Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Evolution and Morality


One of the arguments creationists use on occasion to justify their belief in the Bible is that a society that doesn’t have a religious book that forms the basis for their moral values then that society will descend into some sort of a moral pit.  Murder, robbery and rape will run rampant.

Putting their argument another way, even if evolution is scientifically valid they say that we shouldn’t acknowledge that because of the very immoral society that will necessarily result if that society’s religious book – e.g. the Bible – is discarded as not God’s Word.

Often those people will argue that evolution will encourage atheism and atheism will reduce the moral values in a society.  So the acceptance of evolution is a stepping-stone to atheism.  They believe that atheism is morally bad and so evolution is sort of an enabler of moral evils even if it is not the direct cause.

One example of the use of that argument comes directly from a religious leader[1]:

“Evolution is the foundation of an immoral worldview.”

That argument is rampant with logical flaws.

First of all, history demonstrates that the acceptance of scientific facts doesn’t necessarily diminish the influence of the Bible.

Prior to, and during the Reformation in Europe, all Christian theologians interpreted the Bible as saying that the universe is centered on Earth – geocentrism.  In the 21st century it is difficult to understand the theological importance of that.

The Earth was considered to be a very special place since it was where God put creatures “made in his image”.  That is a self-evident fact if the Earth is, indeed, at the geometric center of the universe.

However that is much less obvious if, instead, the Earth is a mid-sized planet going around a mediocre star in an obscure part of a galaxy with many billions of similar stars within a larger universe with many billions of similar galaxies.  Those conditions make it much less likely that the Earth is the “special place” that the Bible says it is.

Yet now, there is very little argument in favor of geocentrism.  The scientific facts are so persuasive that no significant theologians still argue in favor of the argument for the Earth being at the center of the universe.

So this is an example of a scientific fact that was initially thought to go against the Bible and even against significant theological claims.  That fact is now widely accepted.  Has that eliminated the influence of the Bible on our society?

Hardly.  Theologians adapted their beliefs.  They found ways to reconcile the Bible with science.

There would seem to be no doubt that the same thing can happen with evolution.  Some theologians have already made that accommodation.  In fact some theologians welcomed Darwinian evolution when that idea was first presented to them.

Francisco Ayala, a Roman Catholic theologian as well as a respected scientist, put it like this[2]:

“Traditional theology distinguishes three kinds of evil; moral or sin, the evil originated by human beings. Pain and suffering as experienced by humans. And physical evil such as floods, tornados, earthquakes and the imperfections of all creatures.

“Theology has an answer for the first 2; sin I a consequence of free will. Pain and suffering are caused by war, injustice and other forms of human wrong doing, they are also a consequence of free will; people choose to inflict harm on one another. On the flip side, good deeds people do can alleviate human suffering.

“What about natural disasters? Enter modern science into the theologians reasoning. Physical events are built on the structure of the world itself. The extreme violence of supernova explosions and chaotic frenzy at galactic centers are the outcome of the laws of physics, not the design of a fearsome deity. If God is the designer o life, whence the lion's cruelty, the snake's poison, and the parasites that secure their existence only by destroying their host?

“The theory of evolution provided the solution to the remaining component of the problem of evil. As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design: the features of organisms were not designed by the Creator.

"Evolution by natural selection is Darwin's answer to Paley. It is also the solution of the last prong of the problem of evil. Theology professors in Salamanca saw in the theory of evolution a significant, even definitive, contribution to theodicy.”

So there seems to be no doubt that evolution can be adapted to Christian theology in the same way that geocentrism was.

The second argument against the claim that acceptance of evolution by a society will diminish moral values is that, if that is true, we should be able to see some evidence of that since there are currently a lot of people who believe in evolution. 

Of course it’s difficult to quantify “morality” and therefore find statistics that could be used to compare moral values between different groups.  One statistic that could be used involves crime rates.  It seems reasonable that higher crime rates, particularly violent crime rates,  would tend to be an indication of lower moral values.

It’s difficult to find statistics relating a belief in evolution to crime rates.  But there are numerous statistics relating atheism to crime rates.  There is, in fact, a correlation between a belief in evolution and atheism.  (It is obviously an oxymoron to have an atheist believe in an inerrant Bible.)  And, in fact, creationists are implying that evolution leads to atheism and atheism is the cause of a diminishment of moral values.  So we should be able to relevantly compare atheism to crime rates and get some sense of whether or not a belief in evolution / atheism does indeed diminish moral values.

