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Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

The evolutionary argument against naturalism

Alvin Plantinga (1932), professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, is a leading theistic philosopher and opponent of evolution. He has proposed an intriguing, and specious—yet non-the-less intriguing—argument against evolution. It is intriguing for several reasons: First, because on the face of it, it is plausible. Second because it is typical of a whole class of specious arguments. Finally, because it highlights the difference between how scientists and philosophers approach a problem.

The argument runs as follows: The naturalist can be reasonably sure that the neurophysiology underlying belief formation is adaptive, but nothing follows about the truth of the beliefs depending on that neurophysiology. In fact, he’d have to hold that it is unlikely, given unguided evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It’s as likely, given unguided evolution, that we live in a sort of dream world as that we actually know something about ourselves and our world (original emphasis). In other words, if people in fact evolved, they could not trust their cognitive faculties to give them the truth and hence, do science. He goes on to argue that it is only possible to trust our cognitive faculties if people are created in God’s image.

It is amusing that unbelievers argue the opposite; namely that the existence of a God means science is impossible since he/she/it could override the rules of nature at will and there would be no reason to assume constant laws. Both are correct to this extent: Absolute knowledge is impossible,[1] independent of God’s existence.  But back to Plantinga’s argument; it hinges on the concept of truth, or equivalently, reliability. But what is truth? A profound question—or a meaningless one. The difference between profound and meaningless is often vanishingly small.

At one level, the idea of truth is simple: Does the testimony of the person on the witness stand agree with what happened? Or perhaps the simpler question: Does the testimony agree with what the person thinks happened? The second is a less stringent requirement. But from this simple concept, the grand metaphysics concept of TRUTH is generated. Whatever this grand metaphysical concept is, science is not concerned with it. Is it TRUTH ™ that colds are caused by viruses? The reductionist, at least if he believes in string theory, would say no. Colds, like all other phenomena, are caused by how strings vibrate in eleven dimensions. Viruses are just a wimpy low-energy approximation to the real TRUTH ™.

In science, we build models for how the universe works, which usually have a limited range of validity. Think of classical mechanics which is only valid for velocities much less than the speed of light.  Is classical mechanics the TRUTH ™? No, certainly no, it fails in various places. But it is certainly useful. Science is a natural extension of the model building the unconscious mind does all the time, which is necessary for us to survive in a hostile world. The surprising thing is not that beings who evolved created science, but rather, that they did not do it sooner. Plantinga’s problem is that he does not understand what science is or how it works—seeking effective models rather than the TRUTH ™, whatever that may be. He should have known better, since by the Duhem-Quine thesis, no model can be falsified.  Arguing that the current models have deficiencies is never enough. You have to provide better ones with more predicative power.

In the same manner that Plantinga’s argument relies on the grand metaphysics concept of TRUTH ™, many arguments in philosophy rely on similar word definitions. A prime example is the ontological agreement for God’s existence. First proposed by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109), the argument goes as follows: Define God as the greatest possible being we can conceive. If the greatest possible being exists in the mind, it must also exist in reality. If it only exists in the mind, a greater being is possible—one which exists in the mind and in reality. Note that his argument hinges on the definition of greatest. My daughter believes that anything, no matter how great, can be made greater by being pink. Thus the greatest being is pink. If I define non-existence as being greater than existence,[2] the ontological argument becomes an argument for God’s nonexistence. Evil is another word that is frequently made into a grand metaphysical concept, EVIL™, and used to justify various philosophical positions. The concept of actions I do not like is then taken a step further and personified in the concept of the devil.

While our concepts and word definitions may reflect reality, they do not constrain it. In the end, models founded on observation take precedence over philosophical arguments based on word definitions and phenomenologically unconstrained speculations. If such philosophical arguments disagree with scientific models, so much the worse for them. Thor showing up for Thursday afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel would make all arguments regarding his existence moot[3].  One observation is worth a thousand philosophical arguments.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[2] See Ecclesiastes chapter 4 for why this definition may be reasonable.

[3] You can tell it is Thor because he would be carrying a large hammer and one of the goats pulling his chariot would be limping.

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Lady Hope (1842 – 1922)[1] in 1915 published a claim that Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) on his death bed had recanted his views on evolution and God. This story published thirty-three years after Darwin’s death was strongly denied by his family but has made the rounds of various creationist publications and web sites to this day. Now my question is: Why would anyone care? It may be of interest to historians but nothing Darwin wrote, said, or did has any consequences for evolution today. The theory itself and the evidence supporting it have moved far beyond Darwin. But this story does serve to highlight the different role of individuals in science as compared to religion or even philosophy.

