Friday, October 30, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday (part 3)

As I left it last time, the origin of life is hard! (It kind of reminds me of this "the onion" article.) But what exactly is the current state of origin of life research?

Oh, and here's a disclaimer for you all: this post is going to look a lot like a negative argument against the naturalistic paradigm, and also a lot like the God of the Gaps fallacy. If you have a problem with that, well, so do I. But as I said earlier, I still find the argument somewhat compelling, just not scientifically publishable. (See part 1 of this series of posts.)

There are four crucial parts of a naturalistic scenario for the origin of life that we currently lack evidence for. First, life must arise from a "primordial soup", or a concentrated solution of biological precursor molecules. Second, life must arise gradually over many, many years. Third, life must initially be very simple (whatever that means), only later evolving to be complex. And fourth, life must arise from identifiable biochemical reaction pathways that can be deduced from laboratory experiments.

The primordial soup, or prebiotic soup as some would call it, was a hypothesized aqueous mixture of all the biochemical molecules necessary to form life. I am not sure who first proposed this idea, but I am certain that it was a hypothetical construct for which we never had an evidence, yet somehow was made to be as fact in popular literature (see for example the series finale of "Star Trek TNG") and in textbooks. Darwin talks about it in a letter he wrote to a colleague in 1871:
...[W]e could conceive in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, heat, light, electricity, etc. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes...
And so the primordial soup was just some "warm little pond", or ocean, with a bunch of the necessary life chemicals in it, such as sugars, amino acids, and nucleobases (the molecules that give DNA sequences their identity; the A's, G's, C's, and T's).

Well, it turns out that not only do we still have no evidence for a prebiotic soup, but we actually have evidence against there ever existing such a hypothetical mixture. I must confess that I don't know a ton about the science behind these observations, but the chemical signatures from the oldest known rocks show evidence of life, rather than non-life processes (such as prebiotic chemistry). This leads us directly into the second point: how long did it take for life to arise?

Oh boy, I didn't realize how long this post was going to get. We'll have to save discussion of the other this and the other two topics for later.

Until then.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday (part 2)

One of the things I like to do, in order to impress upon people the legitimacy of some of the claims I make, is to quote non-theistic scientists. This time, Paul Davies, an agnostic theoretical physicist (who incidentally is quite interested in asking life's big questions) provides two powerful quotes regarding the origin of life. Both are from his book, "The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life":
When I set out to write this book, I was convinced that science was close to wrapping up the mystery of life's origin...Having spend a year or two researching the field, I am now of the opinion that there remains a huge gulf in our understanding...This gulf's not merely ignorance about certain technical details, it is a major conceptual lacuna.
He goes on to say:
Many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled. There are two reasons for their unease. First they feel it opens the door to religious fundamentalists...Second, they worry that a frank admission of ignorance will undermine funding...
So, the moral of the story (for now) is that the origin of life is hard.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Summary of meeting last Saturday (part 1)

Last Saturday, we had another discussion meeting, this time about the origin of life.

Ugh. This topic is really tricky, because, when discussing it, you get really close to the God of the Gaps fallacy. We spent some time discussing this fallacy, mostly in regards to the Intelligent Design Movement (which I will be posting about in the near future). In summary, the God of the Gaps fallacy is when you say fill in the gaps in our knowledge with god.

An example commonly-used by opponents of theism is that, thousands of years ago, people supposedly thought that bolts of lightning were thrown by the gods. Now we know that it is the electric discharge that occurs after a large potential difference builds between two clouds (or a cloud and the ground).

In relation to the origin of life, the God of the Gaps fallacy works like this: Scientists have no idea how life could have originated by strictly naturalistic means. In fact, by our current knowledge, it basically looks impossible. Therefore, since science can't explain it, it must have been a miracle performed by God.

In a way, I actually find that argument somewhat convincing. My reasoning is that the scientific evidence actually shows that the probability of life originating naturalistically is so remote that it would never happen even in a mole of universes (that is, 10^23 universes). But again, this is negative evidence, and I don't think the field is quantitative enough at this point to rule things out by negative evidence. So, based solely on this argument, I would say that denying a naturalistic origin of life is intellectually satisfying to me, but not scientifically defensible. In other words, I find that argument compelling, but I don't think it is ready to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, much less stand the rigor of getting into high school textbooks (as many are trying to do).

More to come later...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meeting this Saturday

We're having another discussion meeting at my place this coming Saturday (Oct 24th) at 11am. We'll be talking about the origin of life, and how the current scientific understanding provides evidence for a creator.

