Thursday, December 13, 2012

Darwin's Valhalla

“Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.”

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)

I have been wondering for some time how to write down clearly a few opinions about so-called ‘intelligent design’. Do I ‘believe’ in it or not? If I do, how can I justify such a belief? If I don’t, what can I come up with to satisfactorily replace it? 
It is unwise to ridicule or dismiss the achievements of western science. It is equally unwise to dismiss religious thought as dangerous foolishness. Militant atheism and its vociferous proponents often use scientifically fuelled ridicule as a weapon which is dangerous on the grounds that the objective for such a tactic is to rob the object of such ridicule of the power of reasoned debate – in short we don't like being made fun of and when we are we respond inappropriately. Many scientists also use the tactic of the ‘snobbery of clever superiority’ their science and its conclusions are so difficult to understand that average thinkers like you and I aren’t competent to follow their arguments. Thus we are presented with their conclusions as intellectual  faits accomplis.
In 1874, Max Planck, arguably the father of quantum physics, was in discussion with Philipp von Jolly, a Munich professor who attempted to dissuade him from studying physics by saying that "in this field, almost everything is already discovered and all that remains is to fill in a few holes.”  Planck replied that he did not wish to study new things, only to understand the fundamentals. His later contributions created a paradigmatically astonishing way of looking at the world. The great physical theories are mighty Babels to mankind's formidable collective intellect but are they enough support the pretensions of those who insist it can be, indeed must be, the ultimate touchstone for understanding our world and ourselves? Furthermore, do they offer a coherent description of the cosmos or the methods by which it might be investigated?
I have often supposed that we as a species are hard-wired to 'believe' in something. By this I mean that we insist upon either actively or passively supporting a set of ideas which for us carry moral weight, intellectual resonance and satisfy our unshakable conviction that the course we have chosen is, if not 'right' then more 'right' than others, which some might characterise as ‘faith’. The replacement of traditional religious thought by a belief-system exclusively based on a science which others teach us is correct writes David Berlinski in The Devil’s Delusion, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion." [or willingness to defend and/or support - parentheses mine]
It might be instructive to reverse the mirror and ask with Berlinski a few difficult questions, all of which have the same answer.
·         Has anyone provided a proof of God’s non-existence?
·         Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here?
·         Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life and for us to be here?
·         Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought?
·         Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral?
·         Has secularism in the twentieth century been a force for good?
·         Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of method, thought and opinion within the sciences?
·         Does anything in the sciences or in scientific philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational?
The answers to all of the above are 'no' but this of itself is not enough. Merely casting doubt by ‘straw man’ hypothesising randomly like confetti will not bring us nearer to the truth. While all the descriptive language makes for interesting or offensive reading, it does not change the facts. If we push aside all emotion, insults, character assassinations and credibility attacks, instead try to look for facts, what do we find?
In his book “The Deniable Darwin” Berlinski identifies a number of issues that evolution has neither addressed nor overcome to find the necessary supporting facts and become a viable theory to qualify its entering into the realm of truth. To assert that 'it works but we're working on it ' doesn't convert a theory into anything more than a hypothesis or series of conjectures, much less a law. At this late stage in its life, evolution is still little more than a workable hypothesis that has been kicked around for a long time, supported by paper-thin conjectures. Here are a few of Berlinski’s observations from an article ‘All Those Darwinian Doubts’:
·         The suggestion that Darwin’s theory of evolution is like theories in the serious sciences, quantum electrodynamics, let’s say, is grotesque. Quantum electrodynamics is accurate to thirteen unyielding decimal places. Darwin’s theory makes no tight quantitative predictions at all.
·         Field studies attempting to measure natural selection inevitably report weak to non-existent selection effects.
·         Darwin’s theory is open at one end since there are no plausible accounts for the origins of life.
·         The astonishing and irreducible complexity of various cellular structures has not yet successfully been described, let alone explained.
·         A great many species enter the fossil record trailing no obvious ancestors and depart for Valhalla leaving no obvious descendants.
·         Tens of thousands of fruit flies have come and gone in laboratory experiments, and every last one of them has remained a fruit fly to the end, all efforts to see the miracle of speciation unavailing.
·         The remarkable similarity in the genome of a great many organisms suggests that there is at bottom only one living system; but how then to account for the astonishing differences between human beings and their near relatives, differences that remain obvious to anyone who has visited a zoo?
It appears the “theory” of evolution is closer to a religion than a science, for it takes faith to believe a theory lacking a foundation of facts. A noted characteristic of devotees is their being dogmatic to the point of not being open minded enough to be led by the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, prediction, testing, and corroboration. They have a strange tendency to skew any results to support their initial view that “God does not exist” instead of letting their work lead them to its inherent conclusion, one which may be less palatable.
Regarding Berlinski’s motives, as a secular Jew he is not asking anyone to believe in God, indeed perhaps he doesn't want to; rather he is quite clear that he wants the “theory” of evolution to undergo surgery to become a healthy, viable, actual scientific theory rather than the pseudo-scientific dogma it currently is. He wants scientists to face up to and tackle the many issues and get cracking on solving them. With some reluctance, I am inclined to agree.


  1. Have you read Mary Midgleys book "Evolution as a Religion"? It is very good. She sometimes has interesting articles in the Guardian. Here is one:

  2. I'm not sure I'm in agreement with the notion that the Reformation was 'consciously designed' as a competitor to science, but I do think her robust objections to Dawkinsisms are entirely justified, specifically that natural selection is the sole and exclusive cause of evolution. But. even she - formidable as she is - underestimated Dawkins' abilities.


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