It turns out that does not seem to be the case as a number of statistics show otherwise[3].

Atheists are very much under-represented in prisons.  In the United States, atheists make up roughly 10% of the general population but less than 1% of the prison population[4].

From country-to-country, there is a strong correlation between a high level of atheism and a lower crime rate.  “Japan (the most atheistic nation in the G-8) has the lowest murder rate while the United States (the most Christian nation in the G-8) has the highest. Japan used to have much stronger religious faith, and a state religion, and guess what: Japan was remarkably aggressive and militaristic when "Shinto" was at its peak, and during WW2, when its Emperor was regarded as a God.

We see a similar trend in states of the United States.  “Louisiana, with America's highest church attendance rate, has twice the national average murder rate.”

In fact, there seems to be no evidence that atheism – and implicitly a belief in evolution – lower moral levels in a society.  If anything we see that the evidence points in the other direction.

Some people argue that it is religion based on a holy book that causes more evil than anything else.  That argument is, I believe, best made by the physicist Dr. Victor J. Stengler[5]:

“Theists try to counter all this [claims that religion causes immoral behavior] by pointing to the mass-murdering atheists of the twentieth century: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Nicolae Ceaucesco, Enver Hoxa and Kim Jong-Il, as if this somehow justifies the religious mass murders that they can hardly deny.  Hitler is usually included in that list, but he was a Catholic.  Indeed the Roman Catholic Church never excommunicated a single Nazi but in 2010 it excommunicated nun Margaret McBride for allowing an abortion that was necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman suffering from pulmonary hypertension.

“Religion scholar Hector Avalon has studied documents from the Stalin era that only became recently available.  He points out that there in no documented statement in which Stalin justified his actions by saying something such as, ‘I don’t believe in God therefore I am committing violent act X’.  On the other hand, in all of the examples we saw above of terrorists associated with religion, you can find direct statements of the form, ‘God wants X, therefore I am committing violent act Y.  Avalon says, ‘We cannot find any direct evidence that Stalin’s personal agenda killed because of atheism’.

“Now you might argue that while Stalin did not kill in the name of atheism, his godlessness failed to promote any restraint on his behavior.  But then, neither has godliness provided much constraint to the murderers of history.”

This is not to say that religion causes immoral behavior directly.  But it does show that atheism – and implicitly a belief in evolution – does not cause immoral behavior.  So such arguments are fallacious.




[1] Moon, Rev. Sun Myung. 1990 (27 Mar.). Parents day and I. http://www.unification.net/1990/900327.html
[2] "Darwin's Gift To Science and Religion", p. 4-5
[4] This particular statistic may have many other explanations.  For example, it is possible that prison inmates who self-identify as atheists may lose rights or be subject to attacks by non-atheist inmates.  They may even lose out on some of the rare social activities that take place in prison.
[5] “God and the Folly of Faith”, Prometheus Books, 2012, pp.255-256

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Was Einstein a supporter of Creationism?

Surprisingly – at least I was surprised the first time that I saw it – some creationists claim Albert Einstein as one of their supporters. 

They might quote Einstein as saying this:

"Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."

They will also offer this quote:

"The scientist's religious feeling takes the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."

Einstein said those things.  But Einstein also said this[1]:

"The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. …"

So should Albert Einstein be considered to be a supporter of creationism, or not?

The answer, quite obviously, is complicated.

First of all, we should state the obvious.  Einstein was not a philosopher.  Furthermore, while he was a scientist, he was not a biologist who studied evolution.  So, strictly speaking, based solely on his background and experience and other credentials, his opinion should be basically irrelevant.

It would be like asking an auto mechanic what’s wrong with your computer and expecting a relevant answer.

But Einstein was much more than that.  He was a very smart person who gave quite a bit of thought to a lot of different things.  Many people, quite justifiably, consider him to be the smartest person of the 20th century.  He actually devised the Theory of Relativity, not from observations in a laboratory, but by asking himself philosophical questions such as what would happen if he could somehow jump onto a beam of light.

So despite any apparent missing credentials in his background, surely his opinion on such matters needs to be respected.

