Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Argument Clinic

Theory of Relativity. Theory of Evolution.

Both are, like any scientific theory, minimalist explanations for observed material phenomena. Both are famous.

One is notorious. No extra points for guessing which.

Since its inception over 150 years ago, the Theory of Evolution has been the target of a more or less relentless Christian jeremiad. Typically, the response from paleontologists and evolutionary biologists has been to parade the facts and show how the Theory neatly ties them all up; clearly, so much evidence in support of something so intuitively obvious must demonstrate the jeremiad mistaken.

As if.

Evolution's antagonists--Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates--are in high dudgeon. That dudgeon is in direct proportion to two things: belief in Biblical inerrancy, and the insistence that rock-ribbed Christian religiosity is the sine qua non of morality. Make no mistake, this argument is not over the Theory's explanatory power; rather, it is over the impact of that power upon the Bible.

[Note on terms: "the Theory" refers to the modern synthesis Theory of Evolution. "Creationism" refers both to Creationism and Intelligent Design.]

In other words, the conflict is between the rhetorical and the dialectical. Evolutionists are using a series of connected statements in order to establish a proposition; their antagonists automatically gainsay anything Evolutionists say because of the theory's perceived impact upon Divinely revealed Scripture.

Before getting into just why this is, it is important to pour some foundation. I promise to keep it brief, while hoping brevity doesn't come at the expense of clarity. Without describing different abstractions of knowledge, or the concepts of dialectic and rhetoric, understanding the nature of the argument is impossible.

Orders of Knowledge

Within the context of this discussion, there are three orders of knowledge:

1. Simple facts. The freezing point of water. The acceleration due to gravity at the earth's surface. The length of a Stegosaur femur. These are all statements completely insensitive to human context. Under identical conditions, water freezes at the same temperature, regardless of who is doing the freezing.

2. Statements about simple facts. This is where scientific theories live. These statements serve to order the simple facts in an explanatory framework. A theory using many such anatomical measurements to establish relatedness across time is knowledge of the second order.

3. Statements about statements. Assertions about the impact or meaning of such a theory is knowledge of the third order; in other words, it would be a judgment of the theory from a dialectical position.

Dialectic and Rhetoric

There are a number of definitions for what constitutes dialectic. The one pertinent here is that of negative dialectic: the sole goal of Creationists is the elimination of "wrong" opinions. In this context first order knowledge may very well be irrelevant to a dialectical position.

In contrast, rhetoric involves marshaling first order knowledge and logic in order to establish valid conclusions.

This distinction is not always easy to keep firmly grasped. Using a pertinent example, the Scopes Monkey Trial made the distinction clear. Tennessee had outlawed teaching any theory contradicting Divine Creation as described in the Bible--that is dialectic. In contrast, the Scopes defense consisted on using evidence and logic to demonstrate Evolution's validity--that is rhetoric.

Why are Creationists so upset?

Simple. Any explanation of natural history in general, and the existence of humans in particular, based upon purely naturalistic phenomena, is full-stop, irrevocably, irredeemably, bad.

Christians have not been shown clearly and decisively that Darwinism is a total worldview and that by accepting any aspect of this worldview, Christians compromise and weaken the presentation of the Christian worldview, as well as risk disobeying God. They have not been shown how evolutionism spreads like cancer from the geology or biology textbook to every area of personal ethics and public policy. Worse, they have not been shown why and how six-day creationism leads to a fundamentally unique worldview that encompasses things other than academic topics like historical geology and biology. To win the battle with Darwinism, which is above all a comprehensive worldview justifying comprehensive power, six-day creationists must believe that the stakes are far larger than mere laboratory experiments or one-evening debates. Creation scientists must demonstrate to Christians that six-day creationism really makes a difference in every area of life. [Comparing Origins Belief and Moral Views, from the Institute for Creation Research]

The Discovery Institute makes clear its stand:

The social consequences of materialism have been devastating. As symptoms, those consequences are certainly worth treating. However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the “thin edge of the wedge,” was Phillip ]ohnson’s critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial ...

These are dialectical statements: materialism, by bringing into question Divine Creation, is bad. The amount of first order knowledge supporting alternate explanations is irrelevant, and to the extent such knowledge contradicts Biblical inerrancy, evil.

Consider their position. By claiming the Bible as literally true, and the sole and fixed source of morality, any challenge to the Bible is a profound threat. And the more materially based the challenge, the worse the threat.

The Theory's Point of View

In contrast, as with the the Scopes defense, the Theory is based upon existing evidence and logic, with the goal of providing an internally coherent explanation. This explanation must account for existing evidence, as well as either accommodate evidence yet to be discovered, or face revision based upon new information.

That is, the Theory's argument is rhetorical, with the expectation that clear explanations of extensive evidence are sufficient in and of themselves.

