Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Would You Believe It?

This time, we shall be considering the beliefs we hold and why. Now, for obvious reasons, I can't really write a blog page listing your beliefs and why you hold them. Nor would I want to list mine with my reasons. I'm quite willing to talk about them at the meeting but wouldn't want to pre-empt that here and, lets face it, a page about my beliefs would be somewhat self-indulgent.

So I was a little stumped about what to write until I realised that the debate has already started on the group's Facebook page. Several subjects have been tackled, from conspiracy theories to scepticism but one that I'd like to concentrate on is the evolution debate. I think this subject highlights all the aspects of belief vs evidence, science vs religion, philosophy vs empiricism and intuition vs reason. This in no way means that I think we should limit the debate in the meeting to evolution - only that I'm using it as an example here on the blog.

The Battleground

Firstly, let us remind ourselves of the state of play. Even before Darwin, scientists were already moving towards a naturalistic worldview but Darwin provided the dynamite with which to blast the remaining supernatural explanations from the realm of science. And so it has been ever since. God was expelled from the science lab, the science classroom and, increasingly, from academia and even the media. Philosophy was downgraded while materialist scientists have been elevated to be regarded as almost infallible. Hardly any serious topic is discussed in the media without the input of some scientific "expert". Even topics such as love, fear and grief are reduced to chemical interactions according to the materialist dogma. Nothing is more appropriate for the label, "materialist dogma" than Darwinian evolution: the theory (which we are urged to consider as nothing less than the truth) that life, from the microscopic workings of a cell nucleus to the body plan of a human being, is the result of an unguided process called Natural Selection.

Until relatively recently, the opposition to Darwinism came from fundamentalist religious dogma. The Bible has its own version of how God created the world and everything in it. The Bible is considered, by fundamentalists, to be the word of God and is not to be challenged: again, it is considered to be nothing less than the truth. So here we have two dogmatic positions: Darwinism and Creationism.

In order to eliminate dogmatic belief from the search for the actual truth, those concerned would aim to argue from evidence alone, without recourse to metaphysical assumptions.

Enter the ID crowd. Creationism became a pejorative term, spat out by derisive materialists and atheists. The public at large, especially in the USA, had gravitated toward one or the other camps. Then some people started suggesting a third way. They were saying "Let's not assume God did it but even so, let's see if there is evidence of intelligence in the "design" of living organisms." They went on to suggest that, if such evidence could be shown, then the individual could make up his or her own mind as to whether that intelligence was God, some form of universal mind or even, perhaps, some alien race (although the latter still leaves the question of how the aliens evolved).

This approach was greeted with suspicion and cynicism by the materialists. This was nothing more than a ploy: a trojan horse to subvert the science of evolution by introducing a creator. In other words, it was creationism in different clothing and they were having none of it. Intelligent Design has, due to the suspicion about closet creationists, had a pretty bad press. The ID scientists are the subject of disgraceful personal insults and are constantly under attack. Unfortunately, too many of their supporters and sponsors are indeed religiously motivated. Any internet search will show a plethora of creationist blogs quoting ID research as a source of proof that the Bible was right all along. However, a similar charge could be directed at the Darwinian side, with atheist pressure groups under the guise of "scepticism", and so-called rational or critical thinking being the cheer leaders for what is now called Neo-Darwinism.

The Players

The vast majority of scientists are also materialists - nowhere more so than in the field of evolutionary biology and allied disciplines. They do, however, have champions for their cause, chief among them names such as Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, P Z Myers, Jerry Coyne and many others.

Few names come to mind from the ID side. The three best known are William Dembski, Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe. It has to be said that, unsurprisingly, these three and many of their Discovery Institute colleagues are religious people. Should that disqualify them from the debate? Again, we could also ask, should the crusading atheism of Dawkins and the others disqualify them on the grounds of their dogmatism? I suggest you watch the video links below and decide for yourself who is arguing from evidence and who is, on the whole, arguing from dogma.

And What About Belief?

When watching these videos, I tried to keep in mind our discussion about belief. As I mentioned above, many scientists will deny that belief comes into their reckoning. Yet it is clear from these videos that it most certainly does. Indeed, you will hear that materialism is practically a given yet, amazingly, they don't seem to consider materialism to be a belief so much as a fact. Peter Atkins says again and again that he starts from the position of the simplest explanation is probably the best  -citing his hero, William of Ockham. How ironic that William should also be quoted thus:
"only faith gives us access to theological truths. The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover."
However, it seems to me that the simplest explanation is not that life began and evolved by a process based upon practically impossible accidental combinations of molecules and chance mutations but that it is more likely to be at least guided by some form of intelligence. The philosophical idealist view (which is my view too) would be that we are all manifestation of mind anyway.