See you then.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Theistic evolution and intelligent design (part 2): what is theistic evolution?

Last time I rambled about this topic, I remarked on an article describing the Catholic position on cosmic and biological evolution. At the end of that post, I said that neither Theistic evolutionists nor Intelligent design proponents have it right, and that I would have to go into deeper detail about exactly what "Theistic evolution" and "intelligent design" mean, in this context.

In this post, I'll talk about what seems to me to be the most commonly held aspects of theistic evolution. Although, I admit that these may not in fact be the most commonly held, but only appear to be that way because they are held by the loudest proponents.

In summary, it seems that theistic evolutionists are only a step away from deistic evolutionists. Deism, in contrast to theism, is the view that a god or gods created the universe, but sits back and watches as everything unfolds, with little or no participation or intervention. Most theistic evolutionists would adamantly claim that this is not their stance...adopting such a stance would deny the deity of Christ, for example. But it seems proponents of theistic evolution are uncomfortable with the idea that God had a hand in any sort of physical, chemical, or biological process perhaps up until the time of Abraham, and maybe even after. (Again, they would not deny that God specially sought after a relationship with humans.)

Here's an example: a quote from Ken Miller, a quite famous theistic evolutionist and professor of biology at Brown University (and author of "Finding Darwin's God" and "Only a Theory"). He said, "Why would God have to break the laws of physics that He created?" In other words, if God directly intervened in the history of the universe for creation purposes, that would go outside the laws of physics. But God is the author of the laws of physics. Why couldn't He have just set everything up at the beginning so everything would play out as he wanted it?

There is more to this story, though. Miller's stance in his second book, "Only a Theory", is that a creationist God, who intervenes over the course of history, specifically in creating new life forms throughout the history of the earth, would be a bumbling, mistake-prone God. Consider all of the plant and animal species that have gone extinct over the last 500+ million years. It would seem like a creationist, intervening God just couldn't get it right.

I don't see how adopting a near-deistic point of view saves you from this precipice, though. Theistic evolutionists, as far as I can tell, still affirm the sovereignty of God, it's just that His plan was enacted from the get go and required little-to-no "midcourse corrections", as it were. In that case, given all of the life that has arisen and gone extinct, wouldn't a theistic evolutionary God also seem to be not "getting it right?"

So here's the beef I have with theistic evolution. I would argue that a theistic evolutionary point of view may be scientifically tenable, but it's full of philosophical loopholes. If we dig really deep into its philosophical tenets, we find that either we believe that human existence is an evolutionary accident (thereby denying the sovereignty of God), or it is part of God's initial, divine, cosmic plan. If we take the second to be true, and follow it to its logical, philosophical conclusions, then every life form that lived and died on this planet was part of a grand design by the cosmic Designer Himself. This further implies that life was indeed designed, a position that every proponent of theistic evolution would be uncomfortable with (at least, upon inference from hearing many theistic evolutionists speak).

So, what's the deal?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thinking clearly (part 2a)

One thing I forgot to mention is what to do when you're confronted by someone who is using a red herring argument, or some other logical fallacy (such as ad hominem or straw man). One thing you definitely should not say is, "Don't you know that your response to my argument is irrelevant?!?" I know this is tempting, especially if you are in a heated debate with someone.

Instead, you should respond with patience and grace, yet not giving in to the other side. (Kind of like turning the other cheek). Say something like, "I appreciate (or even agree with) your argument, however I would like to point out that it does not directly address my points." And then politely explain why, and then say something like, "I am still waiting for an answer to my argument."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thinking clearly (part 2 of who knows how many)

Last week I opened up a discussion topic on logical fallacies, and I introduced a list of common fallacies that we run into frequently. The first one I listed was the "red herring" argument.

In my last post on this subject, I defined the red herring argument as "an argument that looks good, but is actually irrelevant to the content of the discussion." Wikipedia goes farther to say that a red herring argument is a deliberate attempt to digress from the content of the discussion. This is more devious than an innocent, irrelevant response to an argument, although I am not sure if the term "red herring" these days must refer to something deliberate.

A good example of a red herring argument is the "selection effect" in regards to the anthropic principle, which I have discussed in earlier posts. Here is the low down:

Greg: "The universe appears to have a very high degree of design (fine-tuning for the benefit of life), which would be very unlikely to happen by random chance. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that God created this universe with a purpose."