The first question we need to discuss, though it doesn’t address the specific quotes given above, was:

Did Einstein believe in evolution?

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, no one has found a quote of Einstein’s stating whether he did – or didn’t – accept biological evolution.

Of course Einstein, being the very intelligent person that we have acknowledged he is, surely knew about evolution.  So do we have any hints regarding his view on that subject?

Indeed we do.

Einstein said some very complimentary things about Charles Darwin. 

Here’s the first quote:

"A conflict arises when a religious community insists on the absolute truthfulness of all statements  recorded in the Bible. This means an intervention on the part of religion into the sphere of science; this is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrines of Galileo and Darwin belongs."
 - Albert Einstein, Science and Religion (1941)

Note that in this quote Einstein equates Darwin with Galileo.   Anyone who groups Galileo and Darwin together as closely as this is surely not diminishing Darwin.

A second quote is this one:

"I do not believe that a great era of atomic science is to be assured by organising science, in the way large corporations are organised. One can organise to apply a discovery already made, but not to make one. Only a free individual can make a discovery.  There can be a kind of organising by which scientists are assured their freedom and proper conditions of work. Professors of science in American universities, for instance, should be relieved of some of their teaching so as to have time for more research. Can you imagine an organisation of scientists making the discoveries of Charles Darwin?"
 - Albert Einstein, 1945

Here Einstein is arguing that research is important and if scientists are to match the discoveries of Charles Darwin they need more freedom. He would hardly include Darwin in this context to denigrate him.

Clearly Einstein admired Charles Darwin.  By implication he must have believed in evolution.  It would be difficult to imagine him speaking of Darwin in this way otherwise.

So, with that somewhat settled, what were Einstein’s religious views and how did they relate to the evolution / creationism controversy?

Einstein was not raised in a religious family.  They didn’t attend synagogue or practice the kosher rules.  His father was a severe critic of Judaism, calling the Jewish rules “silly superstitions”[2].  Einstein even attended a Catholic school as a child.  According to Einstein’s sister, for a while, when Albert was about 12 years old, he embraced his Jewish heritage.  He was the only one in his family to practice kosher and attend synagogue.  But he started to read science books and realized that the Bible couldn’t be true.  He said later[3]:

“Through the reading of popular science books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the Bible could not be true. “

He didn’t engage in any religious rituals during the rest of his life.  In fact when he left Germany to come to the US and renounced his German citizenship, he classified himself as having “no religious denomination”[4].

Einstein, as an adult, was not religious in any normal sense of the word.  However, despite many attempts, no one was ever able to get him to say whether or not he was an “atheist”.  A Jewish Rabbi in New York sent a telegram asking for a specific ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer.  Instead the rabbi received these words:

I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.

Einstein often used Spinoza’s name when asked about religion.  So what does it mean to believe in Spinoza’s God?

First of all, we need to understand who Spinoza was.  Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch Jewish Philosopher.  He was actually excommunicated from the Jewish community for his religious views.  Being excommunicated from the Jewish church is a very rare occurrence, much rarer than excommunication from Roman Catholicism.   .  (Spinoza was also condemned by the RCC even though he wasn’t a Catholic.) So you have to believe in some really unconventional things for that to happen.

Fundamentally, Spinoza got in so much trouble because he didn’t trust the Bible[5].  He also argued that if there was a personal God you should be able to see a demonstration of such a God in miracles and other phenomena.  Since we don’t see such things, except anecdotally, there is no reason to believe in such a God.

Spinoza also didn’t believe in free will.  Einstein strongly agreed with Spinoza on that issue.  Einstein said in a private letter that he admired Spinoza because the philosopher “was the first…to deal with the body and soul as one, not two separate things.”

So what was this “god” that Spinoza believed in?

Spinoza defined “God” as an “absolutely infinite substance[6]” or essence.  Certainly not any sort of being.

In summary, it appears to me, that Einstein and Spinoza used “God” as a sort of shorthand view of the natural world.  But it is also a bit more than that.  Einstein in particular felt a sense of “awe” when he viewed the universe.  So to Einstein, “God” was a combination of the natural world itself as well as a sense of reverence for it.

So when Einstein said that, “Science without religion is lame”, he’s saying that all scientists should feel some sense of reverential respect for the universe that they study.  That’s something that even an ardent atheist might agree with.

