Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Dr. Alexander in the ET, part 3

Continuing from here. Quoth Dr. A:
We also differ in that I accept current mainstream science, not uncritically, but all truth is God's truth — whereas McIntosh rejects huge swathes of contemporary science, including that which establishes beyond any reasonable doubt the great age of the earth (about 4.6 billion years old) and our own common descent.
Mainstream Science

It is of course a truism that Professor McIntosh, as a creationist, is out of step with what is acceptable thinking in the mainstream scientific community as regards origins. Dr. Alexander, however, goes further than this and borrows an argument that previously I'd only seen in use by the "village atheist" crowd. That is, that the Darwinian theory and theories about the age of the earth somehow represent "huge swathes of contemporary science". This is pure rhetoric, and pure rhetorical hogwash at that. I type this on a laptop computer, with its intricate maze of transistors, liquid crystals, magnetic disks and so on, connected to a mobile phone which beams its packets to the nearest mobile mast... which beams it on, eventually via the satelites that connect Kenya to the rest of the world, along various fibre-optic pipes, and through all the chain of equipment until eventually it arrives in your room. I may not be a professional biologist, but trust me: Darwinism has nothing to do with any of this. And that's the story throughout. Even in biology, Darwinism as Darwinism has proved to be a theory of no practical use - the so-called now rejected "science" of eugenics being its main contribution to history. Descent with modification is a fact with practical implications; but Darwinian speculation about the supposed unlimited potential of that modification over periods of millions of years in the past has proved remarkably unfruitful for a theory that's alleged to be true. Neither does speculation about the age of the earth have any practical value in any of the scientific advances that we enjoy in day to day life. Medicines we take to cure illnesses, the vast reams of technology especially in communication, the blessings of modern transport, and so on... interesting stories about how the Earth supposedly cooled down over a period of billions of years have nothing to do with any of this.

That's why I've only previously heard this argument from Internet atheists before... as someone who did a Masters in a scientific discipline and spent large amounts of time with other scientists discussing our studies, I know that assertions that Darwinism or theories about the age of the cosmos are basically irrelevant to real, here-and-now operational science and rarely either come up for discussion or are assumed as implicit in any practical matter. Perhaps DA made the guess that most readers of the ET will simply take his word for it because they've never interacted in that world. I think he's over-reached himself, because if you want to stake out an influential position in the long run, you need to appeal to the knowledgeable and critical readers, and false rhetoric of this kind will turn them off.

Only Possible Explanation?

Concerning common descent, it's interesting that here in this letter DA says that it is a fact established by "huge swathes" of evidence, "beyond any reasonable doubt". In his book, he seemed to be relying ultimately upon a single argument that was ultimately theological. He argues that similar gene sequences in humans and other ape-like creatures are so similar, including in claimed genetic mistakes and unused genetic material, that unless its origin was common descent, God would in effect be deceiving us. I think that argument is rather weak when DA asserts it as the only possible explanation. For one thing, it's a genuine evolution-of-the-gaps argument; genetic material that is presently thought to be the result of copying mistakes or unused may later be discovered to have some function that our present knowledge hadn't equipped us to identify. At that point, DA's argument would vanish. The argument as a whole, though, is weak because in his book DA never compares it to any other alternative (as part of his general strategy of not representing creationist arguments, I think because he wants to give the air of them being beneath his level). There are other alternatives. Man and other creatures may have a similar genetic toolbox because... they have the same designer. Moreover, on the Biblical assumption that that Designer wishes man to investigate and harness the powers of the world that he made, it would be even less surprising. If God wants us to investigate and harmonise creation, it would be massively harder if every living entity was constructed along fundamentally different principles. The fact that they're constructed on a shared set of principles is a testimony both to his wisdom and to his desire that we should to some extent investigate, understand and harness what he has done. Moreover, the Bible teaches that the creation physically fell, because God cursed it when man sinned. That had some impact or other on actual biology, though it is not the Bible's purpose to explain things on that level. If we are looking at things on that level, though, why should it be unreasonable to believe that God should have brought about similar defects in DNA in similarly-constructed creatures? What is the theological reason why God must have, as Dr. Alexander is insisting, made such genetic changes at the Fall in arbitrary or random ways? Whether the lines on which I'm speculating here are correct or not is not important - the point is that DA's assertion that there is no possible explanation either existing or even possible for what he sees in DNA except man's common descent from other ape-like creatures is simply bluff.

There is an another aspect of DA's argument here that can be played back against him. In his book, DA attempts to argue that information theory should not be applied to biology, and even that biology should be allowed to have its own definitions of information - and that attempts to apply information theory represent misunderstandings by engineers and computer scientists. This is an exceptionally weak argument which itself represents a misunderstanding of and rejection of mainstream science. Information theory is universally applicable, and there is no justification for someone to put their hand up and say "you can't apply that here!" Information is a universal fundamental, and whether the encoding takes place on paper, on computer disk, or in DNA, it must apply everywhere or not at all. The point is that the application of information theory to biology and DNA leads to the necessary conclusion that DNA is an encoding by an intelligent agent, a conclusion which fundamentally contradicts Darwinism.