I have always considered it strange that philosophy places such importance on reading the works of long dead people—Aristotle, Descartes, etc. In science, Newton’s ideas trumped those of both Aristotle and Descartes, yet very few scientists today read Newton’s works. His ideas have been taken, clarified, reworked, and simplified. The same thing applies to the scientific writings of other great and long dead scientists. Nothing is gained by going to the older sources. Science advances and the older writings lose their pedagogical value. This is because in science, the ultimate authority is not a person, but observation.

A given person may play an important role but there is always someone else close on his heels. Natural selection was first suggested, not by Darwin, but by Patrick Matthew (1790 – 1874) in 1831 and perhaps by others even earlier. Alfred Russell Wallace’s (1823 – 1913) and Darwin’s works were presented together to the Linnean Society in July 1858[2].  And so it goes: Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912) and Hendrik Lorentz (1853 – 1928) were nipping at Einstein’s heels when he published his work on special relativity.  Someone gets priority, but it is observation that ultimately should be given the credit for new models.

When the ultimate role of observation is forgotten, science stagnates. Take, for example, British physics after Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). It fell behind the progress on the continent because the British physicists were too enamoured of Newton. But the most egregious example is Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). The adoration of Aristotle delayed the development of knowledge for close to two millennia.  Galileo and his critic, Fortunio Liceti (1577 – 1657), disputed about which was the better Aristotelian, as if this was the crucial issue. Even today, post-docs all too frequently worry about what the supervisor means rather than thinking for themselves: But he is a great man, so his remark must be significant[3]. Actually he puts on his pants on one leg at a time like anyone else.

Then there is the related problem of rejecting results due to their origins, or the associated ideology. The most notorious example is the Nazi rejection of non-Aryan science; for example, relativity because Einstein was a Jew. One sees a similar thing in politics where ideas are rejected as being socialist, fascist, atheist, Islamic, Christian, or un-American thus avoiding the real issues of the validity of the idea: Darwinism[4] is atheistic hence it must be condemned. Yeah?  And your mother wears army boots.

In science, people are considered great because of the greatness of the models they develop or the experimental results they obtained. In religion, it is the other way around. Religions are considered great based on the greatness of their founder. Jesus Christ is central to Christianity: and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). Islam is based on the idea: There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet. Many other major religions (or philosophies of life) are founded on one person: Moses (Judaism), Buddha (Buddhism), Confucius (Confucianism), Lao Tzu (Taoism), Guru Nanak (Sikhism), Zoroaster (Zoroastrianism), Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’í Faith) and Joseph Smith (Mormonism).  Even at an operational level, certain people have an elevated position and are considered authorities: for example, the Pope in the Catholic Church, or the Grand Ayatollahs in Shi’ite Islam. Because of the basic difference between science and religion, an attack on a founder of a religion is an attack on its core, while an attack on a scientist is an irrelevancy. If Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844) was a fraud, then Mormonism collapses. Yet nothing in evolution depends on Darwin, nor anything in classical mechanics on Newton. But we can understand the upset of the Islamic community when Mohammad is denigrated: it is an attack on their whole religious framework which depends on Mohammad’s unique role.

The difference in the role of the individual in science and religion is due to their different epistemologies. In science, everything is public—both the observations and the models built on them. In contradistinction, the inspiration or revelation of religion is inherently private, a point noted by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). You too can check Einstein’s calculations or Eddington’s experiment; you do not have to rely on either Einstein or Eddington. Now it may take years of work and a lot of money, but in principle it can be done. But you cannot similarly check the claims of Jesus’s divinity, even with years of study, but must take it on faith or as the result of private revelation.

Unlike in science, in religion, old is better than new. If a physical manuscript of St. Paul’s writing dating from the first century were discovered, it would have a profound effect on Christianity. But a whole suitcase of newly discover works in Newton’s or Darwin’s handwriting would have no effect on the progress of science. This is because religion is based on following the teachings of the inspired leader, while science is based on observation.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] Otherwise known as Elizabeth Reid nee Cotton

[2] The president of the Linnean Society remarked in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries.

[3] I have heard that very comment.

[4] Note also the attempt to associate evolution with one person.