But that’s it.  He surely doesn’t believe that scientists should believe in any sort of personal God since he was so clear that he didn’t believe in such a being.

 In summary, we can safely conclude:
1.       Einstein did not trust the Bible as a source of valid information.
2.       Einstein did not believe in any sort of personal God.
3.       Einstein deeply admired Darwin.  That strongly indicates that he believed in evolution.
Conclusion:  Albert Einstein was not a supporter of creationism and almost certainly would have been offended at being called a supporter of such a belief system.


[1] Private correspondence from Einstein to philosopher Erik Gutkind, January, 1954.  See http://www.lettersofnote.com/2009/10/word-god-is-product-of-human-weakness.html
[2] Walter Isaacson, “Einstein”, Simon and Shuster, 2007, pp. 14-15.
[3] Ibid, p. 20
[4] Ibid, p. 29
[6] Ibid.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Sarah Palin’s “Life With Trig”

This is not the sort of topic I typically discuss on this blog.  But I felt compelled to write about this and since this is my blog…

I read Sarah Palin’s article titled “My Life with Trig” in the February 13 issue of Newsweek Magazine with quite a bit of interest.  I have a daughter with Down syndrome.  (She is now 22.)  Additionally I’ve an active coach in the Special Olympics for 14 years.  During those years I’m certain that I’ve worked with more than 100 athletes with mental disabilities, many of those with Down syndrome.  Most relevantly, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking with and sharing experiences with their parents and families.   Ms. Palin says that she has met many others who have children with disabilities.  I don’t doubt that.  But I’m not sure that she has spent an hour or more at, for example, an athletic banquet, talking to those people what it is like to have such a child.  So I believe that I have a better idea than most, possibly including Sarah Palin, regarding what it is like to raise a child with Down syndrome 

My experiences are somewhat different from how Ms. Palin describes hers.

Note that children with disabilities vary from each other much as people without disabilities differ from each other.  So I can’t possibly say that Ms. Palin’s description of life with her son is invalid in any way.  All I can say is that it is different in a number of ways from my own experiences and those of the many other families that I have come into contact with.

First of all, however, I can acknowledge that she’s right when she says that it is frightening when you discover that you have a child with Down syndrome.  While Sarah Palin found out that her child had Down syndrome when she was still pregnant, my wife and I didn’t find out that our child had Down syndrome until shortly after she was born.  It’s difficult to describe your emotions. 

When you first discover that you are going to have a child, you don’t expect it to have disabilities and you’re happy and excited.  Nearly everyone who has ever had a child is familiar with this feeling.  You might initially consider the possibility that this child will be President of the United States.  Or the person who finds a cure for cancer.

But more realistically you fully expect that this new child will grow up, get married and have grandchildren that you get to spoil.  So you have hopes, wishes and desires but also real expectations for this child.

Then, when you discover that the child has a serious disability, the hopes, wishes and desires vanish but even of those reasonable expectations also vanish.

It’s very much like thinking that your child - the one that you expected to have - died.   You grieve for the child that you are not going to have.

Then, when the grieving is done, you deal with the child that you actually do have.

If the child has Down syndrome, what’s that child like and what is life like with that child?  This is something that isn’t talked about much outside of the families that have members with Down syndrome and, in my view; people seem to lack accurate conceptions about what it is like.  Sarah Palin’s article seems to reinforce the clich├ęs of life with such children rather than matching the real world.  Maybe I can help with that.  It turns out to be MUCH better than people expect it to be.

There are often health issues, some serious.  That needs to be mentioned.  My wife and I were lucky in that our daughter didn’t have any.

One of the things that Ms. Palin says that I disagree with is this:

My family knows that Trig will face struggles that few of us will ever have to endure, including people who can be so cruel to those not deemed ‘perfect’ by society.”

Children and adults with disabilities are, indeed, subject to ridicule.  But so are people without disabilities.  We all hear stories of bullying, especially during teenage years.   But things like Facebook bullying is not something that children with disabilities are likely to experience.

People with disabilities tend to go to school and work around other people with disabilities.  People with disabilities don’t pick on others, whether or not they have disabilities.  Instead they genuinely like each other and genuinely root for each other.  They really do.  One of the most refreshing things about coaching in the Special Olympics is that you see all of the athletes genuinely wanting the others to do well.  They want to do well themselves.  But if their nearest competitor does well it makes just about all of them happy!

