Desperation at The Daily Dish

September 6, 2009 • 10:12 am

A fair number of books have been written attacking Dawkins’s The God Delusion and other “new atheist” books.  Richard calls these counter-books “fleas,” and doesn’t deign to answer them.

I think I just got my first flea: a piece by Jim Manzi at the Daily Dish (Andrew Sullivan’s blog at The Atlantic) defending Robert Wright against my New Republic critique of Wright’s book, The Evolution of God. I’m not familiar with Manzi, but he’s the former chairman of Lotus Corporation, who now writes on science, politics, and technology. (CORRECTION: not the same Jim Manzi — see his comment appended — although also a software entrepeneur.) And I don’t know his connection with Sullivan, nor how people get to blog on The Daily Dish.

Regardless, Manzi’s piece is not impressive, even for a flea, and I’ll respond briefly.  “In Defense of Robert Wright Against Jerry Coyne” resurrects two old theological arguments, but presents them as new.  And neither stands up any better than it did when rebutted decades ago by philosophers.

Manzi begins by claiming that I have definitively ruled God out of the evolutionary process:

Coyne is an eminent evolutionary biologist, but here makes an enormous claim about the philosophical implications of science: that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe. I think this claim is, in fact, a gigantic leap of faith unsupported by any scientific findings.

Wrong!  What I have said — repeatedly — is that there is no evidence for a divine plan for the universe.  There could, of course, be a divine plan that happens to coincide with The Big Bang, evolution, and all the materialistic processes we study, and we wouldn’t be able to disprove that.  Deistic evolution, in which  a god starts everything off and then retires, could be a divine plan, though of course it’s not the sort of divine plan that many religious people would accept.  All that science can do on this front is to seek evidence for a divine plan of a certain type, and either support or falsify that plan.  Some divine plans — for example, those that preclude innocent people or animals from needless suffering — have already been ruled out by science.  Science has also dismissed any divine plan that involves an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god.   Science and reason, then, can have things to say about Divine Plans.

Manzi goes on to describe, in tedious detail, various search algorithms used by computer scientists and others, algorithms that are somewhat analogous to evolution by natural selection, except that the human algorithms all have goals built in.  It’s not clear what point Manzi is making with the analogy between biology and programming, but he seems to think that because these evolutionary algorithms arrive at good results, then  a). evolution by natural selection is also a “designed” algorithm (i.e., it gives evidence for a designer, something that Wright believes as well), and b). there is a divine purpose behind it all — that evolution has a goal. (This too was suggested by Wright.) Ponzi Manzi does admit that we don’t know exactly what that purpose is, but asserts that science can’t rule it out.

But Manzi’s main points are two:

1.   The “first cause” argument is evidence for God.

As he says:

It is obvious from the factory analogy that evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that, as per the GA which spontaneously generates the initial population, that prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.

This, of course, is a very old question that far pre-dates modern science. A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect. If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress. No matter how far science advances, an explanation of ultimate origins seems always to remain a non-scientific question.

Oh dear. This chestnut is so old that it’s fossilized.  And the answer to this claim hasn’t changed for decades:  why is God any more an “uncaused cause” than is the universe, or the “physical laws” themselves?  God is always called the “uncaused cause” without further explanation, but that simply won’t do.  If He was an uncaused cause, what did He do before creating everything? Hang around twiddling His thumbs?  The people who make this argument are claiming, in effect, that God is by definition an uncaused cause, but we can properly ask “What caused God?” with exactly the same tenacity that theists ask “What caused matter?” And why is God exempt from having a cause, but matter or physical laws are not?  This is just sophistry.  Faitheist philosophers are always telling us that we don’t grasp the subtleties of theological argument, but that won’t wash here: Manzi’s argument is identical to that made by Aquinas and refuted by Hume and his successors. It ain’t subtle.  You can look up the details.

2.  Evolution might very well have a God-induced purpose, but scientists can’t discern it:

Now consider the relationship of the second observation to the problem of final cause. The factory GA [genetic algorithm], as we saw, had a goal. Evolution in nature is more complicated — but the complications don’t mean that the process is goalless, just that determining this goal would be so incomprehensibly hard that in practice it falls into the realm of philosophy rather than science. Science can not tell us whether or not evolution through natural selection has some final cause or not; if we believe, for some non-scientific reason, that evolution has a goal, then science can not, as of now, tell what that goal might be.

Ugh.  First of all, what reason do we have to think that evolution has a goal?  That idea doesn’t come from empirical observation, for there’s not a scintilla of evidence that evolution is being externally driven toward some specific product.  Nor does it come from reason, for if you understand natural selection you see that it cannot have a goal.  As Manzi recognizes, the idea that there’s a “goal” has to come from religion.   Well, if that is the case, can religion tell us what that goal might be? (We all know, by the way, that it’s a certain hairless primate.)  Nope.  Religion is in fact worse than science in studying whether evolution has a “goal,” for faith, unlike science, has no way to test any hypothesis it comes up with.  If we think that humans are the goal, then why did it take so many billions of years for us to appear?  And would we have appeared if the African forests hadn’t disappeared? Why weren’t dolphins, or squirrels, the goal?

Most tellingly, everything we know about evolution and natural selection militates against the idea of an externally-imposed goal, both because of the way the process works (competition between genes to leave copies of themselves in a contingent and changing world), and because evolution goes in different directions in different lineages, depending on what happens to be useful in different environments. (Fleas lost wings, dinosaurs gained them.)  If complex humans were the goal, why do the rest of the millions of species over the history of life go off in completely different directions?  What kind of goal-driven process is that?

