The pathetic Michael Egnor thinks the existence of stuff proves God

April 12, 2021 • 2:00 pm

I have mixed feelings toward pediatric neurosurgeon, Catholic, and intelligent-design (ID) advocate Michael Egnor. I feel sorry for him because his ID activity is simply a waste of time, much of it spent attacking atheism (mine!) rather than advancing evidence for intelligent design. Where is the evidence for ID that was supposed to convince us all about a decade ago? Egnor’s given up on that endeavor to engage in invective towards evolutionists and atheists, thinking that denigrating scientists will help his cause. It hasn’t. For that’s simply an ad hominem tactic that will convince nobody who hasn’t already drunk the Kool-Aid (or the communion wine). My other feeling is that I deeply dislike the guy because he’s simply nasty. Acceptance of ID has declined since it first surfaces a few decades ago, and teaching it in schools has been ruled a “religious activity” that violates the First Amendment.

You can see evidence of the man’s egnorance and incivility in Egnor’s latest piece at the ID site Mind Matters News (click on screenshot).  Here he argues, as the title says, that evidence for God (which God? he doesn’t say) is scientific: in fact, more scientific than any other proposition. However, Egnor’s “scientific argument” consists of mounting Aquinas’s broken-down old Nag: the First Cause Argument. To summarize, Egnor’s entire argument for God is this: “the existence of stuff proves God.” That’s truly pathetic.  First Cause arguments for God have been made for centuries, but also found unconvincing for centuries.

First, Egnor shows how offended he was by my critique of a Mormon’s claim that “we can have God and vaccines, too, ergo science and religion are compatible”.  According to Egnor, I am benighted on both the scientific and religious front:

Atheist evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne is a fountain of nonsensical arguments against the existence of God. If a scholar wanted to write a review paper on the most ridiculous arguments against God’s existence so far in the 21st century, he would need look no further than Coyne’s blog. . .

Coyne misunderstands both the nature of scientific evidence and the nature of the evidence for God’s existence.

And by my writings I have done “incalculable damage” to the world:

The real scandal is not that these New Atheists don’t believe in God — regrettably, disbelief in God is fairly common in our willfully ignorant and distracted society. The real scandal is that intellectuals like Coyne merely pretend to understand evidence for and against God’s existence. They use their scientific credibility to buttress arguments that are embarrassingly ignorant. They mislead many people who have neither the time nor the inclination to look into these questions deeply and objectively.

Their forays into issues like faith and science in fighting COVID-19 do incalculable damage to so many souls by denying the scientific fact that God exists. God’s existence is far more thoroughly proven using the scientific method than any other theory.

Has somebody not gotten their jab because of me? I seriously doubt it. And look at that last sentence! God’s existence is more thoroughly proven via science than any other theory!

How can I have gone so wrong? Well, first, says the benighted physician, I don’t understand how science works:

. . . as Thomas Aquinas. pointed out in the 13th century, nothing can be proven to exist using deductive proof because deductive proofs only work with logical forms, which are essences. Essence and existence are separate concepts. For example, to prove that wolves, dinosaurs, or unicorns exist, we would need evidence. We can’t prove (or disprove) that they exist by deduction alone.

All of science depends on inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning begins with evidence and then proceeds by a logical chain to the most reasonable conclusion. Newton used inductive reasoning when he began by studying the motion of objects in gravitational fields and applying logical and mathematical rules to arrive at his law of gravitation. Darwin used inductive reasoning by studying the diversity and distribution of species and animal breeding. Then, by using logical rules, he drew analogies to speciation in nature. All scientific theories, whatever their merit, depend on inductive reasoning.

Yes, but much of science also depends on deductive reasoning, or a combination of the two called “abductive reasoning.” In fact, a lot of modern physics began as deductive processes based almost entirely on rumination. The General Theory of Relativity is such a theory. Of course to verify a theory like that one needs evidence, but that evidence can also come from deductions from a theory. One could predict, for example, that if gravity can bend light, as Einstein posited, then light from a star passing by a big celestial body might curve in its path, giving us a false idea of the star’s real position. This is a deduction, and was verified in 1919 by Dyson and Eddington, who observed the position of stars during a solar eclipse, showing starlight bent, as predicted, by the Sun. Their result has been verified several times over.

But never mind. Had my understanding of the scientific method been so terrible, I never would have had a successful career in science, for my papers would never have been accepted and published.

But my theological misunderstanding, says Egnor, is even lamer: for I can’t grasp that the very existence of stuff around me is evidence for God. That’s what Aquinas’ First Cause argument says: “Everything has a cause; there was a cause for stuff; and all causes eventually regress to the First Uncaused Cause, which is God by definition.” To Egnor, this piece of logic is absolutely convincing:

The Big Bang, to take an example, was not an event in the natural world. It was a singularity, which means that it is undefined and undefinable both mathematically and in conventional physics. Similarly, a cosmological singularity — for example, a black hole — is also a supernatural entity. That just means it is outside of nature. We never observe black holes just as we never can observe the Big Bang. We can only infer — by inductive reasoning — the existence of supernatural entities such as black holes by their effects in the natural world.

This inductive reasoning is precisely what proofs of God’s existence do. We cannot observe God in this life because he is not part of this world. He is supernatural. But we can observe his effects in the natural world just as we inferred the existence of the Big Bang and black holes by observing their effects. It is the same sort of reasoning.

I’ll put the next bit in bold because it’s so stupid:

There is one difference though: the evidence and the logic pointing to God’s existence is overwhelmingly stronger than the evidence and logic supporting any other scientific theory in nature. Aquinas’s First Way proof of God’s existence, for example, has exactly the same structure as any other scientific theory. The empirical evidence is the presence of change in nature. Because infinite regress is logically impossible in an essentially ordered chain of change.

I’m not going to get into the claim that the existence of black holes and the Big Bang are “supernatural” entities.  In fact, we can observe the residua of the Big Bang (leftover microwave radiation pervading the Universe), and there are theories that it is not supernatural: a totally empty universe is physically unstable and the Big Bang is a naturalistic result of that. Further, we can see black holes directly: here’s a picture of one taken with radio waves (and color visualized) just two years ago. The “black hole” or event threshhold is visible in the center. Is it supernatural? Don’t make me laugh.

As for the black holes in the First Cause argument (also called the Cosmological Argument), I needn’t reiterate them; just go here or here for a quick overview. One of the objections is that even if there were a First Cause, it wouldn’t have to be a theistic God, i.e., the God who, according to Egnor, continues to interact with the world, even becoming a wafer during Mass.

I’ve wasted enough time on Egnor, for I’m actually giving him what he wants: publicity and attention. While he continues to attack me on the ID websites, I’ll leave the bugger alone except to point out that his own faith—Catholicism—has been and continues to be one of the chief religious vehicles for immorality and harm in the world.

Egnor thinks he has an airtight argument for God (he doesn’t), but he has no argument at all for his Catholic God.  Will he wave the Bible at me to prove that? Then I’ll wave the Quran back at him. What else can you say about a man who thinks that this is a scientific argument:

The evidence and the logic of Aquinas’s First Way is immeasurably stronger than the evidence for any other scientific theory — for Newtonian gravitation, quantum mechanics, relativity, the Big Bang, etc., because every instance of change in nature is evidence in Aquinas’s First Way. Every galaxy that emits light, every wave on the ocean, every leaf that turns brown in the fall, every electron that moves in an atom is evidence for God’s existence.

Arkansas going bonkers: passes illegal abortion ban, proposes illegal bill to teach creationism

March 12, 2021 • 9:30 am

I don’t know what’s going on in Arkansas, but they’ve signed one illegal abortion bill into law this week, and the legislature will consider a bill to teach straight creationism (no, not Intelligent Design [ID] and not “scientific creationism) in public schools. These bills are clearly meant to test Roe v. Wade —and the validity of teaching the Bible as science—in the new, extra-conservative Supreme Court.

As you may recall, Roe v. Wade started in Texas, where Norma McCorvey (“Roe”) brought suit against the state for its law prohibiting all abortions except those to save the mother’s life. The case was appealed up to the Supreme Court, where a 7-judge majority ruled that abortion could not be completely prohibited, striking down the Texas law. (McCorvey gave birth before the Supreme Court ruled, and put the baby up for adoption.)

You may also remember that the legality of abortion depended on the trimester. As Wikipedia notes:

The Court settled on the three trimesters of pregnancy as the framework to resolve the problem. During the first trimester, when it was believed that the procedure was safer than childbirth, the Court ruled that the government could place no restriction on a woman’s ability to choose to abort a pregnancy other than minimal medical safeguards such as requiring a licensed physician to perform the procedure. From the second trimester on, the Court ruled that evidence of increasing risks to the mother’s health gave the state a compelling interest, and that it could enact medical regulations on the procedure so long as they were reasonable and “narrowly tailored” to protecting mothers’ health. Since the beginning of the third trimester was normally considered to be the point at which a fetus became viable under the level of medical science available in the early 1970s, the Court ruled that during the third trimester the state had a compelling interest in protecting prenatal life, and could legally prohibit all abortions except where necessary to protect the mother’s life or health.