The Theory does not consider Divine Revelation, or the Bible, one way or the other. The Bible does not contain any first order knowledge; therefore, it is irrelevant to any statements about first order knowledge. Further, the Theory itself has nothing to say one way or the other about moral questions: it is what it is.

Creationism's Strategy

This contrast is important to what follows: in this long-standing conflict, the antagonists' arguments occupy almost entirely different planes. The dialectical argument is unconcerned with facts; the rhetorical argument simply does not consider any dialectical position.

The Theory's explanatory power is an ongoing, and growing, threat to literal interpretations of the Bible. What is worse, in Creationists' eyes, is the teaching of the Theory in public High Schools. Creationists are, in essence, forced to fund a point of view they find completely antagonistic.

But because our governing structures are essentially secular, in that they may not officially favor one sect over another, Creationists are still barred from gaining anything like equal time for their dialectic argument in science classes. On the one hand, they cannot overtly suppress the Theory, because it is based upon first order knowledge, non-sectarian by definition. On the other, they cannot gain entry for overtly sectarian explanations.

This drives a two-pronged attack.

The first is to portray the Theory as a religion, thereby hoping to exclude it in the same way Biblically derived explanations are.

The second is to portray Creationism, under the guise of Intelligent Design, as a scientifically valid alternative explanation to the Theory, thereby gaining equal-time entrance to science classes.

Unfortunately, for Creationists, this strategy has inherent problems flowing from a dialectic position devoid of first order knowledge.

To depict rational inquiry in general, or the Theory in particular, as a religion, requires according the trappings of religion to rational inquiry. Religions are based upon revealed truth, have a priesthood, and include some sort of do-it-our-way-or-else threat. Rational inquiry in general, and the Theory in particular, do not possess these characteristics.

Further, while rational inquiry in practice is by no means perfect, or devoid of institutional blinders and inertia, ultimately rational inquiry cannot stray very far from first order knowledge. Therefore, unlike any religion, rational inquiry's statements change over time, sometimes very quickly. Further, because rational inquiry is based upon first order knowledge, which by definition is sect-independent, its conclusions do not, a priori, favor any sect.

As a consequence, then, such attempts requires draining the term "religion" of all meaning. This means, then, that all rhetorical arguments on this score will require intentionally ignoring or shading obvious distinctions, out of context quote mining, or using sophistry to deceive.

In portraying Creationism as a science, its advocates invariably fall afoul of the Cargo Cult syndrome--assuming the outward trappings and language of rational inquiry does not produce the results of rational inquiry. Acquiring sufficient first hand knowledge to support a resilient second order knowledge requires an astonishing amount of work; no Creationist organization has anything even remotely approximating ongoing research to obtain first order knowledge. Merely adopting the science's formalisms will not close that gap.

If the Bible is literally true, then first order knowledge, and theories based upon it, would clearly and continuously demonstrate that truth. However, first order knowledge has so far failed to be agreeable. This requires Creationists to create concepts but leave them undefined, conflate distinct concepts, misuse related scientific theories, create straw men, and, when all else fails, simply lie. Finally, Creationism, divorced from first order knowledge, promotes as scientific theories explanations upon which no conceivable combination of existing knowledge or future discovery could have any impact.

The Consequences

Our society makes it very difficult for a sect to impose its beliefs on others. Modernism has ingrained in people the habit of wanting explanations behind assertions. Except for those who take the Bible as literally true, simply asserting literal Biblical Truth is insufficient. Add to that the complication that some major Christian faith groups accept that the Theory correctly explains the material manifestations of Natural History [page search on "Aquinas"], and the conflict over the Theory involves more than believers vs. non-believers. As a knock-on-effect, such conflict makes clear that the driving force behind Creationism-as-science is theological, not some new-found love for rational inquiry.

This puts Biblical literalists in the uncomfortable position of attempting to assert a dialectical argument with rhetorical means, ground very unfriendly to the enterprise

On the plus side of the ledger, though, they have religious fervor born of possessing Divinely revealed Truth. Creationists understand that in a democracy, small groups sufficiently aggrieved can carry the day against much larger groups who don't have nearly as much dog in the fight.

In contrast, the Theory rests on firm scientific ground, presenting a coherent, interlocking, over-determined explanation of Natural History. This puts adherents of the scientific method in the enviable position of using the tool suitable for the task: rhetoric to defend a rhetorical position.

There are downsides though. By definition, scientific theories do not convey absolute truth, meaning fervor will always lie on the side religious fundamentalists. Creationists will always be able to exploit that difference.

The Prospects

Because the parties to the conflict occupy different planes, it will not go away soon, and maybe never. So long as first order knowledge fails to confirm Biblical inerrancy, Creationists will conclude any theory based upon such knowledge, and those who find the Theory credible, are evil. Fundamentalists are allergic to rational inquiry and freedom of conscience. No amount of evidence, no matter how detailed, will convince them otherwise.