Response: "Well, no, of course this universe appears designed. If it weren't so finely-tuned, we wouldn't even be here to observe it!"

Using an outline of our logic, we can easily see why the response is irrelevant:
  • Premise: This universe would never happen by strictly naturalistic means.
  • Conclusion: God created the universe.
  • Rebuttal: We wouldn't be here if the universe didn't happen the way it did.
What does that rebuttal have to do with answering the argument about the existence of God? (The correct answer is "nothing".) The selection effect, stated in this way, is irrelevant to this question. (There may be more sophisticated versions of the selection argument, but this serves well as an example.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Theistic Evolution and Intelligent Design (part 1 of who knows how many)

A friend recently pointed me to a web article about the Catholic position on evolution. The article describes the unanimous agreement among scholars attending a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (whatever that is) that the universe was ancient. The article goes on to say that the vast majority of scholars agreed that species of life today share common ancestry.

In contrast, the next paragraph of the article points out that none of the scientists attending the session were proponents of the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM), mostly because of its lack of scientific testability.

I think this is fantastic. A bunch of Christians getting together and agreeing on an ancient age of the universe, and allowing the scientific data to speak for themselves regarding cosmic and biotic evolution.

On the other hand, I am quite tired of hearing about the "debate" between theistic evolution and intelligent design. Or anything and intelligent design. Or anything and _____ evolution (be it theistic, biotic, darwinian, etc). In my opinion, neither the IDM proponents, nor the "Theistic Evolutionists" have it right. But to get into a deep discussion about that, I'll have to go into more detail about what the IDM means, and what most proponents of theistic evolution believe. Next time.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Thinking clearly (part 1 of who knows how many)

Peter told us to always be ready to give reasons (I Pet 3:15-16). That's one reason why I'm writing this blog and having monthly (or so) meetings to discuss faith and reason. However, Peter goes on to say that we should give our reasons with gentleness and respect. Therefore, we also need to be ready to not give not reasons. (Eh?)

What I mean is, when we're in a debate with someone, whether it's over religion or politics or philosophy, or whatever, we should always be prepared to treat their argument fairly and to stay away from giving arguments that sound good, but really have no content. In other words, we should avoid using logical fallacies.

Some of the most common logical fallacies I have seen are:
  • The red herring argument: an argument that looks good, but is actually irrelevant to the content of the discussion. It will often lead people down the wrong path.
  • Ad hominem attacks: this is when you attack the character of the person you're debating rather than their argument. (This one is very popular...)
  • Straw man argument: this is when you mischaracterize your opponent's argument, making it sound weaker than it really is, so you can easily dismantle it. (This is also quite popular.)
  • Begging the question (aka, circular reasoning): this is when you assume your conclusion, and use that to prove your conclusion is correct. Once discovered, this one is quite easy to point out to people.
  • Burden of proof fallacy: this is when you unfairly shift the burden of proof on the other party.
In addition to avoiding using these (and all other) logical fallacies in your arguments, you should also be ready to recognize and point out these fallacies in others' arguments. But be nice about it.

In fact, you should be nice about everything in these sorts of discussions. (And by the way, there's a difference between being "nice" and being a pushover.)

Geez, I can't tell you how many times I've been in a debate with someone about my faith, and have been a butt about it. When I act like that, I really can't convince anyone of my point of view, even if I have a convincing argument.

Anyway, in future posts I'll give some examples of using logical fallacies to sort of flesh out what I mean.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Problem of Evil (part 3?)

As I've mentioned earlier, the Problem of Evil (POE) is perhaps the biggest single reason why people reject the Christian faith. After all, if you look at all the suffering we see around us (e.g., moral evil like wars and murder, or natural evil such as earthquakes and hurricanes), how can one believe in a perfectly good God?

(And by the way, thoughts and prayers go out to those suffering from the aftermath of the earthquakes in Indonesia.)

One thing about the POE is that you always have to be careful when answering a skeptic's questions about it, because there may be two motivations behind his/her asking. First, it's possible that he or she has a logical, philosophical, or generally intellectual stumbling block to the Christian faith. In that case, one would want to argue clearly and cogently why the fact that evil exists in this world does not invalidate Christianity.

On the other hand, the skeptic could be looking for emotional answers. For example, if they have been hurt deeply recently, or wronged by some personal crime, then presenting a logical argument about why God may exist in light of evil in this world may not be much help. Expressions of love, hope, comfort, and acceptance may be more appropriate in these cases.