Well, Arkansas has passed a law identical to the Texas law that was declared unconstitutional. The governor signed it on Tuesday. There are no exceptions for rape or incest.

Click on the screenshot to read the CNN report.

An excerpt:

Arkansas on Tuesday became the first state in 2021 to enact a near-total abortion ban — a bold step by abortion opponents seeking to renew challenges to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure nationally.

The court, which now leans conservative, has shown it is open to considering abortion restrictions, a perceived opportunity that many anti-abortion advocates have pushed lawmakers to pursue.

The Arkansas bill, SB6, bans providers from performing abortions “except to save the life of a pregnant woman in a medical emergency,” and makes no exceptions for instances of rape, incest or fetal anomalies. Those found to violate the law could face a fine of up to $100,000 and up to 10 years in prison.

“I will sign SB6 because of overwhelming legislative support and my sincere and long-held pro-life convictions,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said in a statement. “SB6 is in contradiction of binding precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is the intent of the legislation to set the stage for the Supreme Court overturning current case law.”

The abortion law is slated to go into effect 91 days after the end of the Arkansas legislative session, which is currently set for May 3, according to Arkansas State Sen. Jason Rapert, who sponsored the Senate bill.

The ACLU and Planned Parenthood plan to challenge the law. Further, Supreme Court already has ample material if it wanted to overrule Roe v. Wade. Perhaps it has no appetite to do so. Can a lawyer weigh in here?

Of the 11 so-called gestational bans — which bar abortions past a certain point in pregnancy — passed since the start of 2019, none have gone into effect after most of them have been blocked by judges. Those include a similar near-total abortion ban passed in Alabama in 2019 and an 18-week bill passed by Arkansas in 2019.

“The Supreme Court has about 20 bills in front of them that they could take up if they wanted to,” said Gloria Pedro, regional manager of public policy and organizing for Arkansas and Oklahoma at Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, the group’s advocacy arm. “So writing a bill that’s the equivalent of a demand letter to SCOTUS, it’s just impractical and a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.”

About the rape and incest inclusion, Senator Jason Rapert, sponsor of the bill, said this: “”How could we look at any human baby and say that they are not worthy of life simply because their birth was a result of a violent act.”

They are not clearly thinking about the mother, who, besides being traumatized by a rape or incestuous act, has to carry its fetal result for nine months.

***************

Now about their regressive creationism. . .

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas has a good article on the history of teaching evolution (or not teaching it) in that state. It turns out that the U.S. government’s legal stand on teaching creationism was largely forged by cases in that state.

The Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) began when a high-school biology teacher, Susan Epperson, sued for the right to teach evolution in her biology class. That was illegal since Arkansas had a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution (this was in 1968!). The state Supreme Court upheld the law, but the Big Supreme Court overturned it on First Amendment grounds. As the encyclopedia notes, “In issuing the majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas noted ‘that the First Amendment does not permit the State to require that teaching and learning must be tailored to the principles or prohibitions of any religious sect or dogma’.”

That brought an end to rules outlawing the teaching of evolution. In another famous it violated the Establishment clause of the First Amendment because “creation science” was not science but religion. I love to quote judge Overton’s final paragraph of that decision:

The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or the minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.

At that time, “scientific creationism” was the confected way to try sneaking religion into the classroom. Later Intelligent Design became an even sneakier way, for it didn’t mention God, only a “designer.” However, Judge John E. Jones III, presiding in a federal district court in Pennsylvania, saw through this ruse, striking down the Dover Area School District’s requirement that ID be taught alongside true evolution. Again, the decision was based on First Amendment grounds, since Jones deemed ID “not science”, but a religious view.

With that long introduction, here’s the very short bill filed yesterday in the Arkansas legislature. It drops the charade of ID and “scientific creationism” and says that a teach may teach creationism if they want:

Under present federal law, this bill is unconstitutional, as it allows teachers to teach a religious view in public school classrooms. It will be struck down, for I can’t imagine that the Supreme Court, conservative though it is, allowing the teaching of Biblical creationism, much less any religious doctrine, in a public school. If the judges somehow see creationism, ID, or “scientific creationism” as “science” worthy to be taught alongside evolution, they are truly ignorant, nay, stupid. 

h/t: Guy

A creationist professor of evolutionary biology in England

March 8, 2021 • 11:30 am

I was surprised to learn that there’s an advocate of Intelligent Design (ID) teaching evolutionary biology in Britain: one Dr. Richard Buggs, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at Queen Mary University in London. Heretofore I hadn’t heard of an ID advocate in a respectable British University.

Apparently Buggs (I’ll refrain from puns) has been pushing ID for some time, viz., in the Guardian article below from 2007. That was already two years after the Dover v. Kitzmiller case, in which a Republican judge ruled that ID was “not science”. The judge saw through the religious nature of ID, which really is a form of creationism because it posits a supernatural designer to get around what are seen by IDers as impossible evolutionary pathways. And, in fact, every advocate of ID or creationism I know of has religious motivations, with the possible exception of the haughty David Berlinski.  Buggs is no exception: he’s a diehard Christian. If ID wasn’t religious in nature, how come every one of its advocates is religious?

I won’t reiterate the 14-year-old article below except to say that Bugg’s claim that ID is a science is wrong. Despite promises of the Discovery Institute, ID has failed as a scientific program, as there is real no way to test it: the discipline consists of pointing out phenomena and then saying, “See, naturalistic evolution couldn’t have done that!” And since we’ll never understand everything, we can always say that God is hiding in the corners.

Two quotes from Buggs:

If Darwin had known what we now know about molecular biology – gigabytes of coded information in DNA, cells rife with tiny machines, the highly specific structures of certain proteins – would he have found his own theory convincing? Randerson thinks that natural selection works fine to explain the origin of molecular machines. But the fact is that we are still unable even to guess Darwinian pathways for the origin of most complex biological structures.

This is the Argument from Ignorance (for God). Yet because Buggs refuses to tell us who the designer is (he thinks it’s the Christian God, of course), he think that makes the ID enterprise scientific:

When a religious person advocates teaching ID in science without identification of the designer, there is no dishonesty or “Trojan horse”, just realism about the limitations of the scientific method.

That’s still the Argument from Ignorance, and comes down to the invocation of a supernatural designer when we don’t understand something. That is a tactic that not only doesn’t advance our understanding, but isn’t itself science. But let’s move on.

Ten years later, at BioLogos (article above), an organization dedicated to selling evolution to evangelical Christians (it’s failed at that), geneticist Dennis Venema took Buggs to task for insisting that the genetic data we have is compatible with the idea that a single breeding pair could be the literal ancestors of all of humanity. (Now where did Buggs get that idea?) Buggs is wrong because, as Venema shows at length, conservative estimates of mutation rates still show us that our species harbors far more genetic variation than would occur if our species went through a bottleneck of two people within the last 10,000 years. In fact, the size of the bottleneck was probably 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, which is NOT TWO (i.e., not Adam and Eve).

But I’ve written about that before, too, so let’s move on.

Dr. Buggs has a new 20-minute video (it came out three days go), and he’s still pushing Christianity and dissing atheism and Darwinism at the same time. His thesis: “Darwinian evolution is simply not sufficient to explain the world and its complexity to an great enough extent to preclude the existence of God.”

He begins by showing that there’s a correlation between intelligence and the level of complexity of a structure, using a snowman he saw (Paley used a watch). Since the human body is infinitely more complex than a snowman, doesn’t that show that there’s intelligence behind it? Well, no, because natural selection acting in Darwinian evolution can create complexity. It is this theory that, said Richard Dawkins (whom Buggs bashes throughout the video), knocked out the props under the only rational explanation for biological complexity: God. By dispelling the need for a supernatural force, said Dawkins, natural selection made it “intellectually respectable to be an atheist.” And Dawkins was right, for there are no other knockdown arguments for theism, and there’s a knockdown argument against it (the existence of natural evil, which can’t be explained by an omnipotent and loving God).

In fact, Buggs explains how natural selection works pretty well using a child’s wooden railroad track, but then gets into his real counterargument ten minutes in. Taking up arguments from Michael Behe, Buggs says that there are features of the biological world that cannot be explained by natural selection, but require enormous amounts of luck. He also asserts that there are adaptations that can’t be built up in a step-by-step fashion, with each step increasing the fitness of the possessor. That was Behe’s argument as well, but at least Behe used biological examples—all of which have been demolished. In contrast, Buggs does not cite a single example of an adaptation or feature that requires us to invoke a supernatural designer. He simply asserts that there are some biochemical features that require maladaptive steps, and “several of them in a row.” I don’t know of any, nor does Buggs cite any.

Now it’s true, as Buggs maintains, that sometimes genetic drift can outweigh natural selection in a population that is sufficiently small, and that can “dismantle” an adaptation in a way that might allow another adaptation to arise that couldn’t have been attained otherwise. But although we have plenty of examples of genetic drift on the molecular level, I know of not a single adaptation that requires the existence of genetic drift to come into being. I may have missed one or two, but they’re certainly not pervasive enough to dismantle Darwinism, Dawkinsism, and to require us to invoke God and Jesus.