For those who, along with St. Augustine, find that the best path to comprehending God is through understanding nature, Creationism is, at the moment, a total failure. Creationists could conceivably reverse this failure, but their inability, or unwillingness, to do the hard work of research has so far rendered that possibility moot.

Perhaps the only way to square this circle is for those who put rational inquiry ahead of Biblical inerrancy to rely less on the rhetorical argument and start challenging Creationists on dialectical grounds. In other words, demonstrate that applying the term "Evil" to the Theory is to miss the point entirely; by putting blame for society's ills on an explanatory framework with no moral component whatsoever amounts to focussing attention where it doesn't belong.

[End note: In outlining the distinction between dialectic and rhetoric, orders of knowledge, as well as the Scopes Monkey Trial example, I am indebted to "The Ethics of Rhetoric" by Richard M. Weaver, Hermagoras Press, 1985.]


Blogger Terry Finley said...

I invite you to visit my blog and to study the Bible with me.

Terry Finley

February 15, 2005 8:54 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Excellent article. You paint a very clear picture of the differences between the two arguments.

Our society makes it very difficult for a sect to impose its beliefs on others. Modernism has ingrained in people the habit of wanting explanations behind assertions. Except for those who take the Bible as literally true, simply asserting literal Biblical Truth is insufficient.Unfortunately, many people are attracted to assertions made with conviction, especially if those assertions have a long historical pedigree. Certainties sell better than probabilities.

February 15, 2005 8:53 PM  
Anonymous Ed Darrell said...

Solid analysis, really. Two ships traveling the same ocean, but different directions.

It's highly unlikely that creationists will resolve to do real science. What could scientists do that would lessen the negative effects of creationists hammering at science all the time? Is there a set of arguments, an argumentative direction, a rhetorical device which can defuse the misunderstanding?

February 15, 2005 11:00 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

"Two ships" - or perhaps, two teams in the same ballpark, but playing different games.

Jeff describes the reasons for the problems of Creationst-Evolution debate clearly.

The creationists' "dialectic" bring-it-down-any-way-we-can approach is evidenced by the scattergun arguments. All sorts of different arguments are fired off, many contradicting each other. For example:

1) The TofE is a science, scienctists are Bad (can’t wait to start on the eugenics etc), so the TofE is bad. Creationism is a Faith, so it is better.

2) Creationism, or ID is a science as valid as the TofE (but we’ll ignore the scientists are Bad line for this one, and the Creationism is a Faith line)

3) The TofE is NOT a science, but a Faith, so it has no more real-life validity than Creationism (which is also a Faith, not a science, as was argued above).

Another interesting feature is the fact that the hostility comes almost entirely from the Creationist side. Very few darwinists spend any time attacking creationism or ID, as if that would help ‘establish’ the TofE in some way.

Creationists would like that, because they want to create a false dichotomy (either darwinism is right, or creationism is right, so any point against darwinism is a point for creationism).

That’s why they love Dawkins. But while Dawkins is the most well-known darwinist who does devote any time to bashing religion, even he didn’t start off like that. His published books are all evolution exposition. His religion-thumping is primarily a hobby that tends to make good newsprint.

February 16, 2005 3:46 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Incidentally - Terry: full marks for effort.

Talk about trying to plant your seed on stony ground...


February 16, 2005 6:29 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I can't imagine Creationists ever doing real science, simply because the effort would almost certainly undermine their position further.

I think proponents of rational inquiry have focussed too much on making the rhetorical argument. When dealing with religious fundamentalists, there is simply no amount of proof possible, including the entire DVD boxed set of Natural History from year nought, that will dissuade them. What's worse, the stronger the case for naturalistic evolution becomes, the stronger their resistance, due to the greater perceived threat.

So, if I were to be in a debate with a Creationist, I would spend the entire time on the dialectical argument, first negating the nonsense claims that materialism is responsible for the world's ills.

Then I would note the narrowly sectarian motivation. Ironically, imposition of Biblical inerrancy is most threatening to other religionists. In emphasizing the observational basis of Evolution, its proponents have missed making hay of the religious conflict inherent in the Creationist position.

Finally, as with the Scopes Monkey trial, it is possible to lose the battle, but win the war. The Theory of Evolution lost that round--using rhetorical means to wage a dialectical argument is often not the wisest choice--but inadvertently won the longer term war in making the State of Tennessee's position look so foolish.


I have studied the Bible plenty, thank you. Perhaps you could tell me how to deal with first order knowledge that so habitually fails to come to Divinely Revealed Truth's heel.

February 16, 2005 12:29 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


"In contrast, the Theory rests on firm scientific ground, presenting a coherent, interlocking, over-determined explanation of Natural History"

Oh well then, I guess that just about seals it. You know, I come from a profession that isn't known for its humility. Any doctor I've met gets very indignant if anyone suggests he or she doesn't spend every waking moment trying to care for the ill and afflicted. Politicians tend to think their elections transform them into sages. But for sheer unadulterated arrogance, nothing beats the modest, diffident scientist whose self-effacing exterior hides his unshakeable conviction that (in the words of Theodore Roszak) he and only he understands what is real and what is not and only he possesses the means of telling the difference.