All Truth Is God's Truth?

The larger point, though, which DA never discusses in his book but simply assumes, as also in this letter, is his overall approach to Scripture, revelation and authority. You need to note here exactly what ideas are being packed into the slogan "all truth is God's truth". In itself, it's unobjectionable. But if you tease out the strands of what DA means by it, as hinted here and shown more fully in his book, it's simply not Christian.

DA's doctrine of authority, science and Scripture is basically a baptised Enlightenment-mode of thought. Scripture is theological, science is historical, and the twain shall scarcely meet. When Science speaks about matters in its own domain, it speaks with authority. It is effectively a second book of revelation, complementary (not competing) with the written one, and each has its own domain. In particular, Scripture cannot speak to correct science, because Scripture's domain is different: value-laden interpretations of the world and the physical facts that science unearths. And to Dr. Alexander, science speaks with authority when the peer-reviewers, applying the objective and unbiased process of impartial scrutiny, accept a theory into the mainstream consensus. Predictably, Dr. Alexander never addresses the obvious historical objection to this last idea - all the junk science that has at one time or another been mainstream, such as eugenics which we mentioned above. What you won't find anywhere in DA's book is an explanation that Genesis also speaks directly to historical matters, and that when it does so it speaks with unrivalled authority, such that any conclusions of contemporary scientists, no matter how numerous and how authoritative the journals they publish it in, must bow before it. That's because DA doesn't believe that idea - rather, in his book, he explains that Darwinian theory is the background that we must read Scripture against if we wish to harmonise it with contemporary science.

So, "all truth is God's truth" is in itself, one of God's truths. But on DA's lips, what it means is that the consensus of contemporary science ought to be treated by us as if it were revealed from heaven, and hence we ought to patronise fellow-believers in the manner in which Dr. Alexander does here. It is interesting, though, to note that this letter continues the theme in the book: that the truth is established mainly by science. This isn't a Biblical argument that DA's making: it's simply that mainstream science says so.

On scientific questions McIntosh cites only authors who are not published in peer-reviewed scientific literature, whose views are  rejected by the scientific community, not because the scientists are `anti-God' but because the views lack good evidence. Readers interested in the age of the earth may download a free Faraday Paper (No. 8) from www.faraday-institute.org, Faraday Papers Folder) by Prof. Bob White FRS, an evangelical believer who is Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University.

Here DA repeats his point to underscore it. So there's no excuse for not identifying the lines on which his thought runs: mainstream science is itself an all-but infallible authority, and there's no need to launch any actual Biblical response to Professor McIntosh's Biblical argument - the fact that contemporary journals don't accept it as the consensus is sufficient repudiation. DA here makes a pure appeal to authority - those in the seats of power in the mainstream scientific community say so, so you'd better tow the line or I'll patronise you for being an idiot, even should you yourself be a Professor! DA has so folded this idea of science's basic infallibility into his axioms of thought that he doesn't think this should need explaining, even to readers of so conservative evangelical a newspaper as the ET... when this can happen then truly the Enlightenment is still riding strong. In this letter, as in the book, DA does nothing to hint that he's aware of the idea that scientific research is done within paradigms, and is not simply a straight-forward simple fact-based procedure. Mainstream scientific journals reject ideas that Professor McIntosh's promotes foundationally because they reject the Biblical paradigm that it is conducted within. "Evidence" is not a simple up and down matter - it must be interpreted. A presuppositional Christian, such as AM, asserts that, especially when dealing with a matter such as origins, our paradigm must be explicitly Christian. That's anathema to the secularist thinking that dominates the academy, and so hence the chasm between it and Christian orthodoxy. DA, though, here promotes pure Dawkins-style Scientism - the idea that science is simply a paradigm-free, unbiased inquiry into neutral facts and proceeds simply based upon evidence.

To save you the trouble, dear reader, I did download and digest the paper that Dr. Alexander refers us to. Its thought is the same as DA's. There is no discussion of the relationship between Scripture and other supposed authorities, or a comparison of their relative fallibilities, or a Christian view of authority, etcetera. Nope - it's asserted that science proves this and that, that therefore the earth is very old... and now let's hunt for a way to interpret God's word (which is after all a theological text, not one that deals with real-world facts of history) that agrees with this assured result of modern man's cleverness. Science first - then we'll see what we can do with the Bible. That's exactly the wrong way round, as far as evangelical religion is concerned. As with DA's own writings, there's also a few arguments and bits of rhetoric borrowed from the atheists - Christians who disagree are termed "fundamentalists", and creationism is falsely said to be a late 20th Century American import (in fact the oldest anti-evolution society (now known as the Biblical Creation Society), is British... and the two most well known creationist organisations today, Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International, both of which DA avoids any mention of in his book, originated in Australia). Oh come on, can't you do better than this?

To be continued...

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