Finally, and I won’t go into detail here, Buggs says that the origin of life was extremely improbable, requiring, according to his thesis, TOO MUCH LUCK (ergo, God). But that’s not credible, either. On a planet like ours, life arose within a billion years of its current 4.5-billion-year tenure, showing that when conditions are right, it doesn’t take forever to get life. You could also say, as Dawkins does, that there are gazillions of planets where conditions were right for the origin of life, and we happen to have evolved on one of them. That seems reasonable, but Buggs doesn’t like that argument because it also involves a form of “luck” (18:13) and further, he claims, the Universe isn’t infinitely old and doesn’t have an infinite number of planets, giving Dawkins “a low level of probabilistic resources” to explain the origin of life. This is nonsense. How many suitable planets are there in our Universe, which has been in existence for nearly 14 billion years? Enough to allow, I suspect, lots of life to evolve. “Luck”, taken as a small probability of life evolving, becomes a certainty when there are enough opportunities.

In the end, Buggs argues that Darwin didn’t really make evolution that much more credible, because we still need “huge doses of luck to make all of this work.” Buggs concludes that we need more than evolution, and more than Darwinism, to make atheism credible. We need, I suspect, God and Jesus. Hallelujah!

One gets an impression—not just from this video, but from Buggs’s history of pushing creationism—that he’s not being pushed towards ID by the facts, because a “designer” confirms his pre-existing Christianity. What we see here, I think, is a massive example of confirmation bias.

I’m not calling for Buggs to be fired, of course, because he can say whatever he wants on his own time. But I hope he doesn’t push these arguments in his biology classes. That would be a matter that Queen Mary would have to confront.

A creationist writes in: Eric Hedin resurfaces

March 4, 2021 • 10:15 am

This morning I got the following email, occasioned, I suppose, by the appearance of a new book by Eric Hedin published by the ID creationist outfit The Discovery Institute. The DI is promoting it heavily, as it’s not selling very well; and I haven’t mentioned it, although one of its main topics is the alliance between me and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) in trying to get Hedin to stop teaching intelligent design in a public-university (Ball State) science class. We succeeded, helped by the reporting of Seth Slabaugh at the Muncie (Indiana) Star Press, who pulled no punches about Hedin.

I won’t recount in detail the story of our interactions with Hedin and Ball State, but they took place in 2013. After the FFRF wrote a letter to Ball State warning them about teaching religion in a science class (after all, it was before that, in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, that a federal judge declared that Intelligent Design was “not science”), they deep-sixed Hedin’s course, which was full of religiously-based readings. At no time did any of us call for Hedin to be fired. What we wanted was simply the cessation of teaching a religiously-based idea in a public university classroom. That is not freedom of speech, but a violation of the First Amendment as well as the abnegation of every professor’s duty to teach the subject as it is understood by experts.

Hedin got tenure at Ball State, and I did not oppose that, either. He seemed to be a competent professor in his area (physics and astronomy), and I don’t believe in trying to ruin people’s careers just because they teach one misguided course. Nevertheless, Hedin eventually left Ball State and wound up at a school more attuned to his religiosity: the evangelical Christian Biola University (an abbreviation for its former name: “Bible Institute of Los Angeles.” There he isn’t forced to teach the Satanic topic of evolution. And his new book, which I haven’t read, and won’t, is apparently One Long Kvetch about how he was bullied and canceled by me and the FFRF. It was that incident that nabbed me the Discovery Institute’s 2014 “Censor of the Year” award—one of the proudest achievements of my life.

I asked the author of the email, William Wegert, if I could post it here and include his name, and, to his credit, he said yes, as “It’s part of free inquiry and rationale [sic] dialogue.” Only after I answered him did I look him up and found out why he’s interested in l’affaire Hedin.

Wegert’s email was copied to me and was actually sent to the Provost and President of Ball State University, where Hedin no longer teaches.

Dear President Mearns and Provost Bracken,

I wish to thank Ball State University!  I recently learned of the university’s cancellation of Dr. Eric Hedin’s “Boundaries of Science” course following the intervention of Dr. Jerry Coyne.

After reviewing the information available on the web and from Dr. Hedin’s own words, his popular honors class was an exercise in critical thinking in which students were invited to read the works of materialists as well as those believing that specified complexity might have an intelligent cause.  For any right thinking person, this is what institutions of higher education should be doing, giving students opportunities to consider scientific evidence that lends support to both positions, as well as everything in between.  Apparently, Dr. Coyne and Ball State think otherwise. They must have been fearful of something, but I would not have expected them to share those fears openly.

For what reason?  The First Amendment?   Anyone with a high school understanding of American history knows that such an issue has absolutely nothing to do with our Founders’ concerns in that Amendment.

So looking for another rationale for cancelling the class, let us say the class lacked a scientific basis, at least in the minds of Ball State administrators.  If that is the case, I suggest that those decision-makers have some research to do to get caught up on a plethora of research projects, peer-reviewed articles, and major books coming out of the Intelligent Design movement.  They are quite behind the times, something not becoming to publish-or-perish faculty, wouldn’t you agree?  You see, week-by-week, article-by-article, research project-by-research project, evidence mounts that Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism have both been hung in the balance and found wanting as a tenable explanation of the complexity of life, starting with the genetic code.

The reason I thank you is that I have a popular presentation I make to students and parents around the US and overseas entitled the “Six Surprising Benefits of Attending a Faith-Based University.”  Ball State’s actions in cancelling this course has allowed me to add a seventh benefit!  At faith-based institutions, where I have nearly 40 years of experience, by the way, we provide students with both sides of these kinds of arguments and let them evaluate the evidence for themselves.  There is no fear of where the evidence might lead.  Students are going to be stepping out into the wide world soon enough and will come to their own conclusions anyways.  Why not challenge them in the area of sound critical thinking during the college years?   Dr. Coyne and Ball State give every evidence of being afraid of where that evidence may lead.

So, thanks to your actions, I get to add yet another benefit for attending a faith-based institution.  This kind of fear does not exist at such schools.  Free inquiry is invited and there is no fear of what the students might be exposed to.  Faith-based colleges and universities take seriously the mission of preparing students to think for themselves based on the facts, including results of scientific studies..

Welcome to the Cancel Culture, Gentlemen.  And thank you for enhancing my presentation and giving me a nice Ball State University/University of Chicago case study to present to eager listeners.

William E. Wegert
Monroe, VA

Well, I said my piece above about why professors should not teach intelligent-design as if it were science. For one thing, it’s illegal at state schools. But it also is a lie. It’s as if a European history professor denied the Holocaust in her classroom. I have no objections to creationists speaking at Universities in public lectures, and when one spoke here a few years back, I didn’t try to stop it. But it’s a different matter to teach it in a biology classroom as if it were accepted science.

Wegert’s antepenultimate paragraph about working at a faith-based institution, piqued my interest about who Wegert is. And it didn’t take long to find this on LinkedIn (click on screenshot):

He works at Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Christian Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where evolution IS NOT EVEN TAUGHT! Instead, they teach “Creation Studies“, and not in a way that promotes students’ independent thinking. And it teaches the most ridiculous form of creationism, YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISM, which is a triple lie since it distorts geology and chemistry as well as biology.

Here’s the “purpose” of its teaching of Creation Studies:

Purpose

The purpose of the Center for Creation Studies is to promote the development of a consistent biblical view of origins in our students. The Center seeks to equip students to contend for their faith in the creation account in Genesis using science, reason, and the Scriptures. The minor in Creation Studies provides a flexible program with broad training in various disciplines that relate to origins as well as the Bible. Students in both science or non-science majors will benefit from an in-depth study of creation and evolution.

Really, objective, Mr. Wegert, right? Really an exercise in critical thinking for the poor Liberty University students, right? Nope; it’s lying propaganda to turn biology students into parrots of Genesis 1 and 2.

After I found this out, I wrote back to Wegert saying this:

You failed to mention that you are at Liberty University. Do they teach Darwinian evolution there?
What I see is “Creation studies”.
I suspect you don’t teach Darwinian evolution and “let the students make up their own minds”, do you?
Although Wegert replied within minutes when I asked permission to publish his letter, so far I haven’t gotten an answer to this one.

I invite readers to respond to Mr. Wegert. After all, he’s seeking discourse! Just remember to be polite.

A polite creationist writes in, explaining why evolution can’t work

November 24, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here’s one of the emails I get from creationists, telling me why I’m wrong in saying “Evolution is true.” (Happily, they’re becoming fewer.)

This letter, however, is polite, and about as thoughtful as is possible for a Biblical creationist to be. But it’s also riddled with flaws and misconceptions. I’ve put the email up though I’ve redacted the name of the student. The misspellings and other errors are as they appeared in the email.