Another thing that dawned on me while watching some of the videos is the tactic used by materialists to forbid any concept of God from scientific inquiry. Science, they maintain, is concerned with the natural and God is classified as supernatural therefore not the province of the scientific endeavour. Some of the more generous materialists might allow the philosophers a debate about the supernatural but certainly not scientists. Thus, at a stroke, they have disallowed Intelligent Design - whatever the evidence (which, of course, they deny anyway). By the simple device of a label they have asserted materialism as a scientific axiom. In one debate, Michael Ruse accuses Stephen Meyer of declaring science a failure because an intelligent mind is invoked as a guiding influence. Thus he is saying that evidence is only scientific if it confirms materialism. The discovery of mind in the process would indeed be a failure for materialism but not for science, unless science and materialism are conflated.

Some Food for Thought

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Here's the movie that caused a stir among the scientific community. Caused outrage might be a better description of the reception the film received. It is the full movie lasting about an hour and a half.

Here are the comments I made about Expelled in our Facebook discussion:
I've watched it now and, yes, it is worth watching. However, I also have reservations. It is one and a half hours and, for me, they should have stopped around the hour mark. It starts by insisting this is a debate about science and that religion is a red herring but it ends by asserting the right of religion to question science. Nevertheless, it would be naive to think that either side are without metaphysical motivation.
It boils down to what is that intelligence in Intelligent Design. Atheists in the movie such as Dawkins and Atkins are keen to have us believe that ID proponents support the God of the Old Testament - that they are biblical creationists. They proudly proclaim that Darwinism has led them into the light of atheism. ID proponents such as Stephen Meyer, while not denying their religion, want the discussion to be directed at the evidence. We then get a lot of assertions from the Darwinists that there is no debate - the debate is settled and only ignorant fools believe otherwise.
Unfortunately, the movie then goes into a more murky and disreputable area when they introduce Eugenics, Social Darwinism and the Holocaust.Yes, links can be made but, likewise, atheists can be condemned for claiming that religious faith is at the root of all the evil in our history. Neither view is helping the debate move forward. I would have rather the movie had followed up on the promising start by having each side explain why the evidence supports their worldview. But that's just my opinion - please watch it and comment.

Atkins and Meyer discuss the issues raised by Expelled.

Agree with him or not, one can only admire Meyer for his tolerance in the face of appalling insults flying his way from the arrogant Atkins. But further than that, this debate is notable for the fact that only one of these two educated gentlemen is prepared to talk about the evidence. The other, Atkins, either retorts with ad hominems or is clearly unprepared to offer a considered response.

There are more examples of such arrogance to come, though none so egregious as that displayed by Atkins.

Michael Ruse vs Stephen Meyer

Stephen Meyer vs Michael Ruse (1 of 2) by nanoprogrammer

Stephen Meyer vs Michael Ruse (2 of 2) by nanoprogrammer

The above discussion is a little more civil. However, watch the body language of Ruse - slouched back with barely concealed contempt for the subject matter. He has the air of someone who finds it tiresome to be asked to defend something which should not be open to question. The host of the show is far more open-minded and willing to take Meyer seriously.

Michael Shermer vs Stephen Meyer

In this one, Shermer explicitly states the position of Scientific Materialism that I described above: that God (or mind) must be excluded from scientific inquiry. With those rules, materialism cannot be challenged.

The Undisputed Science

Below are some educational resources explaining the nature and function of DNA.

From DNA to Protein

This clip is from a PBS educational TV programme followed by another short video sequence showing similar visualisations. I include them to give you an idea of what is so special and astonishing about DNA.

The Genetic Code

Once again, the following video is not about ID, it is a standard explanation of the DNA code. However, it does show a code, as anyone familiar with computer software will readily recognise. My background is in code transmission - Internet Protocols - and I was astounded to find that DNA code has start and stop bits just like TCP/IP.

More on the Code

Finally, a set of slides giving further information about how the code works.

So what, exactly, is Meyer and his colleagues really saying?

Here are some more clips explaining what the ID movement is proposing. The real difficulty for the interested lay person is the lack of reasoned and civil debate available on the internet. At least, that is what I am finding. On the one hand, the web sites and blog who support Meyer are almost exclusively religious and often have the word "creation" in their site title or address. On the other side, those who attack (and attack is the right word) ID are almost exclusively atheist, or so-called sceptical sites and bloggers and they truly are a nasty bunch. I found a couple of relatively civil debates which I will post here after the ID clips below.

Doing the Math

Here is Stephen Meyer explaining the improbability (impossibility) of the origin of life by accident.

Irreducible Complexity

I first heard of this about the same time I became aware of the ID movement. I struggled to find a debate video short enough to include here but I'll post the short clip explaining the idea of irreducible complexity anyway. If you want an extended debate, I'd encourage you to search for videos.

In his own words: Stephen Meyer explains ID

And Finally ...

Two longer videos, the first being a presentation by Stephen Meyer and the second being a discussion between him and two of his critics. Now this is one debate which is an example of civility and how such debates should be conducted. No insults, no creationist slurs, plenty of inspection of the evidence. Yes, they are long but well worth while, in my humble opinion. I just wish that I could find a video of the talk by Douglas Axe, mentioned by Meyer, from the following day of this event.


  1. Excellent work David! Thanks for your time and trouble putting this together.

    1. Excellent primer David ... apologies for forgetting to broadcast this with the meeting announcement ... doh !! Will now do something about that ...


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