Desperation at The Daily Dish

September 6, 2009 • 10:12 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Manzi’s main points are two:

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

As he says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manzi’s conclusion?

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

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

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

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

The science/religion compatibility debate continues. . . .

February 6, 2009 • 11:51 am

Over on Edge, scientists continue to weigh in on my New Republic piece on the compatibility of science and faith. Steve Pinker and Sam Harris have just contributed, both taking the “non-accommodationist” stance.  Sam’s article,  a brilliant piece of sarcasm, has been widely misunderstood on the web, with many thinking he has seen the light and become a man of faith!  Yet how is it possible to mistake the following for anything other than sarcasm?

And yet, there is more to be said against the likes of Coyne and Dennett and Dawkins (he is the worst!). Patrick Bateson tells us that it is “staggeringly insensitive” to undermine the religious beliefs of people who find these beliefs consoling. I agree completely. For instance: it is now becoming a common practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan to blind and disfigure little girls with acid for the crime of going to school. When I was a neo-fundamentalist rational neo-atheist I used to criticize such behavior as an especially shameful sign of religious stupidity. I now realize—belatedly and to my great chagrin—that I knew nothing of the pain that a pious Muslim man might feel at the sight of young women learning to read. Who am I to criticize the public expression of his faith? Bateson is right. Clearly a belief in the inerrancy of the holy Qur’an is indispensable for these beleaguered people.

A second-order debate on the Edge debate has sprung up on Richard Dawkins’s website as well–there are nearly 800 comments!  Clearly this issue continues to attract a lot of attention, and generates a lot of heat as well as light.

Whoops!  Just informed that The Atlantic has taken up the debate in a column by Ross Doubthat.  Also, two pieces on The American Scene, one by Jim Manzi, and the other by Alan Jacobs.