My favorite story about the Special Olympics comes from Sports Illustrated rather than my own experiences.  I recall the article quite well.

A 100 yard dash was about to take place in a Special Olympics track event.  For no apparent reason, one of athletes participating in the race looked up to the sky.  The other athletes noticed and they looked up as well.  Then the gun went off to start the race.  The athlete who was first to look up, started to run.  After he had gone about 20 yards he noticed that the others weren’t running.  He stopped, yelled back at the other athletes to say, “Hey guys, the race started!”  The other athletes heard that and started to run.  The first athlete didn’t continue his race until the other athletes caught up to him.

I think that story illustrates how well people with disabilities work together.

In that same context, one of the advantages of Down syndrome – and this will surprise many people – is that the syndrome is fairly common and is accompanied by physical characteristics that most people can recognize.

How is this a good thing?

When people recognize Down syndrome in your child, they will lower expectations of your child’s capabilities.  In fact they tend to lower the expectations below what your child is probably capable of.  In the case of our daughter, and others with Down syndrome, people tend to be impressed with how much they can do rather than on things on which they fall short.  As just one example, people are impressed when they see that our daughter can tie her own shoes.  She’s capable of a lot more than that, but it gives you an idea of the sorts of things that will impress people who can recognize Down syndrome – which is most people – but have very low expectations.  One woman was surprised to see our daughter simply take off her own shoes when we visited her house.  The expectations can be that low.

In contrast, I know a number of children my daughter’s age who are equally disabled but have no outward signs of their disability.  The parents of these children have told me on more than one occasion that they are constantly reminded of their child’s disability when they see the reaction of other people when the child does something consistent with their disability but inconsistent with their appearance.

Another thing that Ms. Palin talks about that is not really a part of my experience, nor the other parents that I have talked to, is when she explains how her husband …spends many sleepless nights with this restless little one”.  My experience is quite the contrary.  I have never known a child who goes to sleep faster, and sleeps more soundly and longer than our daughter.

Here’s a true story: when our daughter was about ten I could tell that our daughter was in a talkative mood, so I laid down with her to help her get to sleep – much as Todd Palin apparently does.  I sang these words from the well-known children’s song, “Rockabye baby on the tree top.  When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.  When the bow breaks the cradle will fall.  Down will come baby, cradle and all…”

When I started the song, my daughter was talking.

After I got that far into the song – probably no more than ten seconds later – she was not just sleeping, she was snoring.

I often envy how quickly my daughter is able to fall asleep and how soundly she is able to sleep.  I’m probably like most adults in that there are some nights that I lie in bed thinking of what happened that day or what will be happening the next day or the day after that.  My daughter doesn’t have such worries, thoughts or concerns.  So she sleeps like a log every night.  Unless my wife or I have a reason to wake her up in the morning (for example, to get her ready for school) it is rare for her not to sleep soundly for ten consecutive hours.  Many times have I wished that I could do that.

Another very positive characteristic of our daughter and, from my conversations those of others with disabilities, is that they never lie.  That would be never.  That’s no exaggeration.  She might tell me something that is wrong because she is mistaken – she may think that it is Wednesday when it’s actually Thursday, for example.  (Even that sort of thing is rarer than most people might expect.)  But I can literally not think of a single time that she has told me a deliberate untruth.

But the single most refreshing thing about our daughter – and most people with Down syndrome – is how happy they are.  Our daughter isn’t happy 100% of the time.  But 95% of the time is a good, reasonable estimate.  On those rare occasions that she has difficultly falling asleep, I can hear her laughing through the bedroom door as she lies in bed. 

She also likes everyone.  She doesn’t just say that she likes them.  She genuinely does.  There are many reasons for that.  People like her.  They don’t feel that they have to compete with her.  While there is occasionally a bit of awkwardness in the relationship in the beginning – and our daughter is genuinely shy when she first meets someone – people quickly recognize that it is almost impossible for our daughter to feel any malice towards them so they respond in the same way.

Finally you find yourself changing in ways that match your child’s example.  If you spend enough time around someone who is nearly always happy, you find yourself being happier more often.  If you spend enough time around someone who never tells a deliberate lie, you find yourself lying less often.  If you spend enough time around someone who genuinely likes everyone else, you find yourself liking a higher percentage of people.  If you spend enough time around someone who doesn’t experience stress, you find yourself experiencing stress somewhat less.