"Another interesting feature is the fact that the hostility comes almost entirely from the Creationist side."

Surely that was meant as a joke.

February 17, 2005 2:50 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Your response indicates that you may have missed some of my argument.

"In contrast, the Theory rests on firm scientific ground, presenting a coherent, interlocking, over-determined explanation of Natural History"

Is not arrogant because it makes no presumption as to the explanations correctness, only its bases.

The Theory's basis is first order knowledge. The extent of that first order knowledge is such that various phenomena support the explanation--hence interlocking. Further, the Theory contains multiple deductive consequences, hence overdetermined, and there are no observations contradicting the Theory, hence coherent.

So that statement doesn't seal anything, it merely shows how the Theory--in rhetorical terms--contrasts with Creationism.

Now I could be wrong. Creationism might be far more based on first order knowledge than I know; or the Theory may exclude contradictory first hand knowledge in ways I don't know.

Both are emminently possible, since I am, at best, a well read amateur.

But absent either of those cases, the statement is an accurate description of content as it stands.

February 17, 2005 5:53 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Further regarding your comment to Brit.

Perhaps you should look at some Creationist web sites. You will have to look long and hard before you will find Evolutionists referring to Creationists as "evil."

I found the two included quotes within minutes of superficial searching.

Sounds like a significant hostility asymmetry to me.

February 17, 2005 6:07 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Not a joke.

The pro-ID or Creationism essays that you do read, from Behe or Berlinski, consist almost entirely of attacks on supposed 'holes' in darwinism, not on evidence for ID.

Conversely, very few scientific books on evolution, including those of Dawkins, even mention creationism and ID - being based on evidence from the natural world for darwinist theories.

These discussions on BrosJudd, moving to here, originate in Orrin's pretty much daily assaults on darwinism, and the subsequent attempts to clarify and defend it.

OJ even as a category called "Nazism (or Applied Darwinism)".

February 17, 2005 9:09 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


I can well believe there are creationist sites that evince a visceral hostility, although you haven't quoted them. You have quoted two very familiar, widely-held and well-articulated objections to the political agenda of some prominent natural evolutionists. Why don't you answer them?

There are lots of different creationists, from the biblical six-day literalist down to the guy who says: "I don't know, but natural evolution doesn't do it." You don't seem to be too interested in the latter, preferring to lump them all together in your favourite sterotypes who you suspect, probably with reason, can't deal with the complexity and the lingo.

You also seem now to be lumping ID and creationism together, which is a bit of a surprise--do you mind if I lump you guys in with astrologers? Actually, I agree there are good reasons to be suspicious of ID as science. As I can't do the math on the complexity debate, I really don't know, but my own sense is that it is a political reaction against scientism and a well-deserved payback for the arrogance scientific materialism has always demonstrated in its successful campaign to exclude religion from the public square by combining self-laudatory odes to the purity and reliability of science with secular fanaticism on the constitutional front. Sic transit gloria mundi.

It is striking how medieval natural evolutionists are in how so deperately they cling to the notion that the theory is complete and self-contained. there seems to be a real terror or aversion in admitting there are aspects of existense it cannot and will never be able to explain, as if such would wash away the beautiful sandcastle. Apart from magnanmously acknowledging that doubt remains over that first spark of life in the primal goop, you want everything to fit and you are darned determined to make it fit. This leads you into unscientific (in the classical sense) a priori biases in favour of whatever flavour-of-the- month-theory comes out of evolutionary psychology, neuro-science and genetics, or anything that supports the determinism you neither experience nor believe in with respect to your own everyday lives. It is this, I believe, that leads Orrin to describe evolution as faith. Of course he is right.

And the language you guys appropriate! First order knowledge indeed. "Hey Dr. Guinn, can you believe it? Those dumb creationists are still wallowing in crummy old third order knowledge, but we accept nothing less than first order knowledge!" "Never you mind, Dr. Duquette, education will make them all see clearly eventually, provided we can keep those wild and crazy creationists at bay."

(I know, I know. You never intended to make a normative or qualitative judgment on the different orders of knowledge. You were just trying to categorize and classify them objectively and--dare we say--scientifically. Then I assume you will have no objection if we just reverse the adjectives and start describing intuitive, experiential knowledge as first order?)

What you guys seem not to want to do anymore is argue the philosophy of science and discuss its limits,particularly as it applies to the human experience, as scientific pioneers used to do. You prefer to simply start with the axiom that science is an synonym for truth, which allows you to bask in certainty as you chant the grandaddy of all tautological fallacies--"Evolution is the best scientific explanation for life that we have."