Manzi’s conclusion?

The theory of evolution, then, has not eliminated the problems of ultimate origins and ultimate purpose with respect to the development of organisms; it has ignored them. These problems are defined as non-scientific questions, not because we don’t care about the answers, but because attempting to solve them would impede practical progress. Accepting evolution, therefore, requires neither the denial of a Creator nor the loss of the idea of ultimate purpose. It resolves neither issue for us one way or the other. The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept.

Yep, I agree that evolution doesn’t disprove a creator or purpose.  You can have a deistic creator who set things in motion and went to lunch, and you can have a purpose that is “making everything look as if it evolved by natural means.”  Beyond that, Houston, we have problems.

In  the end, Manzi fails to tell us why we should even see “ultimate origin” and “ultimate purpose” as problems, at least, as problems whose solution is God.  What is the “purpose” of a snowflake? Its marvelous “designed” appearance is the ineluctable result of natural processes acting on matter.  There is no mind, no God, behind its appearance.  The products of natural selection and evolution are like snowflakes.  There is not one speck of evidence contradicting the idea that Homo sapiens, like all species, is the result of physical processes (transmuted into biological processes) acting on matter. As to where that matter came from, well, we don’t yet know, but we might someday. Manzi, on the other hand, will never know — not as long as he forsakes science for theology.  And perhaps, if he thinks about it, he will realize that science can indeed address — and refute– some religious theories about creation and purpose.

Note:  Manzi’s logical and biological errors have now been pointed out by others on The Daily Dish. He answers these critics here.flea-info1

63 thoughts on “Desperation at The Daily Dish

  1. Just as an FYI, Sullivan has been on vacation for a few weeks, so he’s had guest bloggers every week. They’ve included Robert Wright and Jim Manzi.

  2. One area where his analogy of the factory optimization as a model of evolution fails is in it’s assumption that there is one best goal (one global maximum) that the evolutionary process will converge on. Evolution is “local”; at best (during a period of stasis) you can suspect you may have found a local fitness maximum, but you know nothing about other local maximums of greater fitness elsewhere (separated by areas of lower fitness).

    And there is really is no good evidence that humans have achieved any sort of evolutionary stasis, so what leads us think that, if we are the object of God’s design, that we are even close to his goal. (see Douglas Adams brilliant “puddle” argument.)

    For all we know, our “perfection” lies well in the future; or (equally likely) we could merely be a tool in the landscape intended to shepherd another species (dogs, cats, cockroaches?) through this point in time so that they can ultimately reach evolutionary perfection.

    As with many other things, the ability to imagine that there is a God with a goal really brings no intellectual weight to the discussion about whether there actually is a God with a goal, let alone what the goal might be.

    1. I always point to teratology, HPV and esthesioneuroblastomas when arguing with a theistic evolutionist. Of course, HPV might be showing futuristic partiality towards divine bark. Barkotic theologians unite!

    2. I’m just a layman here, but isn’t there a lot of other problems with the fitness maximum idea?

      For one, I hear that the idea of fitness manifolds is a rather strong idealization, because these statistical surfaces are far from resolved, smooth and stable. The number of ‘dimensions’ may vary over populations too. It’s unclear to me if you can even define a maximum here.

      For another, the resolution is dependent on population size AFAIU. If more individuals, smaller fitness differences are fixed. (See for example Hawks et al paper that has been mentioned.) So if you have a maximum, it has a limes form: lim sup (environment, population size). Not exactly a static One Best Goal in any case.

      Finally, I hear that you can have “frozen accidents”. What was once a potential maximum is preserved by contingency. For example, the genetic code, once perhaps fixed for robustness as it is near the ideal IIRC. Now probably preserved by all the overhead of changing it.

  3. I know Manzi from many years ago when I consulted for Lotus. Mitch Kapor was running the place and Jonathan Sachs was still there and I was working on his original 1-2-3 software. Manzi came there as a management consultant and then went full time. I disliked him and his style so much that I left there to consult at other companies.

    Seems like he has not changed.

  4. If humans are The Ultimate Goal, why are humans still evolving? And why do physical differences exist among human populations? Were the first human population (ie, the already reached Goal) Black, so white folks are a degeneration or vice versa?

    They may tell us then that the Goal isn’t physical but spiritual, I mean human consciousness and stuff. Well, are neanderthals the Goal then? If evolution follows a linear direction towards intelligence and consciousness, then why is a mollusc like octopus more intelligent than many fishes, which are closer to us than molluscs? According to the linear pursuit of a human Goal, the closer a species is to us, the smarter. Why are dogs smarter than lorises then?

    So the Goal can be neither physical nor psychological. So the idea of a directed evolution towards humans is false no matter where it comes from -religion or science.

    1. Or what about Homo florensiensis, which is now phylogenetically placed? If hobbits are ~ 2-3 times “as diverse” as the human-neanderthal split, while still able to make sophisticated tools, what is the world shaking difference?

      [I haven’t got hold of a copy of the paper yet, but at least one of it’s models place the florensiensis split from H. habilis at ~ 1.5 My. As opposed to ~ 0.5 My for sapiens vs neanderthaliensis. And AFAIU, if habilis isn’t erectus ancestor, or actually an australopithecine as Leakey apparently proposes, the split may be even larger.]