I could write REAMS of responses to this email, giving evidence for common ancestry that could not be due to a designer (e.g., similar “dead” genes in similar positions, or genealogies made from neutral DNA sites that match genealogies made from visible characters).  I could talk about predicted transitional forms that have later been found, radiometric dating, and so on.  But I don’t have time.

So once again I’m crowdsourcing. By now most of the readers should be able to point out many of the flaws in the reasoning below. I suggest you pick one assertion and answer it rather than take on the whole email. Or address the student directly (I will send him the link and the comments within a day or two). But above all please be polite. This student, though mired in muddled argument, was polite and thoughtful, and we should be as well. There are of course answers to all of this (including the “moon dust” and “salty sea” arguments), and you could supply the person with some links.

Have at it:

My name is REDACTED.  I am a current college student majoring in zoology.  I hope you are well and healthy in this interesting time.

This year I read your book Why Evolution is True despite being a Christian for all my life and a young-earth creationist for as long as I have thought about the issue.  This was the first full book I have read on the topic from an atheistic/evolutionist stance (though I have read chapters of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and Dawin’s Origin of Species).  I am glad I picked up your book.  Before I can say anything else I must acknowledge that the book is a well-written explanation of evolution and the evidence used to support it.  I admit I was fairly confident in my faith before picking up your book but I’d like to say I did not have a “closed mind” necessarily.  If you are willing to give me a bit of your time I would love to offer a few reasons I still do not accept atheistic humanism as an alternative to my faith in God.  I will start with a couple objections to evolution and then explain why Creationism might explain some of the evidence you present.  Obviously I cannot cover everything you address in your book.

First, my problem with evolution.  I cannot see how natural selection and mutations are enough to explain the evolution of life.  Natural selection, as I understand it, is a process of selecting the fittest of a species.  I would be a fool to deny that natural selection exists or that it can significantly change/improve a species by allowing the fittest to survive and reproduce while killing off the unfit (I am ashamed that there are creationists who do).  But in order to change one kind of animal into another there needs to be, as I understand it, the development of new traits.  How does this happen?  I do not think it can.  To illustrate this problem, let’s say there is a sandcastle building competition.  The judge of the competition decides that only purple sandcastles can win the contest.  Of course, if the competitors can only use sand, water, and a bucket, none of the sandcastles will be purple.  The selection process, then, can’t proceed because the trait being selected doesn’t exist yet.  Now to apply this idea to evolution: I understand how reptiles can evolve into birds if some reptiles have feathers and wings.  But at some point no reptiles had feathers or wings.  How did those desirable traits develop in order to be selected?  Every example of natural selection that is observed in nature involves a trait that already exists in a population.  Take the famous speckled moths.  They didn’t change, they simply died out while the dark moths reproduced.  No new traits developed.  To me, natural selection makes perfect sense.  It is a brilliant theory I give Darwin and Wallace all the credit in the world for discovering.  But in order for evolution to occur, the traits that are selected need to develop.  How does this occur?  I anticipate that the go-to response is mutations.  But beneficial mutations that add a new trait are so rare in nature I am skeptical that they could explain the diversity of life even if given millions of years.  Are there even mutations that we know of that give new traits to an organism that did not exist in the population in any form at all?  Sometimes I feel like “mutations” has become the evolutionist’s version of the “god of the gaps” argument; they explain away evolution’s problems without offering concrete evidence.  Where are the beneficial mutations?  In summary, it takes too much faith for me to accept that the diversity of life can be explained by natural selection, despite the evidence (which I accept!) that natural selection is a very efficient process.  Natural selection is, however, merely a sorting/selection process, not a designer.

Now, here is my explanation of some of the evidence you presented.  I would happily discuss each chapter of your book, but here I will just address the evidence for convergent evolution, homology, and the fossil record.  I think I can explain a lot of the evidence for evolution with this one idea.  Feal free to correct me if I did not do so.

Now, people are designers.  We build and create and produce.  And our creations often have similar designs.  Consider transportation.  People have invented ways to travel across land, sea, and sky.  Our vehicles of transportation vary, but they all have similar elements to them.  Whether it is a plane, car, truck, boat, submarine, or helicopter, it has an engine, a steering wheel, and a way of burning fuel to produce energy.  They all are made of metal and function in a way that allows humans to use them (they have seats, levers, buttons, and other controls).  In other words, they share certain universal features.  This does not mean all these vehicles have a common ancestor.  In this case, it means that they were designed according to the conditions they are meant to exist in.  They vary depending on their “habitat” but they also share similarities because they exist in the same world and perform the same function: transportation.  Knowing this, one could predict that should there be a Creator behind nature, then there would similarly be a variation but also a similarity in design among creation.  Like vehicles, animals inhabit the same planet and so share similar structures like a common bone design in the wing/arm/leg/flipper.  But they inhabit different parts of the world and are thus designed differently (birds have wings, humans arms, horses legs, and whales flippers).  I hope you can see how this could indicate that life was designed by a Creator who had both their universal biosphere and their individual, specific niches in mind.

I find that this is a consistent area in which evolutionists and creationists part was when it comes to interpreting the fossil record.  Evolutionists interpret the evidence with common ancestry in mind, so if you find an extinct species with similarities of two different animal groups, you infer common ancestry, while creationists (having intelligent design in mind) infer a common habitat, or niche, that a Creator specifically designed the creature to inhabit.  Both interpretations require a little faith (since we didn’t see the creature evolve/get created).  Archaeopteryx, for example, was indisputably a reptile with wings.  What if, instead of an extinct evolutionary branch as you proposed in your book (not an ancestor of birds but a relative), “ancient wing” is a creature designed to live on the ground but given the ability to glide to escape enemies?  We see a lot of this in nature (colugos, flying squirrels, etc.).  Instead of convergent evolution, could it be that like our vehicles of locomotion these creatures were designed with intentional similarities because this helps them navigate the world and to thrive better?  I would love to hear your thoughts on why the evidence exclusively supports evolution and leaves no room for a designer.  Thank you.

I’d like to end with a brief challenge.  Every year, the moon collects slightly more dust and moves slightly farther away from earth.  Every year, the oceans get slightly saltier.  If the earth and moon are millions of years old, shouldn’t the moon be much larger than it is today and also way farther from the earth?  And wouldn’t the oceans be more salt than water by now?  Millions of years is an insanely long amount of time.  How is it that we still have a moon and an ocean the way they are?  I hope you don’t see this as an attack but as a genuine question about your interpretation of the evidence we see in the universe.  Thanks for reading!

Once again, your book was very enlightening and left me with a lot to think about, so for that I thank you.  You are a very captivating writer and speaker.  Thanks for your time, and if you do not mind me saying, God bless😊

The Discovery Institute goddies go after determinism again

October 24, 2020 • 11:15 am

Those who claim that hardly anybody believes in “contracausal” free will, in which the human mind alone can affect the body, giving one the ability to make any of several decisions at a single instant of time, forget how deeply embedded contracausal free will is in the Abrahamic religions. After all, if you can’t “freely” choose your religion or your savior, but are at the mercy of the laws of physics, of what use is Heaven or Hell? The whole Christian myth involves your ability to freely choose what to believe.

And if you believe in contracausal free will, then you must reject physical determinism, for physics is the “cause” to which your decision is “contra”. That’s why so many fundamentalist believers reject determinism, and why the creationist Discovery Institute (DI), peopled with true believers, is lately on an anti-determinism kick, going after determinists like me who attribute all behavior and decisions to the laws of physics rather than some immaterial “will” that interacts with matter. (I’m assuming that virtually all the readers here who espouse compatibilism are also determinists.) Since the DI has failed to overturn the teaching of evolution, they’re turning their attention to free will. But their arguments against determinism are no better than their arguments against evolution.

I pretty much ignore the DI’s bloviations on free will, for there’s a religious motivation for their denial of determinism, but when physicist Sabine Hossenfelder made a no-nonsense post and a video arguing that there was no free will because we’re subject to physical law, that was too much for the DI. (See my take on Hossenfelder’s views, with which I pretty much align, here.) The DI, along with many devout believers, absolutely detest that kind of materialism—I call it “naturalism”, but it’s the same thing—and so they’ve been going after both of us. The latest attack came from the DI’s Evolution News site, with a post by David Klinghoffer called “Science as Oracle—where it gets weird“. And they enlisted Cornelius Hunter, DI Fellow, creationist, and adjunct professor at the evangelical Christian school Biola University, to make a 24-minute video going after both Hossenfelder and me. Klinghoffer simply repeats Hunter, so I’ll deal with the video.

Watch and enjoy! I’ll have a few remarks below. But Hunter really should learn how to pronounce my name. It’s not “Cohen” but “Coyne,” pronounced like “coin.”

 

Hunter goes off on all kinds of antievolution tangents in this video, failing to stick to the promised critique of determinism. That’s probably because his critique can be summed up very simply: “There’s no evidence for determinism—it’s just a weird and bizarre pronouncement of scientists like Cohen, and constitutes “scientism.”