February 19, 2005 5:58 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I chose those Creationist quotes to encapsulate what I believe to be the fundamental driving force behind all Creationist/ID arguments over Natural History.

There are two reasons I didn't quote any prominent evolutionists--by that I take it you primarily mean Dawkins--in the same regard. First, while Dawkins expresses far too much certainty regarding evolution, and too much hostility regarding religion for my taste, I don't think he has any particular political agenda. Further, even taking Dawkins' arguments into account, almost everything he writes is second order knowledge.

Second, and more importantly, the quotes I cited show that Creationist objections are not to one or several prominent Evolutionists, but to the entire enterprise. Many realms of knowledge have two types of truth--philosophical (ethical might be a better word) and objective. Creationists have long since concluded Darwinism is philosophically evil. That conviction is so overwhelming that they will use any available tactic, no matter how unethical, to counter any manifestation of Darwinism's objective truth.

You are right that there a lots of Creationists, and you are right that I lump them all together (Although I don't think "the guy who says: 'I don't know, but natural evolution doesn't do it.'" belongs in that group. David Cohen is archetypical of that conclusion, but his motivation and approach are entirely different from Creationists.)

You also seem now to be lumping ID and creationism together, which is a bit of a surprise--do you mind if I lump you guys in with astrologers?After considerable internal debate, and completing the essay, I did a mass search and replace of ID for Creationism. Why? Because the casts of characters, motivations, and, most importantly, their submerging ethical rhetoric in pursuit of a dialectical goal are identical. I would not lump ID with Creationism if they had chosen to make a rigorous argument, and chosen not to resort to deceit in place of one.

Additionally, they all subscribe to the same strawman: rational inquiry (aka materialism, science) as scientism. What you see as well-deserved payback for materialistic hubris I see as the height of irony. The reason our government is so secular has far less to do with scientism than with the plethora of sects simultaneously proclaiming possession of Absolute Truths that are, to a greater or lesser extent, mutually exclusive.

It is striking how medieval natural evolutionists are in how so deperately they cling to the notion that the theory is complete and self-contained.I think you go off the rails a bit here. There is no such thing as a complete theory. I'm not sure what you mean by self-contained, but the theory is internally consistent across an amazingly wide range of phenomena, and contradicted by none, despite many opportunities.

I know you won't believe this, but I don't want second order knowledge to fit some pre-conceived explanation. What I do want is for second order knowledge, or hypotheses hoping to become second order knowledge, to derive from first order knowledge. Which means I could find, for instance, ID to be a viable alternative to, or complete replacement of, naturalistic evolution.

And it is also at this point where Orrin is completely wrong. In order for my opinion of naturalistic evolution to qualify as a faith, it would have to be immune to contradictory first order knowledge. But that is silly on its face, as evidenced by his continual use of the term Darwinism. Modern evolutionary theory is not Darwinism, but if he acknowledged that obvious fact, he would undercut his straw man. The only way he can be right is to make the term "faith" content free.

And the language you guys appropriate!That is unfair. Either my descriptions of the orders of knowledge are adequate, or they are not. Nothing in those descriptions comes close to implying superiority of one over another; further, I left the door gaping to make the case that third order knowledge might in fact be what we should pay most attention to regardless of what first order knowledge substantiates. (BTW, I am indebted to Joseph Shropshire for this notion)

Emil Durkheim makes the argument. The relevant paras are towards the end.

I have no objections to reversing adjectives and considering intuitive, experiential knowledge first order, so long as such knowledge is invariant. For instance, the notion that male and female minds are fundamentally different is difficult to prove through measurement, but universally obvious to anyone, of any culture, at any time.

Anyone, that is, except those so wedded to the dialectical argument that the absence of such difference is the sina qua non of a just society.

I am more than happy to discuss the philosophy of science and its limits. And you, of all people (since it was in reply to you some months ago that I emphasized this), should know that I have clearly distinguished the difference between little-t and big-T truth.

BTW, "Evolution is the best scientific explanation for life that we have." is not a tautology, as there is no identity between Evolution and scientific explanations.

What got me interested in writing this in the first place is the astonishing willingness of Evolution's antagonists to stoop to chicanery, obfuscation, and outright lies.

While Orrin Judd is certainly guilty of this, the tendency is universal. And it is that I wanted to understand and explain.

February 20, 2005 11:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

1. Natural evolution, as promoted by most evolutionary biologists, the scientific establishment, the National Academy of Sciences, Dawkins, Dennett and Lewontin, et. al., the ACLU,. and many posters you and I know, is not simply a modest and incomplete theory on the history of species that takes care to assert nothing more than what the concrete evidence shows. If it were, there would be a lot less fuss. It is a theory that says all life can be explained by the operation of random, natural events that occurred without purpose or design, and that explanation is superior to all others. When new facts emerge, they are fit into that paradigm. If the new facts don’t support the theory, the theory is amended to make room. But the cardinal sin is to countenance design. As Berlinski said, it is the one scientific theory that is marked more by what it excludes than what it includes. This applies both to the fulminating anti-religious fanatics like Dawkins and Harry and the more civilized like Gould, who is willing to rent space in the palace to religious folks provided they stay in their own rooms.