Obviously I don’t think that everyone should have mental disabilities.  But I genuinely feel that every family that has a member with mental disabilities is a better family because of that.

I think that Ms. Palin would agree with this.  But I got the feeling she felt her family was better off because of the sacrifices they found themselves willing to make.  I think that the rewards are different.  I think that the family is better off because of the lessons that you learn from your child with disabilities.

One of the hypothetical questions that parents with children who have Down syndrome occasionally ask themselves is: “if there was some magical pill that your child could take that would remove their extra chromosome thereby making them ‘normal’, would you have them take it?”

Initially, soon after our daughter was born, the answer would have been undoubtedly ‘Yes’.  But now, quite honestly, the answer is ‘No’.  We’re very happy with her exactly the way she is and would feel that there was be a hole in our lives if she was any different.

To emphasize that point, I can point to two people who have changed professions – one more than the other – simply because they enjoyed being around our daughter so much.

One of them was a high school classmate of my wife.  This classmate had a degree in education and was teaching in Junior High School.  She didn’t find it very fulfilling.  It was difficult and frustrating to battle the raging hormones in her adolescent students.  But after spending time with our daughter at various outings, etc. she decided to go back to college and got a Master’s degree in Special Education.  She’s now teaching children with special needs and finds that to be much more rewarding and, frankly, more fun than teaching children without disabilities.

One of our sons is doing the same thing.  The difference is that he has a degree in finance, not education, and is actually working as the CFO for a small company.  He grew up with his sister and obviously knows her very well and has spent many, many hours with her.  Like my wife’s classmate, he’s decided it would be more rewarding and more fun to teach children with disabilities – people like his sister – than to continue to work with Excel spreadsheets.  Like my wife’s classmate, he is getting his Master’s Degree in Special Education and is scheduled to graduate this coming May.  He is making a more significant career change than my wife’s classmate.  But he is looking forward to it very much.

So why would we want our daughter to be any different since her personality has inspired two different people to change professions to be around people like her?

I can’t think of any reason at all…

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Evolution and Consensus among Scientists

Here’s a fact: a very large percentage – arguably something approaching 99% - of professional scientists strongly support evolution.

Of course that doesn’t prove that evolution is a fact.  After all, science isn’t done by counting heads and history tells us that the scientific consensus can be wrong.  But it does, by itself, falsify some of the more frequent claims made by creationists.

For one thing, creationists say things like, “Evolution is a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics”.  But that sort of thing is utterly impossible to reconcile with such strong support of evolution by scientists.
Scientists really understand thermodynamics.   They really, really do.  Some of the scientific supporters of evolution actually teach thermodynamics at the collegiate level.  So how could scientists possibly so strongly support evolution if, in fact, it violated one or more of these fundamental scientific principles?  Wouldn’t they necessarily notice?  Making such a claim isn’t even rational.

Similarly, I’ve seen creationists say, ”There is NO evidence supporting evolution.” But how can that be true if so many scientists support evolution?

Scientists work in a profession that depends on evidence.  You wouldn’t get 50% - much less 90+% - support in the scientific community if there was no evidence.  I’m sure that it reassuring for one creationist to tell that to another, but it isn’t a rational argument.

There are other claims made by creationists that are similarly falsified by the mere fact of the strong consensus of scientists supporting evolution.

Possibly the most significant fact creationists have to deal with in the face of this strong scientific consensus is the fact that it guarantees that creationism will NEVER gain that consensus.  That’s because, that while the scientific consensus changes on things, it never goes backward.  The views of individual scientists will change and even go backwards.  But the views of the majority of scientists never go backwards.

Consider gravity.  The first “scientific” ideas about gravity came from Aristotle.  The Aristotelian explanation of gravity is that all bodies move toward their natural place.  Then, centuries later, Newton proposed that masses attract each other and even provided the mathematics to support it.  That became the strong scientific consensus.  Then Einstein proposed that mass actually curves space and slightly altered the math.  

That’s the current consensus.

It’s possible now that string theory will alter the scientific consensus regarding gravity yet again.