      Btw, when I found the above paper I also saw a reference to putative habilis vs erectus coexistence for up to 0.5 My in the same rift valley. Which leads me to ask in this context, why was the Goal shared at the time? And why wasn’t it later?

      And the why did the Goalposts shift as so often in this theology? I.e. why was one of the Goal’s “selected” in the erectus vs habilis, the sapiens vs neanderthaliensis and the sapiens vs floriensis cases?

  5. As to Manzi’s “First Cause” argument: I agree with Laplace who is reputed to have told Napoleon, when the latter asked where God fit in to his calculations of planetary motion, “I have no need of that hypothesis”. Plus, he’s assuming the Universe WAS created which is assuming a lot. As to Manzi’s “goal” argument, I agree with Jerry: UGH!

  6. I find it interesting that theologians who accept evolution as part of “Gods plan”, seem to have no problem with the fact that God, who presumably could have picked any type of plan he wanted, seems to prefer one that runs on death and produces extreme amounts of suffering in order to come up with anything (well at least anything with the capacity to suffer). He could have just created the earth in six days, but instead he chose to make uncountable numbers of creatures suffer and die for billions of years. I’m sorry but God, as always, just comes out looking like a complete jackass.
    Jerry somehow manages to treat his cats much better than God treats us, and without the benefit of omnipotence.
    (By the way I am not trying to say that evolution is just a big death party where animals try to rip each other apart and whoever is the best at killing wins. I am just observing that suffering is an aspect of evolution.)

    1. So is extreme waste.

      Think of how many gametes (sperm, ova, pollen, etc.) are produced compared to how many organisms result.

      If there is an intelligent designer, he he very inefficient and wasteful.

  7. One underlying (and mostly ignored) question for people who push this line is not about plausibility so much as motivation. Why are they so desperate to believe in a ‘God’ whose purpose is humans and who got there via so much suffering? Why do they find that ‘God’ so attractive or consoling or explanatory or whatever they find it that they are willing to accept that revolting story?

    It’s funny – theists think we’re the cynical or pessimistic or nihilistic ones, but the reality is, people who don’t think there was any driving intelligence behind evolution are free to see it as horribly cruel, while people who think ‘God’ is driving evolution have to endorse all the misery as worth it.

    1. It’s not in any way a ‘Desperate need’ to believe in God – it’s a logical conclusion. You have ‘nature just does this’… I have an alternate explanation.. and it makes sense compared to a ‘just cause’ argument. And no, it’s not simply a ‘fill the gaps..’ if that were the case, all of science is a gap. Science cannot give a why for anything – nor even proposes such an idea. Science does not ‘explain’ anything.. it demonstrates observational evidence of what things do.. and then rests it’s case – never to offer a reason. These observations are of course critical to our survival and understanding of nature.. but they never give a ‘why’.

      I’m under the impression that the ‘why’ question needs an answer.. in your opinion my answer cannot be proven. In my opinion science can never provide an answer because it doesn’t even ask the question. Whatever the case.. I find that life as the result of intelligence is far more likely.. and more of a rational conclusion than ‘just cause’. It’s not because of some need to believe.. beliefs don’t even work that way – we believe what we believe. It can’t be forced – it can’t be pretended. You do.. or you don’t. I believe because I do.. no other reason.

      1. To this former believer it looks like a desperate need. You feel ennobled, moral, righteous, humble, and saved for believing whatever it is you believe.

        You are afraid to question your belief because you fear eternal damnation at the hands of your invisible savior. Yet there is no more evidence for the invisible beings you do believe in than for the invisible beings you don’t believe in.

        Your god is a bigger conundrum than the thing he’s supposed to explain.

        You can keep trying to use words to fool yourself and feel special because your beliefs, but that doesn’t make your invisible creator real and it doesn’t make you sound any more convincing or less desperate than the crazy neighbor that thinks aliens are probing him at night.

      2. Dave Kennedy, you win the prize! You have a comment in which every line you wrote is completely and utterly wrong! Congratulations for being 100% wrong about everything!

  8. “It’s not clear what point Manzi is making here, but he seems to think that because these evolutionary algorithms arrive at good results, a). evolution by natural selection is also a “designed” algorithm.”

    Oh great. Manzi seems to be barking up the same tree as Dembski which from the standpoint of computer science and information theory is utter nonsense:

    Neither of them seem to understand that before you can make an algorithm or a piece of software, you need to define a goal since this is how computers work. Nature is not a computer. It doesn’t need a goal to do what it does. They also either forget or simply lack the education to realize that natural selection is non-random and omit that part in their mess of an argument.

  9. I think these words, in Jerry’s original review article in TNR of The Evolution of God, are fundamental.

    Evidence, but not proof; plausibility, but not certainty: these soothing non-committals permitted Wright’s readers to accept a philosophical conclusion without doing any philosophical work.

    Manzi does the same thing in his response too. Bascially, he says, there is still room for philosophy and theology here. Well, theology, okay, since practically anything goes in theology, but philosophy? Philosophy’s not just a dumpster for ideas we can’t prove but want very badly to believe.

    In order to make his claim even remotely plausible, Manzi must – he simply must – give us some reason to believe, not only that we can believe in God despite evolution, but that there is good reason to believe this despite evolution. And there isn’t. It is true, as Jerry acknowledged already, that evolution doesn’t answer the question of ultimate beginnnings. Sure, there might be a God, and this might all be a part of his/her/its plan. But, if so, as Neill and Ophelia point out, its a pretty messy plan. Why should anyone think that a process this messy is planned?