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The development of science is often portrayed as a conflict between science and religion, between the natural and the supernatural. But it was equally, if not more so, a conflict with Aristotelian concepts: a change from Aristotle’s emphasis on why to a dominant role for how. To become the mainstream, science had to overcome resistance, first and foremost, from the academic establishment and only secondarily from the church. The former, represented by the disciples of Aristotle and the scholastic tradition, was at least as vociferous in condemning Galileo as the latter. Galileo, starting from when he was a student and for most of his career, was in conflict with the natural philosophers. (I decline to call them scientists.) His conflict with the church was mostly towards the end of his career, after he was fifty and more seriously when he was nearing seventy. The church itself even relied on the opinions of the natural philosophers to justify condemning the idea the earth moved. In the end science and Galileo’s successors won out and Aristotle’s natural philosophy was vanquished: the stationary earth, the perfect heavens (circular planetary orbits and perfectly spherical planets), nature abhorring a vacuum, the prime mover and so on.  For most of these it is so long and good riddance. So why do philosophers still spend so much time studying Aristotle? I really don’t know.

However, Aristotle did have a few good ideas whose loss is unfortunate. The baby was thrown out with the bath water, so to speak. One such concept, although much abused, is the classification of causes given by Aristotle. The four types of causes he identified are the formal, material, effective and final causes.  He believed that these four causes were necessary and sufficient to explain any phenomena. The formal cause is the plan, the material cause is what it is made of, the effective cause is the “how”, and the final cause is the “why”. If you think in terms of building a house the formal cause is the blueprint, the material cause is what it is built of (the wood, brick, glass, etc.), the effective causes are the carpenters and their tools (are hammers obsolete?) and the final cause is the purpose the house was built for.

Aristotle and his medieval followers emphasized the final cause and pure thought. Science became established only by breaking away from the final cause and the tyranny of “why”.  The shift from concentrating on pure thought and the final cause (why) to concentrating on observations and effective causes (how) was the driving factor in the development of science.  Science has now so completely swept Aristotle aside that, at the present time, only the effective cause is considered a cause in the “cause and effect” sense.

However, in dealing with human activities all four of these types of causes are useful. For example consider TRIUMF where I work. The formal cause is the five-year plan given in a brilliantly written (OK. I helped write it and they pay my salary so what else could I say) 800-page book that lays out the program for the current five years and beyond. The material cause is what TRIUMF is built of (many tons of concrete shielding among other things). The effective cause is the people and machines that make TRIUMF work. The final cause is TRIUMF’s purpose as given in the mission and vision statements. A similar analysis can be done for any organization. The usefulness of the final cause concept is shown by it being resurrected in good management practice under the heading of mission and/or vision statements.

Now, when we go from human activity to animal activity, we lose the formal cause. Consider a bird building a nest. The material cause is what the nest is built of, the effective cause is the bird itself and the final cause is to provide a safe place to raise its young. But the formal cause does not exist. It is doubtful the bird has a blueprint for the nest; rather the nest is built as the result of effective causes – the reflexive actions of the bird. No bird ever wrote an 800-page book outlining how to build a nest. Just as well, or the avian dinosaurs (otherwise known as birds) would have gone extinct along with the non-avian ones.

A similar analysis exists for simpler organisms. A recent study of yeast showed why (in the sense of the final cause) yeast cells clump together: to increase the efficiency of extracting nutrients from the surroundings. Thus in dealing with human, animal or even yeast activities, science can and does answer the why or final cause question. In the case of the yeast the effective cause would be the method the yeast cells used to do the bonding and the material cause the substances used for the bonding.

When we go from animate to inanimate we lose, in addition to the formal cause, the final cause. Aristotle explained the falling of objects in terms of a final cause: the objects wanted to be at their natural place at the center of the universe, which Aristotle thought was the center of the earth. The reason they speed up as they fell was they became jubilant at approaching their natural place (I am not making that up). Newton, in contrast, proposed an effective cause: gravity. There was no goal, ie final cause, just an effective cause. A river does not flow with the aim of reaching the sea but just goes where gravity pulls. Similarly with evolution by natural selection, it has no aim but just goes where natural selection pulls. This freaks out those people who insist on formal and final causes. With much ingenuity, they have tried to rectify the situation by proposing formal and final causes:  intelligent design and theistic evolution respectively.  Intelligent design posits that at least some of the structures found in living organisms are the result of intelligent design by an outside agent and not the result of natural selection while theistic evolution posits that evolution was controlled by God to produce Homo Sapiens. Neither has been found to increase the ability of models to make accurate predictions; hence they have no place in science.  It is this lack of utility not the role of a supernatural agent that leads to their rejection as science.

