good research, and then if they do that and if it stands up to scrutiny, it'll get published in the journals and be accepted. There's no bias, no philosophical prejudice that stops anyone doing anything - and in fact, if you had any facts that did call into question evolution, the science journals would make you an overnight hero, because everyone loves it when long-cherished shibboleths get challenged and overturned.

This drivellous nonsense about the unbiased and objective nature of scientists' work is somewhat ironic coming only so few pages after clear warnings about the dangers of Christians uncritically swallowing an Enlightenment way of looking at the world. Mr. Kettle, the pot is on line one and would like to address you with some remarks about your colour? Puh-lease! The burden of these opening few pages is really to make a catch-all argument: it doesn't matter what objections you have to evolution, because you don't wear a white coat like I do, and therefore are not sufficiently expert enough to have anything worthwhile to say. But this Enlightenment sell-out won't do. Darwinism involves two parts of philosophy to every one part of biology, and theology is still the queen of the sciences which gets to tell even men in white coats what they are and aren't allowed to believe. God's word claims the authority to test every theory, especially speculative reconstructions of ancient history, and not even the peer-reviewers of Nature or Science get exempted from that. So, a big fat raspberry to this unworthy attempt (the like of which we expect to come from atheistic rather than Christian writers), to exempt such a far-reaching theory from its proper scrutiny.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

"Creation or evolution - do we have to choose?" - chapter 5 (cont.) - information

The sections in this chapter on the question of information were the most disappointing to me. Perhaps that is because of my background in mathematics I'm more "on the ball" here than when reading paragraphs about theories of fossilised fish. From whatever angle, though, DA's discussion of these questions is particularly poor.

The question of information does not have to be a painful one for a theistic evolutionist per se. The idea of common ancestry is not essentially incompatible with the ideas of complex, coded information and intentional design. It is a problem, though, for a believer in Darwinian evolution, and it's surely DA's thorough going acceptance of Darwinism specifically and not just common descent in general that makes it impossible for him to give these questions good answers.

The arguments that can be launched from information by a Christian are simple to understand. Information that is complex and finely tuned is a strong indication of a mind. We could say it more strongly; in our recorded experience, we have never known such information to come from anywhere else but a mind. Systems of inter-dependent components working together for a common goal are a signature of intelligence. That is our intuitive experience. The science of information theory looks to translate this intuitive experience into the language of science, and back it up with real research and intellectual rigour. Where this interacts with biology is in the fact that we now know what Darwin didn't - that human DNA and the biological systems for interpreting and using it (which are themselves also encoded in DNA) are the most complex and highly specified information systems known in the universe. They vastly exceeds anything that human minds have, with all their millions of man-hours of research and labour, managed to produce. As such, they are an overwhelming testimony to a divine mind for its origin. Codes, coupled with systems for decoding and encoding and translating into physical results, are the work of intelligence. DNA is such a system on a scale that is orders of magnitude beyond what man's finest intelligence has concocted. DNA testifies to us of our true origin: in the mind and will of God.

None of that should be painful for a believer in common ancestry per se to accept. It's impossible, though, for a Darwinist to accept it. Darwinism is at heart a mechanism which fundamentally denies teleology, i.e. the concepts of intentional design and purpose. It's an attempt to describe how one animal can give rise to another of a different type without there being a conscious intention on behalf of any agent that such a thing should happen. The external pressures and difficulties of survival alone account for the improvements at each stage - there is no inevitable final goal to be reached. In short, there is no need for a mind that designs and directs: the sheer redness in tooth and claw of nature brings it about. These contradictions are why many, such as myself, feel that to describe oneself both as a Darwinist and a theist is a logical contradiction, however sincere a person may be in affirming both.

DA starts his discussion on the question of information by admitting that mathematicians, engineers and computer scientists are often puzzled when they listen to biologists' (he means Darwinists') explanations of information. We agree there. DA's explanation for this phenomena is that it comes from a misguided attempt to force the meaning of "information" from one field into another. This explanation is basically a concession that DA has no real idea what he's talking about, isn't going to talk about information in a meaningful way as defined by information theory, and is going to allow himself a free hand to redefine that area of study as it suits him. This won't do. Information theory is a universal theory; it applies to information as information, wherever it is found. It is independent of the mediums and mechanisms by which the information is stored or translated into some useful end product. To give a simple example, a telephone number has the same information content whether I store it on my mobile phone or memorise it - whether it's silicon, brain cells or paper that are recording the number, whether by 1s and 0s, neuron configurations, or patterns of ink upon papyrus, it makes no difference. The information content is the same. If DNA stores information, then it matters not one jot what othere theories concerning DNA are floating around - information theory either applies to DNA, or information theory is itself in error. It cannot be correct when talking about other kinds of storage system, but not DNA. Hence, by this ad hoc explanation in which he attempts to tell the information theorists to get off his turf and allow him to write his own theory, DA betrays the fact that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

DA seeks to explain some ways by which new information can be generated in a genome, but these further give away his lack of understanding. DA never actually explains how new information arises, except to play with the definitions. He repeats some arguments about alleged Darwinian mechanisms, and then waves the wand and says "bingo - since we now have new capabilities in the organism, that must mean there's more information!" But this is simply arguing in a circle and missing the point. Information theory poses a serious challenge to Darwinian orthodoxy - to simply argue that Darwinism alleges that this happens, and this would have to generate new information, therefore there's no problem, is to shove the problem under the carpet. You've got to show us the mechanisms and what they do to the information content at each stage. To just tell us the mechanisms again and insist that they are correct and so therefore must, is ducking the challenge.

DA points to gene duplications, and then says that the duplicated gene is under less selective pressure so can accumulate new mutations without danger to the organism. Fine, but what has this to do with an actual mechanism for the increase of information? That's the crucial question, but the one DA doesn't answer. It's all left to randomness - there will be lots of mutations, some will be useless, some will be good, and those good ones must have more information because that's why they're good. Randomness, though, is precisely what information theory tells us does not generate a reliable source of information. A tightly specified system is not likely to be improved, but ruined, by random alterations. Throw a cup of water over your computer to randomly alter some of its logic circuits to see what I mean. How likely is that procedure to result in a upgrade of your hardware to future technology, compare to the likelihood it'll mean you need to go and buy a new computer? The Darwinist insists that what happens in biology is a unique exception to these kinds of laws, but such a significant assertion needs significant supplies of proof, not mere hand-waving and complaining that computer scientists are bringing in their own ideas which should't be allowed to apply.

DA gives us a somewhat humourous example of his confusion beginning on page 114, when he explains how a gene duplication in mice is thought to have resulted in two genes with slightly different functions - and yet that biologists found that the original gene could be made to cover both functions, only with less room for manouevre. So, says DA, the duplication didn't lead to an increase in information in one sense, but did in another - and thus DA seeks to equate information content with survival capacity. This may be convincing to the layman coming to the whole area for the first time, but to anyone else, it just reads like a confused man trying to answer a question that has stumped him and he doesn't really know how to begin with. In a similarly inept way we read on page 117 that sexual reproduction produces new information because the offspring are different to their parents because their genes are combined in new ways - and DA concludes "The proces of recombination... is just another way of introducing variation into the genome." This confusion between new information and mere shuffling of existing information is symptomatic of the whole section. DA does not seem to know what he means by information and hence never defines it - and then proceeds to lead the reader on a tour of confusion as one implicit definition gives way to another in a magnificent but ultimately vacuous display of Darwinian hand-waving.