    And if the answer is that it’s such a large plan that we can’t know how this messiness fits in with the overall goodness of the plan – and does Manzi think that we can? – then this problem stops the ultimate questioning before it can get started. And this is a question that simply must be answered, before any other ultimate questions are raised. So the cosmological questions don’t even get off the ground. We really do have some problems here, Houston!

  10. Jim Manzi says: Coyne is an eminent evolutionary biologist, but here makes an enormous claim about the philosophical implications of science: that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe. I think this claim is, in fact, a gigantic leap of faith unsupported by any scientific findings. Let me try to explain why.

    Well, I guess that depends on what Jim Manzi means by “demonstrates”. But from the looks of things, it seems that Manzi has written a really long post explaining about something that Mr. Coyne did not say in the first place!

  11. Thanks for the detailed comments. I will put up a point-by-point response, but a few quick points, mostly related to the comments here.

    1. I’m not the Jim Manzi who was involved in Lotus. I actually started a software company in my spare bedroom, and then built it. In fact, I went back to the documentation that I wrote for a genetic algorithm module when I pseudocoded in the very early days of the company in order to double-check my step sequence for the post.

    2. I think what you’ll see if yu read my original post from front to back (in spite of its “tedium”), that I never argued for (i) a God, (ii) a divine plan or (iii) anything else like that. I made a very specific claim that evolution doesn’t entail atheism, that is, that Darwin doesn’t answer any of these questions for us one way or the other. I don’t think that this was my claim is ambiguous, and I went out of my way to make this as clear as possible. Read the post for yourself and decide.

    3. Nothing I wrote is code for any crank kind of creationsim, or ID or any of that BS. I described the Modern Synthesis in the post as a paradigm of “stupendous beauty and power” (from memory). I’ve attacked these ideas directly in front of audiences that don’t always want to hear it. Read my review of the movie Expelled for national Review.

    4. I don’t think the local optimzation critique holds up very well. In the simplest case as the mutation rate goes form 1/10,000 to 10,000/10,000, you would go from a greedy seacrh to a truly random search, and would never be trapped in a local optimum (though you would take a long, long time to find any decent solution). In fact, the point of a GA is that it can search a space of incredible complexity (including lots of local optima traps) without any assumptions about the structure of the space, and home in on a good solution. The same goes for the varying optima critique, or the hidden-from-the-point-of-view-of-the-organism otpima critique, as I tried to address in the post.

    5. I don’t think the various “OK, if it is God doing this this then why do children suffer / animals of type X have this imperfection / whatever?” hold water either. The obvious answer is that I have no idea. Our inability to understand a purported God doesn’t really show much other than we don’t understand it. It certainly is not a question answerable by evolutionary biology.

    Best regards,
    Jim “the Flea” Manzi

    1. Jim
      Regarding number five.
      The point is not that children suffering proves that evolution could not possibly be part of any Gods plan. The point is that animal suffering (which includes human suffering) is part and parcel with the evolution of life on this planet, and so if God chose evolution for some purpose he chose extreme suffering over any other method he might have used to achieve that purpose. This says something to us about what any potential God may be. You say you have no idea, I think you confuse having no idea with not knowing something with 100% certainty. If evolution is part of Gods plan than our knowledge of the realities of evolution can tell us something about the nature of God. This knowledge will of course be provisional, and new evidence could certainly come in. We could find out that evolution is in fact working for a purpose so great that all the suffering turns out to be completely worth it. As of now however there is ZERO evidence for this proposition. There is a massive amount of evidence for evolution being an unguided, goal-less process that requires suffering and death on a massive scale in order to proceed as it does today. The problem isn’t that you don’t understand it, the problem is that your not even making an attempt to infer based on the available evidence. There is no evidence in the universe that can tell you that you have accounted for every fact in existence however. You can always hide behind the provisional nature of scientific claims and say that, well perhaps someday evidence some purpose will arise. Based on the current evidence however any God whose plan includes evolution as a tool is pure evil on a scale that my mind can barely comprehend. Pitiless indifference simply fits the available evidence, whether it is the pitiless indifference of God or the universe. Postulating God is simply useless at this point because that is a God whose sole purpose is to hide from us as best he can. Now I cannot say that with 100% certainty, there may well be a massive body of evidence that counters this just waiting to be discovered, and it may exist but just never be discovered. For now however I am content to work with the available evidence, and frankly, I am not holding my breath.

      1. I misused the word knowledge a few times in there by the way. When I say knowledge I am referring (as I think I made clear) to provision belief.

    2. Jim, I went back and read your blog post after reading your thoughtful post here. Huge, huge disappointment, sorry. On and on using arguments from computer programs as if they are decent substitutes for understanding evolution.

      The “arguments from computer programming” are weak on all sides. Sure, there might be an end in sight – the apex of god’s design…personally, I think it is the platypus. Show that I’m wrong. What evidence is there that says it is humans? Which is why the argument is useless.

      Evolution doesn’t show that God is a figment of people’s imagination, only perpetuated by getting them young enough they don’t question some of the crazier parts. However, there is little coincidence that those that understand how science and evolution actually works think religion is BS.

      I fail to see what philosophy really offers to the argument, certainly not evidence.

      1. Dr. J:

        Thanks for reading it, and the compliment.

        There is no evidence (that I know of) that humans are the purpose of evolution, or vene that there is a purpose. My claim is far narrower: that the evolutionary process is not inherently – as is often claimed – goalless.