But if the consensus of the scientific community changes, it will NEVER go backwards.  In terms of gravity it’s possible that it will move onto something like string theory, but it will NEVER return to Newton’s ideas and certainly not to Aristotle’s.

History tells us that is always the case.  Once the scientific consensus changes, it never goes backwards.
Centuries ago the scientific consensus was Biblical creationism.  It has now changed to favor evolution.  It is conceivable that it will move onto something else.

But it will NEVER go back to favor Biblical creationism. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is Intelligent Life with Superior Technologies inherently unstable?

We’ve never made contact with other intelligent life forms on other planets within other solar systems that possess sufficient technologies to communicate over long distances. Many ID advocates argue that’s because conditions on Earth are unique in the universe and no such other life forms exist. With an estimated 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 other planets in the universe such “uniqueness” seems very unlikely. Other factors are undoubtedly the immense distances between stars, the possibility that an alien species may have different technologies and communicate in ways that we don’t understand yet, etc.


Of course in order to communicate with another form of intelligent life both sides of the conversation need to have adequate technologies. If some intelligent life sent us messages as recently as two centuries ago no one would have had a sufficient technology to even receive them, much less interpret them.

Another factor that isn’t discussed much is the possibility that any civilizations with sufficient technologies to communicate over interstellar distances are inherently unstable. In other words, once such technologies are understood and implemented, something inherently happens to that society so that it destroys itself or loses that technology within a few centuries. Note that I am not suggesting that “intelligent life” itself is necessarily unstable. Instead I am suggesting that the use of advanced technologies may be unstable. It’s possible that an organism such as a dolphin could evolve significant intelligence but be unable to use new technologies simply because they lack opposable thumbs.

The most obvious possibility for instability is a nuclear conflict. If you have sufficient technologies to send radio signals, it is quite possible that you are close to understanding how to create and use nuclear weapons. It could be argued that we were very lucky here on Earth. It is unlikely that Adolf Hitler would have had any qualms about using nuclear weapons if he would have had them and he missed having that technology by just a few years.

But there are many other possibilities. Maybe strong technologies result in destruction of the environment of a planet within a short time (i.e. a few centuries). Life could then diminish to the point that mere existence becomes more important than trying to communicate with life on other planets. In his book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond demonstrates that environmental damage has been a significant factor in all societies on Earth that have collapsed such as on Easter Island, Mayans, etc. Of course those specific collapses didn’t involve the use of modern technologies. But it is very likely that such technologies could increase the rate of environmental damage.

Another alternative I’ve heard of is that eventually technologies become so fascinating in and of themselves that interactions between the living things become secondary in importance and the intelligent species stop reproducing. I think that there are signs that such things could happen.

I have a nephew who spends basically all of his free time playing video games. (Yes, I have mentioned my observation to his parents. Fortunately I can report that he now has a girlfriend and spends less time on these games.) A while ago I saw on a local news channel a video of two teenagers sitting a couple of feet away from each other on a park bench texting on their cell phones. There isn’t anything remarkable about that except for the fact that they were texting each other! Many people spend large parts of their free time on the Internet now. Others consistently find something on their 200+ cable channels to watch.

Such people are still a relatively small percentage of the overall population, but all of those technologies are also relatively recent. Video games have been with us for just a few decades. How addictive will they be a century from now? What will you be able to do on the Internet in 50 years? It is likely that in just a couple of decades you will be able to watch any movie ever made “on-demand” in high definition, 3-D on very large television screens. How compelling will that be for many people?

In fact, what new technologies will be available in the 22nd century that we can’t even imagine in 2011? There may even be some that offer sexual satisfaction in ways that we can’t imagine now.

If humans stop interacting with other humans, they don’t reproduce. Eventually the society ceases to exist.

Then, of course, there are other possible technologies that are unstable which humans haven’t experienced yet because our technology is still a bit limited. Some have suggested that it may be possible to create a significantly large black hole on Earth. Such a thing would destroy life here. We don’t know how to do that but maybe it is indeed possible.

With all of those risks (and maybe more that we are not aware of), it is quite possible that it is rare to find an intelligent civilization that lasts for more than, say, 3-4 centuries. So if intelligent life exists on any other planet we will need to be looking at that planet during the relatively very small window of time that radio signals coming from that planet may contain signs of intelligence.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Intelligent Design and ‘The Face on Mars’

As we all know, Intelligent Design advocates – led by people like William Dembski – insist that there are scientific and even mathematical techniques that can be used to identify things that are “intelligently designed”. They have focused their attention on issues relating to the biodiversity of life, primarily evolution and abiogenesis. But if their claims are true then there would be a number of other applications for their techniques.