2. You are quite right that ID has never produced any scientific evidence. Neither has natural evolution. The evidence comes from paleontologists, geneticists, anthropological historians, biologists, etc, etc. Evolutionists and ID proponents are both looking at the same evidence. Natural evolution says: “See all this wondrous natural history. It all happened randomly without rhyme or reason.”. ID says: “No, it couldn’t have. It is logically and mathematically offensive to attribute such complexity to random events and natural processes.” In other words, ID is basically a rejoinder. It is certainly not a discrete science and I’m not sure whether it deserves to be called a theory, but it is definitely one side of a debate. To exclude it is to decline to debate, and to exclude it from classrooms by law is to censor.

3. I don’t know what “creationism” means to you. The way you talk I envisage tobacco-chewing Bubbas with their Bibles in one hand and shotguns in the other tracking down “evolootionists”. I have heard such creatures exist (although DNA analysis shows they may be a different species that evolved from different common ancestors), but do you not think you are being a teensy bit dramatic in the way you describe three-quarters of the American population? Anyway, dear Skipper, if you want to talk hostility, look in the mirror.

4. Perhaps tautological is the wrong word and I should have said circular. When scientists say that a) only observable, material facts are within the realm of science; and b) Natural evolution is a theory that all life can be explained by observable material facts, and so c) Natural evolution is the best scientific description for life we have, they are just going in circles. So, by the way, are they when they repeat the canard that there is no other or better scientific explanation available at this time. Evolution is wonderfully adaptable and will quickly–far too quickly–embrace just about any reversal, sharp turn or whatever that comes along from punctuated equilibria to the wildest just-so stories in order to make the evidence fit. There is room for everybody on USS Darwin provided they all adhere to the basic tenet that design is a sacrilege. And so, by definition, any other “scientific” theory is part of evolution.

5. On the subjects of obfuscation and chicanery, it is impossible not to note how adept many natural evolutionists are in passing from the modest to the grandiose and back again. You are careful in this post and your reply to me to emphasize the modest and cautious side of scientific inquiry---the need for evidence, corroboration, first order knowledge, etc. Yet at other times I have seen you argue with confidence and gusto that; a) we all originated in East Africa and then migrated to the four corners, evolving characteristics that range from the palest Nordic to the darkest Australian aborigine; b) all morality is explained by “what works” and evolved through natural processes, c) man “traded off” (unconsciously through natural selection and random mutation) the ability to stand on two feet for a dangerous, difficult birthing process. Now, will you agree with me that there is not a shred of objective, observable evidence to support any of these propositions? If so, why are you so attracted to them other than by reason of faith?

February 20, 2005 3:22 PM  
Blogger mynym said...

I wonder if the text that Darwinists are writing here can be seen as an artifact of intelligent design, or not?

Is it just their memes? Did Nature select what they write for them through natural selections? I don't know that there are any intelligent selections being made in their text.

It is little wonder that it is "shifty" or slithery.

February 20, 2005 8:00 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


I’m sure that Skipper will give you a full reply, but to address a couple of points from parts 1 and 2 of your post:

"It is a theory that says all life can be explained by the operation of random, natural events that occurred without purpose or design, and that explanation is superior to all others. When new facts emerge, they are fit into that paradigm. If the new facts don’t support the theory, the theory is amended to make room. But the cardinal sin is to countenance design."

I’d say that was pretty accurate, actually. Well put.

So why is it ok to 'amend' evolutionary theory, so long as you don't countenance 'design'?

To answer the question, we need to identify what ‘design’ means. What is someone getting at, if they think that somewhere in the evolutionary process, there was some element of ‘design’?

I can think of two possibilities:

1) that an initial Creator started off evolution, knowing beforehand where it would end up, but not necessarily interfering during the actual process. So no matter how science explains the nuts and bolts of evolution, the Creator decided at the beginning that humans and other lifeforms would eventually appear in their current form.This is the line the Catholic Church officially takes, and neither I, nor Skipper, nor any scientist, can logically disprove it. I don’t hold the position myself, because I don’t see a particular reason to (and I think it defies common sense), but I don’t object to it in the same way that I object to the other possibility...

2) that an all-powerful Designer somehow physically interferes in the process of evolution – in the nuts and bolts - acting and making decisions here and there, to push evolution in certain directions (make chimps, lizards, aphids, kill dinosaurs, make cheetahs fast, nettles sting, tapeworms grow etc)This is the contentious line, and any scientific theory of evolution must reject it. It cannot be allowed in to anything that resembles ‘science’. Why? Because it amounts to saying: "here (being whatever point the ID-er has decided) we must stop our investigations into how evolution works, and admit that it must have happened by supernatural intervention". In other words, "that bit was magic".