And that’s pretty much it. Hunter considers determinism “anti-empirical” because of the supposed lack of evidence for it, and, curiously, argues that it also “demolishes epistemology”. Why? Because there’s no guarantee that the laws of physics acting on humans would guarantee that we’d find the truth (is he referring to Jesus?). Ergo we’re not only determined by the laws of physics to say that we have no free will, making that claim unreliable, but we’re liable to make all kinds of false statements because the laws of physics have no obvious connection to finding truth.

I can rebut both of these claims very briefly.

There’s no evidence for determinism. This claim is absurd. The response is that everything on Earth, and, as far as we can tell, in the solar system, in the Milky Way galaxy, and in Universe, has uniformly obeyed the laws of physics since the Big Bang. That’s not a speculation, but an empirical conclusion (see here for some of the evidence). And if everything we know obeys physical laws (we need confine our observations only to Earth, since that’s where God’s Creatures live), then there’s no reason to think that our brains don’t as well. End of rebuttal.

What is odd is that these guys attack physical determinism on the false basis that there’s no evidence for it, but then pull ancient mythologies out of their nether parts and not only claim that they’re true, but base their whole lives and belief systems on them. Biola University is founded on unevidenced but comforting Christian superstition from ancient, redacted, and contradictory scriptures. Well, I’m much more comfortable thinking that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same everywhere in our solar system than I am thinking that Jesus rose from the dead.  I find it vastly amusing that people like Hunter are slaves to religious superstition and yet use a supposed lack of evidence to attack determinism.

Oh yes, and Hunter says that there’s plenty of evidence for contracausal free will! What is it? Merely the observation that we make what looks like “free” decisions!  I don’t need to rebut that, because these “free decisions” are illusions; they don’t rebut determinism.

We can have no confidence that we can find truth if determinism be true. The rebuttal of this can be conveyed in two words: natural selection. Animals, including us, could hardly survive if we had sensory systems that didn’t give us a fairly accurate representation of reality: where the dangers lie, where the food is, what happens if we jump off a cliff. But of course we can be fooled as well: I give plenty of examples in Faith Versus Fact of how our evolved sensory systems, or our beliefs, can be fooled by things we didn’t encounter during our evolution. (A lot of people think, for example, that if you whirl an object around your head on a string, it will continue to travel in a spiral when you let go. And of course there are optical illusions.)

After making a few tepid attempts to rebut determinism, Hunter goes off the rails and takes out after evolution instead, giving two examples of convergent evolution: similar toxic peptides in a tree and in some animals, as well as the possibility of the independent origin of synapses and neurons in ctenophores on the one hand and cnidarian/bilaterians on the other.

I’ve put the two articles he cites below so you can see them (they’re free; click on the screenshots).

In one of the more ludicrous claims that Hunter makes (he doesn’t accept evolution), he argues that convergent evolution—the independent evolution of similar features in independent lineages—is not consistent with evolution, for evolution supposedly claims that structures are “lineage specific”. If features evolve several times independently, he argues, we don’t need the theory of evolution. This is arrant nonsense. There is nothing in evolutionary theory that bars similar features from appearing in two or more independently evolving lineages.

Of course he ignores the copious evidence that the independent lineages EVOLVED as independent. For example, marsupials and placentals, which, according to both molecular evidence and the fossil record had a common ancestor, have nevertheless evolved several examples of convergence in their descendants. The marsupial flying squirrel or mole, for example, bears striking similarities to the placental flying squirrel or mole.

In other words, Hunter’s claim about what evolution is “supposed” to do rests on denying evolution in the first place. He also ignores the idea that common ancestors constrain the materials that can be used for evolution in their descendants, as well as the notion that there are physical and biological niches that often evoke similar responses in independent lineages, like the resemblance of shape and fins in three independent lineages: fish, marine mammals like porpoises, and ichthyosaurs.

Finally, in the paper on neurons, Hunter attacks one sentence because it’s supposedly violates evolutionary theory as well:  “animals frequently use different molecular toolkits to achieve similar functional outcomes”. He gloms onto the word “achieves”, arguing that the word implies that evolution has goals, and of course evolution isn’t goal oriented—which is true. But “achieves” in that sentence simply means that natural selection uses different molecular pathways when a similar adaptation arises. The scientists in the second paper are certainly not talking about teleology!

But the connection between free will and evolution is tenuous here, and I’m not sure why Hunter goes off on a siding, with the Numinous Express, apparently bound for Naturalism Town, suddenly takes the track towards Evolutionville.

Hunter’s mask slips at the end when he tries to explain out why so many smart people—I’m flattered that he puts both me and Hossenfelder in that class—believe in weird and bizarre things like determinism. His answer? He cites 2 Corinthians 4, verses 3 and 4, to wit (from the King James Bible):

But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:
In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

Yep, Hossenfelder and I, along with every other physicist and determinist on the planet, have been blinded to the truth of free will because we don’t believe in the Christian God. I’m not sure if Hossenfelder is Jewish—though I suspect from her name she’s of Jewish ancestry—but if she is, well, that explains why both she and I might be particularly blind to the truth of the Gospels, and susceptible to Satan’s blandishments about free will.

Jebus, what an argument! Now since the DI people read this website, desperately wanting to discredit me, they’ll see this post as well. They will have an answer to it, too, for their God has given them the truth, and they can’t let a couple of upstart cultural Jews overturn it.

Jason Rosenhouse discredits new Intelligent Design paper

October 7, 2020 • 10:00 am

Update: Reader Mike below called my attention to a notice about the paper on Retraction Watch (click on screenshot below). It notes that author Thorvaldsen is an advocate and sympathizer to Intelligent design. The Journal of Theoretical BIology has issued the statement below:

The Journal of Theoretical Biology and its co-Chief Editors do not endorse in any way the ideology of nor reasoning behind the concept of intelligent design. Since the publication of the paper it has now become evident that the authors are connected to a creationist group (although their addresses are given on the paper as departments in bona fide universities). We were unaware of this fact while the paper was being reviewed. Moreover, the keywords “intelligent design” were added by the authors after the review process during the proofing stage and we were unaware of this action by the authors. We have removed these from the online version of this paper. We believe that intelligent design is not in any way a suitable topic for the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Too little and too late!  There’s also a statement by Glenn Branch, head of the National Center for Science Education.

______________

The Discovery Institute and its ID flacks are crowing about a new intelligent-design paper that got published in a reputable journal. The paper is below, and it’s really nothing new: just a reiteration of the supposed unlikelihood of evolving complex biological systems via natural selection (click on screenshot to get the paper, free if you have the Unpaywall app):

I read the paper very quickly, and decided there was really no there there: it’s a reiteration of the work and thought of IDers like Dembski, Axe, Meyer, and Behe, all of whom have claimed that the evolution of stuff like protein structure, protein folding, protein complexes, RNA translation systems, and so on, are so unlikely that they couldn’t have evolved by Darwinian processes. And of course all of this work has been previously and thoroughly rebutted by real scientists, many of whom have pointed out the flawed assumptions, including making probability calculations starting from scratch rather than using previously evolved and less “complex” systems. Sadly, almost none of the critiques by real scientists are even cited in this paper, which appears to be science-y sounding publicity for Intelligent Design. The failure to cite counterarguments alone should have rendered the Thornvaldsen and Hössjer paper unpublishable.

As for “fine-tuning”, that’s what the authors call “improbable appearance”—that is, a system that, they say “is unlikely to have occurred by chance” and also show “conform[ity] to an independent or detached specification”.  It is, in effect, the “irreducible complexity” touted by Behe, and is not the same thing as the “fine tuning” of the physical Universe—involving the supposed specificity of many physical constants—also touted as evidence for a Great Designer.

Several readers sent me this paper, apparently wanting me to go after it. I just have said my piece, but this is but a cursory take. I didn’t want to put in the time to refute something that’s been refuted before. As for why a good journal accepted such a shoddy paper, your guess is as good as mine. But the IDers see it as a gold mine, because they’ve gotten a peer reviewed ID paper into a journal!

Well, fortunately, someone has discredited this paper much better than I could. It’s good old Jason Rosenhouse, who dealt with it at The Panda’s Thumb, a site that’s been very quiet lately (probably because ID creationism is on its last legs). Jason’s take on the Thorvaldsen and Hössjer paper is at the site below (click on screenshot). His take isn’t either positive or pretty. He concludes that the paper is bullshit (my words, not his), and that it shouldn’t have been accepted in the journal. He gives reasons for this conclusion. Rosenhouse is a math professor as well as someone who knows a ton about both biology and creationism, and so is well qualified to assess the paper’s claims.