        I have a detailed response up to Professor Coyne’s reply to me up at The Daily Dish

        best regards,

    3. @ Jim Manzi:

      I don’t think the local optimzation critique holds up very well.

      Well, since I made some such criticism:

      You are still assuming the unproven fact that evolution searches for optima, because your GA does. But evolution has several mechanisms and contingent states, a few of which I described (frozen accidents, selection).

      All what evolution needs to continue is that a now surviving population changes into a future surviving population. Maximums as examples of “goals” is for you to prove.

      I don’t think the various “OK, if it is God doing this this then why do children suffer / animals of type X have this imperfection / whatever?” hold water either.

      This could be construed as your answer to my comment on multiple and shifting “goals”. So I must answer this as well:

      What you are saying is that you can’t predict a “goal” such as that floresiensis apparently was “goalier” than erectus. You can’t show anyone that a “goal” exists despite claiming that it does, or test it. This is not a scientific argument, but it is yielding to it as we at least know these purported “goals” have changed and will continue to change.

      In fact, it is the same throwing up of hands and stopping questions that religion always wants to see. This is “belief in belief”.

      After the OBs, I will throw in these for free:

      I made a very specific claim that evolution doesn’t entail atheism,

      It trivially entails atheism in the sense Coyne mentioned, within the process of evolution there isn’t any gap for theism, and only a “random deism” can by such an observation by pure chance coincide with the result.

      This comes from that we know beyond reasonable doubt from tests that theories based on natural mechanisms predicts observations. Parsimony throws out agency, and you can’t put it back and still get scientific facts and theories.

      with evolution suffering is inherent

      No, suffering is inherent with minds, and minds is likely just another contingency.

      For example, many biologists AFAIU think that multicellular organisms and/or mindful brains are rare contingencies. The universe is then likely filled with planets were evolution takes place in unicellular organisms without any suffering whatsoever.

      Even in our biosphere suffering is rare. This makes evolution not bear suffering, but an unsufferable bore.

      To claim that suffering is “inherent” is to argue purpose and meaning where neither exist.

      1. Some format errors.

        “throws out agency” – throws out unnecessary agency. (And while I’m at it, the reason you can’t put it back is because it isn’t testable.)

        “This makes evolution” should go after the comment on other planets. Here evolution is exciting enough! 😀

    4. “4. I don’t think the local optimzation critique holds up very well.”

      OK, if you are saying that evolution does NOT primarily optimize for local conditions, then please explain WHY ARE THERE STILL MONKEYS?

  12. I don’t think the various “OK, if it is God doing this this then why do children suffer / animals of type X have this imperfection / whatever?” hold water either. The obvious answer is that I have no idea. Our inability to understand a purported God doesn’t really show much other than we don’t understand it.

    The issue isn’t whether we understand the purported “it” or not, it’s why people insist that it’s a good compassionate loving god and why we should believe that and why we should be expected to worship such a god. Saying we don’t understand it (and leaving it at that) just evades the issue. If as far as we’re concerned it’s a sadist, then what more do we need to understand? If it all turns out to be ice cream later on, that will be time enough to do the worshipping.

    1. And a second time Ophelia says it more succinctly and effectively than I could. I guess that’s what I get for skipping out on english class.

  13. Neil / Ophelia:

    Thanks for the thoughtful replies.

    I’m not about to take on the general problem of how a benevolent God could allow evil, but I assume you agree that this basic problem existed (and troubled people) before Darwin was born. Yes, I get that with evolution suffering is inherent, but I think (1) it’s as easy to argue that it’s inherent to nature prior to our understanding of evolution (and many people argued this as far back, at least, as Athens), and (2) the existence of such suffering in a universe purportedly controlled by a benificient and omnipotent God creates the logical problem for belief, independent of its “inherentness” in a specific physcial process.

    So, once again, my argument (I think clearly stated in the post) was that accepting evolution does not mean that we must logically rule out a divine plan. I also don’t mean this is some silly “anything’s possible” way either. The reason I went through the tedium of the genetic algortihm example was obviously not to instruct professor Coyne in the basics of genetics, but to allow the public argument to proceed at a less abstract level than “evolution is random and therefore undirected”, and instead be more concrete about why the evolutionary process could be incomprehensively complex form a human perspective, yet still plausibly goal-directed.


    1. What has the timing of the existence of a problem in relation to Darwin’s discovery of evolution have anything to do with anything?

      …and instead be more concrete about why the evolutionary process could be incomprehensively[incomprehensibly?] complex form[sic-from] a human perspective, yet still plausibly goal-directed.

      You clearly do not understand the definition of evolution by natural selection if you think it could ever possibly be goal directed.

    2. Yes, we don’t need to “logically” rule out a divine plan. It is just that evolution, as it is currently understood, is evidence against any divine plan that assumes God is anything but indifferent. In fact I take back what I said about Gods plan seeming to be an evil one because there are many beautiful symbiotic relationships in evolution. Indifference is the word I would use.
      The phrase “as it is currently understood” is key to my argument. Again ruling it out on logical grounds was never the goal. I agree that our minds COULD be incapable of discerning the divine plan inherent to evolution. I agree that there COULD be facts about evolution that reveal to us the divine plan inherent in it. This however is speculation. Unfortunately we are stuck with the facts and the minds that we have and I maintain that the best explanation for those facts that we have is pitiless indifference. I would agree that this problem existed before Darwin. Evolution is just one out of the many pieces of evidence to be found that display this type of indifference. Some may believe in the God of indifference but it is only in the absence of evidence against it, not presence of evidence for it. In fact this God has been defined specifically for this purpose. As of now the universe does not appear to be for us or against us. I find the most parsimonious explanation for this to be naturalism. Deism is logically consistent but incredibly extravagant and lacking in evidence. Until this evidence comes up I am content to apply Occam’s Razor to the issue.