For example, there is the rock formation called ‘The face on Mars’.

One of the images taken by Viking 1 on July 25, 1976 revealed a rock formation that resembles a human face. The image resides on a mesa in the portion of Mars called “Cydonia” which lies in the planet's northern hemisphere. You can see pictures and a discussion at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cydonia_(region_of_Mars) .

As Wikipedia says, “Some commentators, most notably Richard C. Hoagland, believe the ‘Face’ to be evidence of a long-lost Martian civilization along with other features they believe are present, such as apparent pyramids, which they argue are part of a ruined city.”

Once the image was presented the focus was clearly on whether or not this face is “intelligently designed”. So clearly this “Face of Mars” would seem to present an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the techniques advocated by Dembski and others.

In fact, as you study the details, the ideal features of the match become more and more apparent.

First, the discussion is about whether or not carved faces in rocks are intelligently designed. We know that this is a perfect example of where ID techniques can be used because of the words of William Dembski himself!

At http://www.designinference.com/documents/2003.08.Encyc_of_Relig.htm Dembski says:

“Intelligent design begins with a seemingly innocuous question: Can objects, even if nothing is known about how they arose, exhibit features that reliably signal the action of an intelligent cause? To see what’s at stake, consider Mount Rushmore. The evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design is direct—eyewitnesses saw the sculptor Gutzon Borglum spend the better part of his life designing and building this structure. But what if there were no direct evidence for Mount Rushmore’s design? What if humans went extinct and aliens, visiting the earth, discovered Mount Rushmore in substantially the same condition as it is now?

“In that case, what about this rock formation would provide convincing circumstantial evidence that it was due to a designing intelligence and not merely to wind and erosion? Designed objects like Mount Rushmore exhibit characteristic features or patterns that point to an intelligence. Such features or patterns constitute signs of intelligence. Proponents of intelligent design, known as design theorists, purport to study such signs formally, rigorously, and scientifically. Intelligent design may therefore be defined as the science that studies signs of intelligence. “

Mount Rushmore, of course, consists of “intelligently designed” carved faces in rocks.

The “Face on Mars” is – at least potentially – is an “intelligently designed” carved face in a rock.

It would seem that we have a perfect fit!

Second, this “face” was very controversial. On September 8, 2000, an online poll produced the following results: 37 percent said it was made by aliens, 31 percent thought it was a natural geographical feature, and 32 percent answered that they thought there was not enough data to decide either way. It would be difficult to construct a set of statistics showing more indecision (and therefore more controversy) among the general public.

Third, the timing was nearly perfect. In 1998 – a mere two years before the poll mentioned above – William Dembski published his book titled "The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities". That book discussed ideas such as "specified complexity" that could be used as a tool to identify ID.

Fourth, Intelligent Design claims have been called religious. This has been true throughout the ID debate. Most significantly the Dover, PA, court decision stated, in part, that ID “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."

But the face on Mars has no religious connotations at all. As mentioned on Wikipedia, even those who think that the face is intelligently designed say that some sort of Martian civilization – rather than some “god” or “God” - created it. So by examining the “Face on Mars” with their techniques ID advocates could clearly show that their claims are NOT only based solely on religion.

Fifth, the potential significance of this discovery could hardly be more significant. If, in fact, this rock really is intelligently designed, it would be, without any real debate, the most significant archaeological discovery in human history. We would have disputable evidence that some form of civilization lived on Mars or that some other alien civilization visited there and created this face.

So, all of the pieces come together here. I can’t imagine that anyone could construct, even in their imagination, a better opportunity for ID advocates to show the value of their hypotheses.

With such a significant opportunity presented to them, surely a number of papers were published in the ID literature on this subject.

Right?

Alas! No ID advocates seemed to pay any attention whatsoever to the “Face on Mars”. The Discovery Institute, for example, has no articles at all about “Cydonia” – the location of the “Face”.

What can we conclude from this?

It’s simple. ID really is religious and ID really has no intellectual, scientific or mathematical validity.

Sorry, ID advocates.