Evolutionary scientists reject this for reasons including:
a) it is defeatist (why should we decide to give up our investigation into the nuts and bolts here?);
b) the line of ‘magic’ is arbitrary and ever-changing (ID-ers have thrown the ‘irreducible complexity” objection at an ever-retreating procession of items, yet always somebody has managed to explain the next one);
c) supernatural intervention cannot be falsified (once you say “it’s magic that that’s that”, all further investigation is precluded);
d) and perhaps above all, no other branch of science has to face this objection, so why should evolutionary science?

Which beings me on to your point 2:

"Natural evolution says: “See all this wondrous natural history. It all happened randomly without rhyme or reason.”. ID says: “No, it couldn’t have. It is logically and mathematically offensive to attribute such complexity to random events and natural processes.”"

Let’s look at diamonds, which are formed by a sequence of undesigned, blind, natural processes.

The process begins between 75 and 120 miles below the earth’s surface. In order for a diamond to be created, carbon must be placed under at least 435,113 pounds per square inch of pressure at a temperature of at least 752 degrees F. If conditions drop below either of these two points, you get graphite instead, but if the pressure and chemistry is right then the carbon atoms in the melting crustal rock bond to build diamond crystals. Even if they do form, it might take thousands of years for those diamonds to come anywhere near the surface. This happens when magma flows through deep fractures in the Earth, creating ‘kimberlite pipes’, which, in massive eruptions (much bigger than volcano eruptions) force the diamonds and other matter very quickly through the Earth’s mantle and crust. Eventually the magma cools, leaving veins of kimberlite rock, inside which diamonds can be found.

According to radioactive decay testing, the most recent ‘delivery’ of diamonds happened some 45 million years ago. Many diamonds are billions of years old. So we’ve never witnessed this process happening.

Yet I’ve never heard anyone object to this scientific explanation of how diamonds are formed. Nobody has ever claimed it is "logically and mathematically offensive to attribute such complexity to random events and natural processes" ; and that a better explanation is "diamonds are there because a supernatural power put them there."

I would say that the formation of diamonds is no less weird and unlikely than say, the proliferation of species of ant becasue of allopatric speciation. In fact, I think it’s rather more weird and unlikely. Yet there it is.

The reason nobody has an ‘Intelligent Design’ theory of the formation of diamonds is that the scientific explanation is not seen to threaten any religious account of how life in general, and human life in particular, got here.

A common misconception, which I suspect our friend 'mynym' here makes, is that we darwinists are all atheists who’ll use anything to try to eliminate God. Not so.

As with the Catholics, it is possible to be both a theist and a darwinist.

And most people who accept scientific theories of evolution tended to be atheist or agnostic or otherwise sceptical of or indifferent to religion to begin with, and came across explanations of evolution just as they might come across explanations of diamond-formation. Because they have no theological hang-ups, they are no more or less sceptical about scientific theories of evolution than they are about scientific theories of diamonds.

As to your point:

"ID is basically a rejoinder. It is certainly not a discrete science and I’m not sure whether it deserves to be called a theory, but it is definitely one side of a debate. To exclude it is to decline to debate, and to exclude it from classrooms by law is to censor."

Yes it is one side of a debate: a philosophical debate. And we don’t ignore it – we’re addressing it now on this blog. It belongs in the philosophy classroom.

But it is no side of any scientific debate. It should be excluded from the science classroom for the same reason that a 'God put the diamonds there' argument would be excluded from a scientific lesson about the formation of diamonds: because it is not science.

February 21, 2005 5:48 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Brit said a great deal I was going to, only better. So I shall try to avoid repeating anything he said, if only to avoid humiliation in comparison.

1. The Cardinal Sin is not coutenancing Design. Rather, it is countenancing something as Science simply because its proponents are sufficiently bothersome. ID defines neither intelligence nor design. Its primary phenomenan, Specified Complex Information similarly defines neither Specified, nor Complex. Should ID provide rigorous definitions for those terms, and demonstrate how such definitions encompass known observations, while also excluding other observations, then ID deserves to be taught as science. Unfortunately, the lack of definitional rigor, and complete absence of any deductive consequences means ID could only be considered a science as an act of affirmative action.

So, as in much else, Berlinski is simply wrong--rational inquiry is a tough master, and ID needs to look to itself, not existing theories of evolution, as to why it is excluded.

2. I alluded to this above. It isn't that ID hasn't produced any scientific evidence. Rather, the problem is that there is no possible combination of observations that could falsify ID. Evolution, never mind what some commentators say, has dozens of way in which it could be altered, fundamentally changed, or completely overturned.