      I’m running long again so I’ll make this point as succinctly as I can. It is worth noting that there is a whole boatload of evidence that supports this indifference to us and our desires. The size of the universe and our indistinct place in it. The age of the universe and our relatively short duration as a species. The likelyhood that we will die with our sun. The inevitable fact that we will die when protons begin to decay.
      With all of this it does not seem likely that if there were indeed a divine plan (which was not to hide the existence of itself) that there would be just a few pieces of evidence for it. There would likely be lots of evidence for it. It seems as though we would have come across SOME of it by now.
      This argument is less solid than the others, it just seems a little fishy.

    3. “my argument […] was that accepting evolution does not mean that we must logically rule out a divine plan.”

      Rule out completely and absolutely in any way, shape or form? No. But if we do come to terms with scientific fact we can say that either there is no plan or it’s a very messy plan that’s not at all obvious or with any discernible goal.

  14. The argument about genetic algorithm goes like this: since lots of GA simulations have predefined goals, and since GAs behave like evolution in many ways, it follows that evolution might also have a goal.

    The problem I have about that is most, if any, of the GAs with predefine goals DO NOT behave like evolution. A typical GA simulation takes sometimes to explore the fitness function, and then it either settles down to some local minima (yes, I know that you shouldn’t get trapped too easily but they do) or it reaches the optimal fitness. You never see the richness of any branch of the evolution tree in GA simulations, and after while GAs simply STOP evolving. That is why biologists don’t spend much of their time on GAs. It’s because they are boring and do not resemble evolution except for the most trivial sense of the world.

    1. Well, GA are not used as an detailed simulation of evolving life. They are used as counterexamples to concrete claims like “a watch has to be made by a watchmaker, therefore god made life”. They just prove that complexity can be reached without direction.

      But what GAs really do is to solve computational problems using the same strategy as dog breeders. You can find them in lots of different problems concerning optimization. So they’re not boring -they’re useful and interesting tools.

      Yeah I’m a computer scientist and I work on GAs… and I felt like you were hurting my cute little evolving algorithms… sorry. lol.

      1. Sorry Jose. I had some experience with GAs and I do appreciate their value. They are certainly not “boring” as in “who cares” but in the sense that they never show the kind of open-endedness and creativity you find in evolution. I haven’t been catching up with GA research. I have a question. Jerry’s book (as well as Dawkins’ new book) explains how speciation is usually associated with separation of genetic pools. When a species is trapped in an isolated environment, speciation is accelerated, which is why the greatest biodiversity is typically found in islands. Do people use this property in GA simulation, either to model speciation or as a practical strategy to escape from local minima? Thanx.

  15. Here’s a comment I mailed to the Dish. I doubt it will be posted. But if Manzi sees it here, maybe there will be a worthwhile discussion:

    Jim Manzi, in order to into dip his toe into the theism/atheism question as a Dish blogger, begins by misrepresenting Coyne. When Manzi was called out on it by astute Dish readers, he bizarrely repeats that misrepresentation using Coyne’s very own words which rebutted his flawed perspective before he even voiced it! To wit, Manzi claims that Jerry says the following:

    “that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe”

    When in fact Coyne wrote the following:

    “[Darwin, in the Origin, demolished] the comforting notion that we are unique among all species—the supreme object of God’s creation…”

    He then claims that the two statements are the same. Manzi is either being disingenuous or dense. We scientists may not be able to say anything about a shy and very powerful god who conspired to make the world as we see it, but we certainly can say what we see in the observable world. And what we see is that man is not particularly unique in biological terms. And any evidence that man, squid, or beetle is the supreme object of god’s creation is not forthcoming. Furthermore, any argument grounded in science that seeks to place man as the supreme object of god’s creation is no more compelling than an argument that seeks to place squid as the supreme object of god’s creation.

    Jim Manzi’s forays into the theism/atheism question follow an all too familiar pattern, roughly stated as: “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit”. This tactic is common, and the rationally minded who are godless are often confronted with this tactic. To let his latest post stand without an explicit acknowledgment of this is to imply that we godless are at a loss for words to this trite and sophistic line of argumentation. Specifically, the “bullshit” that Manzi is baffling readers with is the notion that Coyne (or atheists more generally) is committed to the philosophical proposition that the presence of a divine plan is a sufficiently well-formed concept that is worth rebutting in the first place. The readers of the Dish who may be on the fence regarding questions of theism/atheism should not baffled with such bullshit.

      1. Then please describe how you support the following:

        “[Jerry claims] that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe”

        IS EQUAL TO

        “[Jerry claims that Darwin, in the Origin, demolished] the comforting notion that we are unique among all species—the supreme object of God’s creation…”

        I say they are not remotely similar, for reasons I intimate above. First, Jerry’s statement made no claims about a general divine plan for the entire universe, only for how special humans are in it.

        Second, far from rejecting the possibility that there is a special plan for humans, Jerry claims that the Origin shows that all life (man included) are products of evolution, and as such no one species shows evidence for being privileged above others, and any divine plan would have to be compatible with this observation. Full stop.