I’ll quote just a few bits from the paper. One of Jason’s main beefs is that “fine tuning” isn’t well defined for these biological systems. Further, biological systems don’t evolve the way the authors say, and if you want to calculate probabilities, you have to do it using the way evolution works: sequentially, acting on pre-existing adaptive systems. But I am characterizing his argument. Let me give a few quotes:

The situation only gets worse when [the authors of the paper above] turn to biology. Here their primary example of fine-tuning comes from so-called “irreducibly complex” systems in biology. They even coin the term “Behe-system” after biochemist Michael Behe, who developed the idea in its modern form. The authors write, “[William] Dembski applies the term ‘Discrete Combinatorial Object’ to any of the biomolecular systems which have been defined by Behe as having ‘irreducible complexity’.” Mimicking the approach taken by Dembski in his book No Free Lunch, they go on to write, “Then the probability of a protein complex is the multiplicative product of the probabilities of the origination of its constituent parts, the localization of those parts in one place, and the configuration of those parts into the resulting system (contact topology).” There then follows a bona fide equation, complete with Greek letters, subscripts, and even a big pi to indicate a product.

This is the point where a legitimate peer-reviewer would have thrown the paper aside, refusing to read any further, because every word is nonsense. Complex systems do not evolve through three distinct phases of origination, localization, and configuration, for heaven’s sake. But let’s leave that aside and play along for a moment.

Yes, the equations are nothing but ways to show how one calculates probabilities. The question, as we know, is whether the assumptions behind the calculations are sound and, if they are, do we have good estimates of the probabilities. The answers are “no” and “no” respectively.

Considering Dembski’s ludicrous assumption that probabilities should be calculated de novo, not using the way evolution works, versus they way they should be calculated—by “imagining the correct configuration arising gradually through a sequence of less effective systems until the modern form appears”—Jason says this:

In No Free Lunch, William Dembski effectively chose the former option in each of these questions, which is why everyone laughed at him. But we obviously need to consider the latter, and we equally obviously have no hope of assigning numbers to any of the relevant variables. Incredibly, the authors even acknowledge this point, writing, “Modeling the formation of structures like protein complexes via this three-part process … is of course problematic because the parameters in the model are very difficult to estimate.” But having just admitted to wasting the reader’s time developing a useless equation, they claim nonetheless that it has heuristic value. It does not, because this three-fold process has precisely zero connection to any real biological process.

Here’s a rule of thumb for you: If an author says he will address the question of whether a complex system could have arisen through evolution by natural selection, and then later says he will use probability theory to address the issue, then you can stop reading right there, because everything that comes next will be nonsense. Probability theory is just flatly the wrong tool for this job because there is no hope of defining a proper probability space within which to carry out a calculation.

But go over to Panda’s Thumb and, if you’re interested in why the new ID paper is garbage, read Jason’s entire review. I must, however, quote his acrid conclusion:

Desirous of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I have focused on what I take to be the absolutely fatal flaw of this paper. The authors claim to have used probability theory to establish a scientifically rigorous and useful notion of “fine-tuning,” but they have failed because we have nothing like the information we would need to carry out meaningful probability calculations. Done.

But I don’t think I’ve adequately communicated just how bad this paper is. The authors are constantly tossing out bits of mathematical jargon and notation, but then they do nothing with them. There is a frustrating lack of precision, as when they variously describe fine-tuning as an object, an entity, a method, and an attribute of a system, all on the first page of the paper. They constantly cite creationist references, with only the most glancing mention that any of this work has been strongly and cogently criticized. They say we should give fair consideration to a “design model” for the origination of complex structures, but they give not the beginning of a clue as to what such a model entails.

In short, it’s hard to believe this paper could have gotten through an honest peer-review process (as opposed to one in which ideology played a big role). Whatever happened behind the scenes, it’s a huge black eye for the journal.

I’m not sure what the Journal of Theoretical Biology will do in the face of objections like Jason’s; clearly other people must have contacted the journal as well. But it is a black eye for the journal, and the paper’s publication should by no means be seen as giving ID any more credibility.

Speaking of which, this is how far ID advocates have fallen. The piece below appeared at the Discovery Institute website Evolution News. (The article also cites the new ID paper.) I find it interesting that that site doesn’t allow comments.

 

Egnor: We need to pray during this pandemic

March 9, 2020 • 11:30 am

Once again the creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor can’t resist scrutinizing my website and trying to find flaws in what I say. I suppose this is because he and his Discovery Institute colleagues, despite their confident assurances of two decades ago, have failed to make progress in getting the scientific community to accept Intelligent Design. So, like a frustrated pigeon pecking at a leaf, he pecks at me.

He’s really surpassed himself this time, though, for in his latest diatribe he claims to show that a.) prayer works during a pandemic, despite my mocking Mike Pence’s coronavirus response team praying together; b). Science’s rejection of gods, or at least its failure to seriously entertain divine actions in science—is circular and wrong; and c.) There’s strong proof that there’s a God.

This article appears in the site Mind Matters, which is run by the creationist Discovery Institute. Its theme appears to be that materialism (what I call “naturalism”) is false and that science can’t explain the material phenomena of the world. The usual guff! Click on the screenshot for a good laugh:

Let’s take Egnor’s three claims in order. Since he’s drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s easy to respond.

1.)  Prayer works in a pandemic. Egnor’s claims are indented.

The wisdom and efficacy of prayer in a crisis depends wholly on one question: is the prayer directed to Someone who is real, or is prayer based on a delusion?

If the Object of supplication is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps.

If there is no real Object of supplication, then prayer is based on a delusion. But it’s interesting to note that, as historian Rodney Stark has pointed out, prayer and Christian faith during ancient epidemics saved lives because faithful Christians stuck around during epidemics. They provided care to afflicted neighbors who would not have survived except that they had kindly courageous friends to nurse them. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—the world’s leading cancer center for children, was founded because of a prayer. So the focus and compassion evoked by prayer saves lives, whether or not God is there to hear the prayer.

This is Pascal’s Wager applied to prayer.  First of all, what evidence does Egnor have that prayer “really helps” when he operates? And whom does it help? If it helps Egnor operate, fine; a New Ager could also be calmed by rubbing crystals before an operation.

But the true test is whether it helps the patient. I doubt Egnor has any evidence for that, as it would require controlled tests. Do religious neurosurgeons who pray before an operation have better outcomes than nonbelieving surgeons? I doubt it, but the onus is on Egnor to show it. The only really good test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer in healing—the Templeton-funded study of healing in cardiac patients—showed no effect at all of prayer in healing, not even an effect in the right direction. The only significant effect was in the direction opposite to that prediction—intercessory prayer hurt the patients in one measure of healing!

And we don’t need a Christian community now during a pandemic: that’s been replaced by epidemiologists and, most of all, medicine and medical care, all based on materialistic science. 

Finally, has Dr. Egnor asked himself this: if praying to God stops people from dying, so God has the power to cure, why did God allow coronavirus to spread in the first place? It’s not just killing off evil people, you know: it’s taking babies who haven’t even had the chance to do evil, or learn about the salvific effects of accepting Jesus.  In fact, pandemics are one bit of evidence against the existence of any god who is powerful and empathic.

2.) Science’s rejection of God and divine intervention in nature is wrong because it’s circular. This is Egnor’s dumbest argument:

Of course, if God does not exist, Coyne is right to imply that prayer is based on a delusion. But here’s the point: if God does exist, prayer is essential.

So, I ask Coyne, does God exist? Coyne’s answers to the pivotal question have been puerile. His arguments center on an astonishing line of reasoning:

1) [S]cience is about finding material explanations of the world
2) Only materialistic explanations have been found by science
3) Therefore, no non-material explanations for nature are needed.

So Coyne uses science that expunges theism to refute theism. In short, he concludes that atheism is true by using a scientific method that presupposes atheism. Oddly, Coyne finds this logic compelling.

There’s no circularity here. Science is perfectly capable of sussing out supernatural explanations for things, as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. If prayer worked, that would be one hint of a god or gods, and you can test that (n.b., it doesn’t work). If only CHRISTIAN prayers worked and not those of Jews or Muslims, that would be even more evidence for a god. And I discuss scenarios in my book which would convince many, including me, that there was a god. It’s just too bad for Egnor that none of this evidence has ever come to light.

In fact, there was a time when the supernatural and religion were part of science: when Newton thought God’s twiddling was necessary to keep the planets in their orbits, because Newton thought their orbits were otherwise unstable. Then Laplace showed that a naturalistic explanation explained the stability. There was a time when everyone thought the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals, as well as their origins, required a divine creator. Then Darwin came along and gave the correct naturalistic explanation. Over the history of humanity, one divine explanation after another for things like lightning, diseases, and plagues have been replaced by naturalistic explanation.

So here’s the lesson, which I’ll put in bold.  Science doesn’t reject divine or supernatural explanations because we rule them out in advance. We reject them because they haven’t been shown to work. (Sadly, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once gave an unwise quote that has served repeatedly as ammunition for creationists who claim that scientists are sworn not to accept any evidence for gods, divinity or the supernatural. We’re not! Science investigates supernatural claims all the time.)

3.) Finally, Egnor says that the arguments for God’s existence are convincing. Here’s how he proves God:

It is noteworthy that Coyne’s efforts to refute the actual arguments for God’s existence consist of his insistence that he really isn’t so stupid and he provides a few links. He obviously doesn’t understand the arguments, nor does he wish to learn them.