To summarize: for the activities of living things, science can and does answer the why question and assigns a final cause. However, for non-living things science has not found the final cause concept to be useful and has eliminated it based on parsimony. Aristotle, his followers and disciples made the mistake of anthropomorphizing nature and assigning to it causes that are only appropriate to humans or, at best, living things.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod

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There are some things in science that are just so complicated that they cannot be explained to the uninitiated—things like quantum mechanics, the second law of thermodynamics, how a geek thinks, etc. To understand these things, it takes years of sleeping though dull lectures and late nights carous….  Oops, let’s start that again. It takes years of sitting in rapt attention at scintillating lectures, late nights studying (I have it right this time) and the secret initiation ritess. Don’t forget the secret initiation rites. But in this post, I am going to attempt the impossible and explain the second law of thermodynamics in a way that can be understood by the uninitiated. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread and all that. Now the second law is so complicated that there are several alternate but equivalent formulations. One is due to Rudolf Clausius (1822 – 1888). Now, this is very complicated, so take a very deep breath:

The second law of thermodynamics (Clausius): If you want your fridge to work you must plug it in.

See I told you it was complicated. There is an equally complicated version due to Lord Kelvin (1824 – 1907):

The second law of thermodynamics (Kelvin): The exhaust from your car motor will be hot.

Now you may think I am being facetious but I am not (OK, maybe about the scintillating lectures).  What a fridge does is cool things down by taking heat from the inside and depositing it outside, ie it takes heat from where it is cooler (the inside) and deposits it where it is hotter (the outside). An exact statement of the second law is that no process can simply do that: transfer heat from where it is colder to where it is hotter and have no other effect. In the case of the refrigerator, the other effect is turning electricity into heat. No fridge can be 100% efficient. Hence, you must plug your fridge in. Similarly, the Lord Kelvin statement is that no heat engine (e.g. your car motor, assuming it is not electric) can be 100% efficient and simply turn heat (the burning fuel) into mechanical energy (moving the car). Part of the heat energy must be wasted. In this case, the waste heat is in the hot exhaust.

The second law of thermodynamics, as these two examples illustrate, has significant implications for engineering and was derived in that context. It limits what even the best engineers can do and rules out a large class of second-law violating perpetual motion machines (Not to be confused with perpetual motion machines of the first kind which violate energy conservation, the first law of thermodynamics).

You may notice, that so far, this discussion has nothing to do with order, disorder or spontaneous creation or destruction that are so frequently associated with the second law (and used to create confusion and disorder). But there is yet another statement of the second law that does involve order and the concept of entropy. Entropy is simply a way of counting the number of microscopic states that correspond to given macroscopic state. Think of the air in a room: macroscopically it can be described by the temperature, pressure, and volume. Microscopically, it can be described by the location and motion of all the gazillions of particles that make up the air. Many different locations and motions of the air molecules correspond to the same set of temperature, pressure, and volume. Entropy is related to the number of different locations and motions (technically, the natural logarithm of the number) that correspond to the same temperature, pressure and volume.

One can crudely think of entropy as being the information content of a system—the information needed to specify the location and motions of the gazillions of air molecules in the example above. The lower the entropy, the less information content. Also note that ordered systems have less information content than disordered ones. Consider the strings:  1111111111111111 and 1907214836589457. The first is highly ordered and has low information content: it is just all ones. The second needs much more information to describe; each digit must be specified individually.  It is less ordered and hence higher information content and entropy.

A third equivalent statement of the second law is that the entropy of a closed system (ie one that does not interact with the outside world) can never decrease. Now the earth’s atmosphere and biosphere are not closed systems. They get energy from the sun and radiate it back out into space as thermal energy. The atmosphere and the biosphere together act like a giant heat engine using the sun as a source of energy and outer space as a sink for the exhaust heat (like the hot gas from the car engine). This heat engine lifts water from the oceans and puts it on mountaintops.  It drives all weather systems including hurricanes and blizzards, evolution, and life itself. It is this heat engine and the lack of thermal equilibrium that generates local regions of low entropy like the sheet of ice on the pond I skated on as child or the alligator in the southern bijou. The alligator, like all living things, has a high degree of order, hence low entropy and information content. Waste heat produced by living things is a side effect of maintaining that order. It might seem strange that I say living things have low information content but it would take much more information to describe in detail the location and motion of the atoms in an homogenized (think blender) alligator[1] than in a living one. There are simply many more ways to arrange the atoms in the homogenized version.

The second law of thermodynamics, being obscure when expressed in terms of entropy, is used to justify all kinds of nonsense. For example, evolution is sometimes claimed to be inconsistent with the second law of thermodynamics. But the second law of thermodynamics is not that obscure: it simply says you must plug your fridge in order for it to work. What’s obscure about that? Now, what evolution has to do with plugging in refrigerators is beyond me. After all, the earth’s biosphere is plugged directly into solar energy, bypassing the need for the electrical grid and cutting out the middleman.  I guess I will have to sleep through some more dull lectures to sort this all out.  Zzzzz.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod


[1] Relax, I am a theorist and have not homogenized any alligators.

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