        If you can’t engage with the obvious and plain language used and insist on misrepresenting the arguments of your interlocutors, then you deserve the derision that Jerry has heaped upon you. Really, the issues are quite clear and they aren’t very subtle or complicated. The failing is yours. Your prose is obfuscated and your arguments are disingenuous.

        But I suppose since you’ve gotten your perspective trumpeted by the largest single-person political blog in the world, you won’t care about intellectual honesty, and will leave the issue unargued. Yes, that was a gauntlet being dropped at your heel as you retreat. I dare you to pick it up.

      2. I note an error in my prose:

        “Second, far from rejecting the possibility that there is a special plan for humans,”

        Should have been:

        “Second, far from rejecting the possibility that there is a special plan,”

        The “for humans” clause was not supposed to be there.

  16. What irritates me the most about arguments like Manzi’s is when the argument runs along the lines that “science’s understanding is inconclusive, therefore it’s a philosophical issue, therefore the theological explanation is as likely as any other.” That’s just false. There are philosophical implications from the science even if they are not scientifically settleable.

    A natural selection process is entirely roundabout. If there were a perfect God whose highest purpose for his creation was to create human beings then why make a billions of years long process to create them? If there were a perfect God perfectly designing why use as inefficient a process as natural selection which not only takes billions of years but generates organisms just fit more for survival in particular environments and not maximally designed for optimal functioning. With respect to our cognitive powers, why make their brains commonly and predictably susceptible to certain errors of judgment that do not hinder our survival but do hinder our abilities to reason optimally well?

    In short, if you posit a benevolent, perfectly creating God then that thesis is philosophically assessable. It’s not testable in a scientific laboratory but we can take what we know from science, what the philosophical implications of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God with the purpose of designing excellent human beings are and go and assess, does the world science explicates for us corroborate that account or not.

    Philosophically it is incoherent to say that a God primarily interested in engaging human beings would take billions of years to create us. Philosophically it is incoherent to take think a God who understood the human excellence of reason would develop our brains through a natural selection process that preferred minds prone to some regular cognitive errors over minds that readily reasoned perfectly. If terms like omnibenevolent and omnipotent and rationality, etc. have any meanings whatsoever they should be able to give us rational expectations if they are true and we can philosophically assess the world to see if it fits those specifications. And when the world does not fit them, we are perfectly entitled to draw a philosophical conclusion that the world science explicates is not one created by an omnibenevolent, omnipotent God. Period, case closed. Even though we had to employ some philosophy and not just science to come to that conclusion. A question not being settleable by science alone does not mean that religious answers cannot still be refuted by logical, philosophical inferences.

    And when as a last resort you start claiming “mystery” about what omnibenevolence and omnipotence imply and you prove you’re disingenuous about saying these are philosophical questions. Philosophy does not involve just changing definitions or claiming that we do not understand how they mysteriously fit when they rule out a pet theory we hold for emotional (or otherwise religious) reasons. Omnibenevolence and omnipotence are eminently understandable concepts. They don’t fit with the world we observe. Only an interest in rationalizing on behalf of religion leads to evasion of these conclusions.

    So, yes, philosophy comes in to draw conclusions that are not scientific and empirical. But philosophy emphatically does not support the Christian account of the world and attempts to save that account of the world with appeals to mystery are not recognitions of the limits of science and the need for philosophy but attempts to avoid BOTH philosophy and science and their implications altogether.

  17. 5. I don’t think the various “OK, if it is God doing this this then why do children suffer / animals of type X have this imperfection / whatever?” hold water either. The obvious answer is that I have no idea. Our inability to understand a purported God doesn’t really show much other than we don’t understand it. It certainly is not a question answerable by evolutionary biology.

    Our inability to understand a purported God doesn’t stop us from making the assumed conclusion in your point No. 5 that God is doing this, because… why?

    What is the reason that we don’t understand why God did things the way God did them, but we do understand that God did them?

    I’m calling “bullshit” on that, like J.J.E. says.

  18. And the answer to this claim hasn’t changed for decades: why is God any more an “uncaused cause” than is the universe, or the “physical laws” themselves?

    It is a logically (necessary and :-D) sufficient answer, but it is theological. An interesting question is if physics answers are informative here, despite that we don’t know much yet.

    I had to ruminate on this over night, but I now believe they do. I’ll take a method from biology, as I understand it, namely using possible pathways as tests. Namely, when a phylogenetic study in biology results in a small set of possible paths, it tests our understanding of evolution but also evolution itself. If fossils were indisputably out of order, no nesting of traits, the theory fails.

    The same method can be applied to abiogenesis. Of course there is uncertainty if the same mechanisms works throughout – in one end we have ubiquitous synthesis of complex organics and in the other evolution. But the idea, as I get it, is that by showing possible paths we still test that natural processes will make an explanation, albeit we will still be murky on the specifics.

    Equally here, we only need to show a possible path. Victor Stenger in his book “God – the failed hypothesis” shows one such. IIRC his model, he starts by pointing out that symmetry breaking results in physical laws. Further, a symmetry breaking revert from “freezing out” as we go back in time. Clearly then a possible initial condition was the maximum symmetry state.

    The maximum symmetry state can be identified with “nothing”, as it is without specific laws. The reason that “nothing” eventually goes to “something” is trivial, symmetry states are observed to be unstable. If then quantum mechanics was an initial process “law”, which is highly likely since it is the most basic we have observed, we are home free.

    Then fluctuations will eventually result in volumes that “freeze out” symmetries and thus further laws. Some lawful regions may expand, some may contract, but eventually further fluctuations will make a large enough volume low enough for chaotic inflation to start. This can of course eventually result in the universe we all know and love. An uncaused cause of physical laws and everything from nothing at all, QED.