If God exists, prayer in crisis is warranted and even essential. The arguments for God’s existence are irrefutable. Aquina’s Five Ways are a handy summary:

Aquinas’ First Way and a Stack of Books

Irrefutable, Impeccable, Inescapable: Aquinas’ Second Way

Aquinas’ Third Way: An Analogy to Moonlight

Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

And, as Porky said,

And it is all. If there are going to be arguments for god that are convincing, they will have to be empirical ones, not theoretical lucubrations of ancient theologians.

An IDer answers one (or two) of my questions—or tries to

February 21, 2020 • 1:45 pm

Imagine my shock to see this page at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News site (click on screenshot; I’ve archived it so the DI doesn’t get clicks).  The author is Granville Sewell, an intelligent-design creationist and a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at El Paso.

A good question? (I swear that they keep banging on about me because I’ll bring them clicks!). What is it?

Actually, it’s a bit confusing because they deal with two questions I asked.

1.)

2.) Here’s another one in the post:

Still, when we argue with atheists like Jerry Coyne, we may become frustrated and wonder why God didn’t just create all species simultaneously 10,000 years ago as some creationists believe, and make doubt impossible.

These are not the same question, though they both bear on whether we see evidence of God’s presence or of his handiwork.  I think Sewell is dealing mostly with the first one in his post, but does answer the second one—sort of:

Actually, the history of life on Earth is very similar to the history of human technology: we also design things step-by-step, through testing and improvements. In fact, as I show in the second part of my new video, the similarities between the history of life and the history of human technology actually extend far beyond this. So if the history of life looks like the way humans, the only other known intelligent beings in the universe, design things, why is this widely considered as evidence against design? Because God “wouldn’t” do things like we do, of course!

But even if you believe that God has to create through testing and improvements for the same reasons we do, and that just because something is designed doesn’t mean it can never go wrong (which addresses the main question in my Epilogue, why do bad things happen to good people), we still have to think that God has intentionally passed up a lot of opportunities to end the debate about his existence and silence all doubters.

In other words, all the species on the planet that have gone extinct simply represented God trying things out and then winnowing out the bad designs (nearly all of them during the end-Permian extinction)! Why did the passenger pigeon fail?

But then where do the new and very different species come from?  If they were created de novo, or tweaked by God somehow using evolution as his method, then we are back to creationism, de novo or gradual. But seriously, even though both God and humans are intelligent, there’s no reason given why God, who is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, had to “test” the animals and plants and then, if they didn’t pass muster, extirpate them!

That’s a pretty lame answer, but it’s theology, Jake. But on to the Big Question: why is God hiding from us? (Whenever I think of this question, I think of philosopher Delos McKown’s answer: “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”)

To see his answer, Sewell refers us to a previous article of his at Evolution News, “The biggest theological objection to design“, which is far more about theodicy—why does God allow natural and moral evil?—than about why God is hidden.

The issue of theodicy, which Sewell resolves by saying that evil is a necessary byproduct of good, is difficult to read, for Sewell recounts the slow and painful death of his wife (they had two young kids) from nose and sinus cancer. One could ask “well, couldn’t God just eliminate cancer?”, but Sewell uses a Mother Teresa gambit: suffering has its benefits. My response—and I’m not trying to be churlish here—is “Does the benefit of your wife’s suffering outweigh the tragedy of her loss and the fact that your children are motherless? Wouldn’t you rather have your wife back than have her dead but having learned lessons?” I will leave that answer to Sewell.

Does Sewell answer the question of why God doesn’t show himself? He does say that he believes in some miracles, even though he touts the hegemony of natural law (which doesn’t jibe with his approbation of intelligent design and repeated creations):

 I do believe that God has intervened in human and natural history at times in the past, and I would like to believe he still intervenes in human affairs, and even answers prayers, on occasions, but the rules at least appear to us to be inflexible.

But all it would take is ONE BIG MIRACLE, of the type I describe in Faith Versus Fact (p. 119)—a miracle that was taped and documented worldwide—to make me believe in a divine being—provisionally, of course, as it might be due to space aliens or some trick.  Why can’t we at least have that?

Well, here’s the reason Sewell gives why God is hidden:

Why does God remain backstage, hidden from view, working behind the scenes while we act out our parts in the human drama? This question has lurked just below the surface throughout much of this book, and now perhaps we finally have an answer. If he were to walk out onto the stage, and take on a more direct and visible role, I suppose he could clean up our act, and rid the world of pain and evil — and doubt. But our human drama would be turned into a divine puppet show, and it would cost us some of our greatest blessings: the regularity of natural law which makes our achievements meaningful; the free will which makes us more interesting than robots; the love which we can receive from and give to others; and even the opportunity to grow and develop through suffering. I must confess that I still often wonder if the blessings are worth the terrible price, but God has chosen to create a world where both good and evil can flourish, rather than one where neither can exist. He has chosen to create a world of greatness and infamy, of love and hatred, and of joy and pain, rather than one of mindless robots or unfeeling puppets.

The big flaw here is that god could walk out onstage, show us that he exists, and then not take on a “more direct and visible role.” He could just convince us he exists, and then go back to Heaven, put his feet up on a cloud, and quaff a bottle of 1961 Lafitte. This would NOT turn life int a divine puppet show: things would go on pretty much as they did before, but with more religious people and maybe a bit more good behavior. After a while, things would get pretty much back to normal, and science, which depends on “natural law”, would go on as before. Sewell’s point about us being “puppets” is irrelevant here: we could see God and still believe that we have free will and so on.  God could make a cameo appearance, let most of us believe in him (if we’re convinced; Muslims and Hindus wouldn’t be, perhaps), and then bugger off. Presumably that would go a long way to meeting what Christians want to see.

So while Sewell’s second essay explains—though not to my satisfaction—why there is evil in the world, it doesn’t even come close to saying why God remains hidden.

QED

Discovery Institute makes hay of Dawkins tweet, and a geneticist mistakenly says that artificial selection won’t work in humans

February 20, 2020 • 9:45 am

Unless you’ve been in Ulan Bator (and actually, some people in Mongolia do read WEIT), you surely know about Dawkins’s latest twitter kerfuffle, in which he said, correctly, that human eugenics would “work”. That is true in the sense he meant it: artificial selection practiced on human traits would yield a change in mean trait values, for most traits have appreciable “heritability.” People misinterpreted that—most of them deliberately, I think—to excoriate Dawkins as favoring eugenics, something that’s clearly untrue, especially in light of his subsequent clarifications. It’s not clear to me why these people won’t admit that they mischaracterized Dawkins’s tweets. But of course people get stuck in their ideology and are loath to admit error.

[UPDATE: Dawkins reiterates what he meant on a comment on yesterday’s post: here.]

One commenter noted that most of the pushback seemed to come from the Left or from the woke. That may be true, for many of them hate Dawkins for being “the wrong kind of atheist”: seen (wrongly) as shrill and uncaring about oppression. But I have to note that the Right has been making hay about Dawkins’s tweet as well—especially the religious, who tend to be on the Right. That goes double for creationists, including those who are wasting their lives at the Discovery Institute.

And so, on the DI “Evolution News” website, David Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jewish ID creationist, has evinced some glee about Richard’s tweet. To see it, click on the screenshot below (it goes to a Wayback Machine link that I’ve archived so that the site itself doesn’t get clicks):

Klinghoffer takes two approaches to denigrating Dawkins.

The first is to cite geneticist Dave Curtis’s recent Twitter thread arguing that eugenics wouldn’t work. (Curtis is an Honorary Professor in the Division of Biosciences at University College London.) Curtis’s tweets have cited widely to show that Dawkins was wrong, but, sadly, I think Curtis himself is wrong. Dead wrong. I’ll give a few of his tweets and briefly explain why.

Here’s the first one, and the assertion that “eugenics simply would not work” is not at all supported by human data, as I document below.

I’ve indented Curtis’s subsequent tweets (only the ones I see as relevant). My own comments are flush left.

I work on human genetics and am honorary professor at the UCL Genetics Institute. I’m the editor-in chief of a journal which used to be called Annals of Eugenics. I just wanted to say that we now know from the latest research that eugenics simply would not work.

This is not true at all. The up-to-date data we have suggests strongly that artificial selection on human traits would “work” in the sense of changing mean trait values in the direction you select. Moreover, it would work in this way for nearly all human traits (see paper below). By saying eugenics would “work”, of course, I am, along with Dawkins, not at all saying it should be practiced. While a limited form of selection in humans is acceptable—for example, preventing a couple who are carriers of a recessive genetic defect or disease from producing an offspring with that condition—the kind of wholesale and directed selective breeding of humans suggested by the word “eugenics” is immoral, and I don’t favor it at all.

On to more tweets. In this one, Curtis flaunts his expertise, but that doesn’t make the data showing him wrong any less convincing:

I have published hundreds of scientific papers on human genetics including on intellectual disability, mental illness and the predictive ability of genetic. You can view the list here: scholar.google.co.uk/citations?hl=e

On to his objections:

Animals are bred in controlled environments and have short generational times with large numbers of offspring. In these circumstances selective breeding can produce desired changes in a small number of specific traits such as milk yield or racing performance.