    [[[This was very much a bottom-up perspective, at least as much as we can do today. From a top-down perspective cosmologist Sean Carroll criticizes the very idea of “nothing” in the first place. IIRC he claims that it isn’t part of a studied distribution, and remains to be shown.

    I think that is a mistaken claim, since possible cosmologies constitutes a class and not a measurable distribution on their characteristics.

    For example, varying vacuum energy will result in cosmologies that goes from open over plane to closed, in the same way that varying the angle sum in a triangle results in different types of geometries. And these cosmologies will have different physics characteristics from their different geometries, just as hyperbolic differential equations (DE) permits waves but not other types of DEs.

    For another example, consider varying the large dimensions. As we go up, we will go from zero possible geometries where physics works over a qualitatively different infinite set (3 D, IIRC) to finite sets.

    Not being part of a distribution means that a construct such as “nothing” can’t be handled by frequentist statistics as of now. (A problem it very much shares with other cosmologies such as chaotic inflation.) But it is amenable for use in priors in bayesian models. Paths containing it can then in principle be a posteriori tested, just as we may want to one day test abiogenesis models for the best contender.]]]

    1. The reason that “nothing” eventually goes to “something” is trivial, symmetry states are observed to be unstable. If then quantum mechanics was an initial process “law”, which is highly likely since it is the most basic we have observed, we are home free.

      As inane as the Uncaused Cause Argument is, I think attacking it from existing physics misses the entire point — what, for example, “caused” quantum mechanics? It does no good to say that physical laws tell us why there is something rather than nothing, because those laws themselves are “something”.

      I think a better response to this kind of argument is that postulating some sort of being doesn’t answer the question of uncaused causes.

      1. I agree entirely. My point vis-a-vis evolution and “first cause” was pretty narrow – that evolution through natural selection does not resolve it.

      2. But Jim, nobody says evolution resolves it! You might as well pick on any topic, not just natural selection, to complain that it doesn’t answer the uncaused cause “argument”.

        Why on earth did you pick evolution, natural selection, and Jerry Coyne’s piece in particular? As I have pointed out twice now, your argument relies on something Jerry didn’t say: Jerry didn’t say that science could falsify an arbitrarily powerful god or preclude her (it?) from having a plan that was contrived to look like it (the god) didn’t exist, or any such nonsense. You keep asserting that you caught Jerry (as many people do for Dawkins) in a philosophical no-no. You did no such thing and your repeated assertions to the contrary are not compelling. You can declare yourself victor by fiat. But I have challenged one of your central premises, and that challenge has gone unanswered for multiple rounds of discourse now. Under formal debate rules, you have conceded those points.

  19. And exactly how ‘divine’ is the evolution-driven plan that requires several versions of world-wide cataclysmic annihilation in order to produce humans?

    Surely Zeus would get it right the first time?

  20. I take Manzi at face value when he says that his goal is not to support theism, let alone Christian theism, but largely to assert two logical points. The first is that evolution by natural selection is consistent with being goal-directed. The second is that while evolution by natural selection doesn’t provide evidence for God, it doesn’t rule out — demolish — the possibility of a God, a First Cause. That is, a First Cause God is “consitent with” natural selection. I am stating in my own words what I got from his few thousand words on the topic. I think he overstates the implications of his points, even when they are charitably interpreted.

    He uses the example of GAs to make his point about natural selection and goal-directedness. GAs are computational implementations of a subset of the mechanism of evolution. He says GAs are goal-directed because they operate to maximize the fitness function, i.e., the GA application searches in the design space for a design that optimizes the fitness function. Of course, the GA builder chose the fitness function and the design space to search for an object of a certain sort. The flaw in Manzi’s argument is that certain mechanisms of nature can be used by human engineers in a goal-directed way without those mechanisms in nature being goal-directed. Designers of artificial satellites use the mechanisms described by Newton’s Laws and gravitation to make the satellites orbit the earth. As designed objects, the satellites have the function — intended purpose — to orbit the earth. But that doesn’t mean that the moon has the function — purpose — to orbit the earth. More generally, one way to solve the equations of mechanics is to treat the system as a whole as minimizing their Hamiltonian. It would be odd to say that this optimization talk is “consistent with” the underlying system being goal-directed. Technically it is true that an Alpha Centaurian, looking at an artificial satellite and the moon through her long distance telescope, cannot rule out (based on the motions alone) either or both of them being purposive. In that sense Manzi is right that purposiveness of evolutionary mechanisms cannot be ruled out. But that is a very weak claim. If Manzi thinks that the “one cannot rule out goal-directedness of evolution” is an important claim, he should be willing to tell the phycisists with equal fervor that the purposiveness of the Moon cannot be ruled out. I would like to direct him in that case to the “intelligent falling” theory (

    His second point is an equally weak logical point. Yes, of course, Darwin’s theory doesn’t disprove a First Cause that sets in motion the mechanisms of evolution. In that sense, Darwin’s theory is “consistent with” a First Cause God. This is the reed — many of us think it is a pretty slender one — on which theists who don’t want a repeat of Galileo depend, to make their peace with Darwin. Fine, if that is all he is saying. It is not especially original. If he wants to make the logical point that Darwin’s theory — or science in general — doesn’t disprove a First Cause God, he needs to acknowledge the logical point that such a God is strictly a Fifth Wheel kind of God. There is no need for such a God.

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