There are a number of different kinds of reason why eugenics would not work. One is that humans have long generational times and small numbers of offspring. This would make any selective breeding process extremely slow.

Well, “controlled environments” doesn’t mean that selection wouldn’t work, any more than saying selection wouldn’t work in nature because the environment in nature is variable. Artificial selection in animals is successful even in variable environments: I could, for example, select for more bristles on Drosophila flies, even while changing the type of food they get every generation and letting them experience variation in room temperature. We’d still get an increase in bristle number over time. If you think otherwise, I’d bet you a lot of money that you’re wrong.

The “long generation time” of humans isn’t a barrier to getting a result with artificial selection. It only means that, in terms of years (not generations), getting a response would be slower. But not infinitesimally slow!

For example, if you have a trait like height, which appears to show a heritability of about 0.8 (80%), then if you breed only from a group of humans whose average height is 5 inches above the population mean, in the next generation (ca. 20 years later), the response to selection—the average height of the selected group’s offspring when mature—would be 5 X 0.8, or four inches above the mean. That is, you would have raised the height of the population by four inches. That’s a big change in one generation: you’ve gone 80% of the way to your goal. It all depends on the heritability of the trait (which is usually appreciable) and how strongly one selects.

The “breeder’s equation” for this kind of calculation is simply response to selection = heritability of the trait in that population X the strength of selection practiced. And in fact this experiment is performed in miniature every day: tall couples produce tall offspring, short ones produce short offspring. That is really a form of artificial selection performed because couples tend to mate assortatively by height. Each couple mating gives us an idea of how much variation in that trait is genetic.

Finally, the low number of offspring doesn’t matter so long as you can keep the population going after selection. Note that offspring number doesn’t figure in the breeder’s equation.

As for the statement “selective breeding can produce desired changes in a small number of specific traits such as milk yield or racing performance”, that’s extremely misleading. As I’ve said before, I’m aware of only two artificial-selection experiments, out of hundreds practiced on genetically variable populations, that failed to yield a response, and both of those experiments were mine. (I was selecting on “directional asymmetry”, a trait with very low heritability.) “Small number of specific traits” is the misleading bit here. Better that he said, “selective breeding can produce desired changes in almost any trait.” After all, remember what Darwin said in The Origin, a conclusion based on breeders’ results before evolution and genetics were accepted or even understood:

 “Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please.”

That, of course, means that animal traits have substantial heritability, for it is that heritability that make animals (and plants!) quite plastic. And so it is with humans, for we have evidence that natural selection has altered several human traits in the past 10,000 years or so, and in populations that are relatively small.

Another tweet by Curtis:

Another reason is that humans are exposed to very different environments, so most of trait variation is not due to genetic factors but to differences in environment. One consequence is that it makes it hard to identify subjects who have desirable genetic characteristics.

Here Curtis is again being misleading. What we do know from studies of heritability in our species is summarized in the article below (click on screenshot). The article shows that virtually all human traits have appreciable heritability (“selectability”), with none having zero heritability. And is it really hard to identify humans who are taller than others, or have higher IQs or better teeth? Yes, there is often substantial environmental variability contributing to the trait variation (diet and education in the cases I’ve cited), but this doesn’t mean that selection wouldn’t work.

Here’s the paper’s summary, showing that most traits have a substantial heritability (49% means that about half of the variation among individuals in a population is due to “additive” genetic factors). Further analysis suggests that (shared) environmental influences aren’t overwhelmingly important in these twin studies. Other studies of both identical and fraternal twins reared together and apart also show a substantial heritability and lower environmental effects than expected (see here, and here, for example). Further studies using not twins but identity by descent (e.g., here) also confirm heritabilities derived from the twin studies.

And from the paper’s discussion (my emphasis):

We have conducted a meta-analysis of virtually all twin studies published in the past 50 years, on a wide range of traits and reporting on more than 14 million twin pairs across 39 different countries. Our results provide compelling evidence that all human traits are heritable: not one trait had a weighted heritability estimate of zero.

That means that virtually all human traits would change when subject to artificial selection.

More of Curtis’s tweets with my responses.

We can now measure genetic potential directly from genetic markers and what we know from this is that these genetic predictors perform extremely badly. We can also tell that there are many important, very rare genetic variants which we will never be able to identify. 9/n]

Individual genetic markers are largely irrelevant here; what is important in judging whether selection would “work” is the heritability of the trait in the population, which reflects variation at all relevant genes, not just one or a few genetic markers. Again, using one or a few genetic markers is not the way to change traits. The way to change them is to select for or against certain trait values.

“We should bear in mind that harsh selection pressures have been acting on humans up to the present and that there may be very little scope for overall improvement. In any event, we can confidently say that selective breeding to improve desirable traits is not practicable.

Here Curtis is saying something not supported by the data. We know that there is still substantial genetic variation in humans from the heritability studies above, which directly contradict Curtis’s claim that “there is little scope for [change].” The average heritability at present is nearly 50% among all traits, which means that there is huge scope for “overall improvement” (I prefer “change”, as I don’t know what would constitute “improvement” in humans.) Of course it’s not “practical” to perform such broad-scale selection as a form of eugenics because of moral considerations, but that’s separate from whether that kind of selection would change the mean of a population.

With a recessive disease it may be possible to eliminate cases of the disease from the population using a combination of carrier testing, prenatal screening and selective termination. However this is not eugenics because the variants are still present in the population.

Of course that kind of selective breeding (termination of genetically afflicted embryos) is eugenics! Some variants would remain in the population, but their frequency would be reduced. That is a response to selection! And that involves “terminating” (a euphemism) genetically defective embryos. Just because calling selective elimination of embryos “not eugenics” doesn’t make it not eugenics.

Again, using one or a few genetic markers is not the way to change traits. The way to change them is to select for or against certain trait values.
TLDR: People who support eugenics initiatives are evil racists. Also, modern genetic research shows that eugenics would not work. 19/end

The first part of the statement is true in a qualified sense. However, “eugenics” practiced as “elimination of cases of disease from the population,” as Curtis mentions above, are certainly “eugenics initiatives”, and most of us support such practices. That doesn’t make us evil racists. What does make us evil racists is selective breeding practices on entire races or populations with an eye to differentiating races.

The second part of the statement—that artificial selection on human populations wouldn’t work—is just wrong, and dead wrong. I’m surprised that a man of Curtis’s expertise would make a statement like that. His Twitter thread should not be used as evidence against Dawkins’s claim for the efficacy of artificial selection in humans.

**********
Klinghoffer’s second approach is to cite Behe’s claim that while artificial selection may create some success changing species, it can’t effect big changes. It can create breeds of dogs from wolves, for instance, but can’t change a wolf into a puma. This is an old creationist trope. Quotes from Klinghoffer and Behe are indented:
In an email, a geneticist friend notes the irony. Darwinian evolution is a massive extrapolation from selective breeding in animals. Of course animal breeding “works,” up to a point. Darwin in the Origin of Species cited the efforts of pigeon fanciers. In a New York Times book review, Dawkins once taunted Michael Behe with the successes of dog-breeding. But there are limits. Dogs can’t be bred to become cats, nor pigeons into bats. There appear to be set limits.

There appear to be set limits. Why? Behe has noted the problem that dog-breeding, canine eugenics, is accomplished largely by breaking genes:

Popularizers of evolution said if we can breed dogs that are so different from each other and only do it in the past few hundred years, how much better could nature do? But again, we didn’t know what was going on in the biology of these dogs. In the past 10 years, the entire genomes of many different dog breeds have been sequenced. And again, it turns out if you want a Chihuahua, you can break one of the genes involved in growth. If you want French poodles with curly hair, you break a gene involved in hair growth. If you want a dog with a short muzzle, you break a gene involved in facial shape development.

I and others have already refuted Behe’s claim (see also here and here) that selection for new features is ineffective because it involves broken genes that eventually stop selection in its tracks. And besides, the kind of changes that racist eugenicists proposed in the past (and again, I don’t favor them) are small-scale changes of the type involved in other forms of artificial selection. They didn’t propose turning humans into pumas!

Klinghoffer goes on:

Dave Curtis’s well informed observation is that even given the success of animal breeding, the analogy with humans is mistaken. But that leaves evolution…where? The extrapolation from dogs or pigeons to macroevolution fails because building genuine biological novelties, not just a Chihuahua as distinct from a poodle, requires more than merely breaking stuff, aka devolution, as Behe has shown in his book Darwin Devolves. If the many wonders of the animal world could not have proceeded from Darwinian blind shuffling alone, then human evolution, which can’t even stand on the shaky ground of human eugenics, all the more cannot have done so. 

As I’ve showed, Curtis has no data supporting him, and considerable data contradicting his claims. But in the end, this whole kerfuffle has nothing to do with macroevolution: it’s about microevolution. Even noting that, I’ll argue—but not here—that the IDers’ supposed “unbreakable barrier” between microevolution and macroevolution is totally bogus.