So, ID is not a rejoinder. Its explanatory universe consists solely of invoking appeals to incredulity to explain gaps. Appeals to increduilty are not science. Now, if ID can demonstrate how a gap is completely unbridgable, and that the associated complexity is impossible by mere chance alone within the available time constraints, then they richly deserve the Nobel. Unfortunately, IDers loudly trumpet the latter, but have resoundingly failed in the former. Therefore, excluding ID from science classes is no more a failure of debate than excluding astrology from astronomy classes.

3. Creationism takes several main forms, YEC, OEC, and ID. All of them, though, share one thing in common: certain elements of life originated out of whole cloth as the result of a deus ex machina. I don't know where you come up with three quarters of the American population as Creationists, but unless you are willing to apply Juddian torture techniques to poll results, roughly 60% of the US population believes the Theory of Evolution correctly describes the material manifestations of natural history. That means no more than 40% could be Creationists of any stripe, and most of that 40% confine their objections to the origin of Humans.

4. Brit dealt with this already, but on my way into work this morning, I thought of it in a different light. In our justice system, people are presumed innocent proven guilty, because to do otherwise short circuits the search for the assertion's proof. Similarly for all rational inquiry. The moment one invokes the supernatural--presuming guilt, as it were--then all further inquiry to the issue is completely stopped.

There is nothing at all unusual about Evolution as a science, except that its subject matter happens to overlap assertions about nature in a book some prefer to view as being inerrant. Therefore, there is no reason at all to limit this thinking to merely Evolution (remember my first quote in the article?). To some theologically exercized people, all rational inquiry, which by definition must assume material causes in order to avoid presuming guilt, is inherently evil.

5. Here you assert that extrapolating from ground firmly based upon first order knowledge is an exercise in Faith (capitalized intentionally--because to use it in this context is to equate with belief in Revealed Truth. But this is yet another example of obfuscation, because Faith in this sense means it is immune to first order knowledge. You can't both believe that and write your paragraph one at the same time.) But that is to drain the term Faith of all meaning.

Of course Evolutionary theory is going to attempt to encompass everything you describe, and given the state of knowledge, often that will mean encompassing by analogy. If first order knowledge clearly demonstrates that a simple mutation among a sub-population of a fish species that happened to end up in a cave results none of that subpopulation having eyes, then naturalistic evolution for that sub-population seems a fair bet. If this eventuall happens for every sub-population that ends up in a light deprived environment, then this would seem to be pretty sound systemic first order knowledge for naturalistic evolution. Further, should there be even one case of this not happening, then naturalistic evolution would instantly be in for a rocky road.

In the 15,000 years since a homogenous population colonized the Americas, sub-populations run the gamut of morhpological characteristics from Innuits to Plains Indians to Tierra del Fuegans.

Does concluding from analogy that this is the result of naturalistic processes, even if the details are unknown, qualify as Faith?

It is in this area where the chicanery, obfuscation and outright lies get completely out of hand. The terms observation and experiment get subject to astonishing abuse, and the word "species" gets to stand for whatever taxonomic level happens to be convenient at the moment.

That is the result of being completely committed to a dialectical argument no matter what first order knowledge implies.

February 21, 2005 9:42 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Thanks for the thoughtful replies. I’ll just answer with a couple of bullets before addressing Skipper’s last point in more detail:

a) Brit, diamonds aren’t alive or sentient and they aren’t a subject of biology, so what is the point? What have gene pools, sexual and natural selection and random mutation, etc. have to do with diamonds? Now, if you were to ask why humans see diamonds as more special than granite, that would be very interesting, but perhaps that’s for another day.

b) I think your objections to ID are quite cogent, although surely they do more than just appeal to incredulity. If someone tries to keep me from spending my whole salary on lottery tickets, he is doing more than just appealing to incredulity–he is telling me my assessments of chance and probability are seriously out of whack. However, if his main objective is to outlaw gambling, I agree his contribution to a class on odds-theory and probability is suspect. It hard to understand a “science” built entirely on proving a negative or simply manning the dikes against science. But isn’t ID about design, not maintenance and operation? I don’t understand why this overworked deity guiding each step along the way is a necessary component.

Skipper, you are stretching the appropriateness of analogies way too far and into the realm of circular thinking. I’m sure some of the early proponents of germ theory were confident in their derivative belief that all disease is caused by bacteria. The problem when you analogize from salamanders to humans and start with an a priori assumption that one is descended from the other is that you are forced into a paradigm that focuses exclusively on their similarities and ignores their qualitative differences. This is what lawyers do all the time when they try to use favourable precedents to convince the court that the facts are the same. When they aren’t, the lawyer then tries to convince the court that the differences are inconsequential or superficial or really aren’t differences at all. But it is a well-known rule that when the facts aren’t the same the precedent doesn’t apply, and any lawyer will tell you the facts are different more often than not. There is a good reason for that rule.

And the facts here are very different. Yesterday, during a blogging break, I watched a kids’ show on animals with my son. It was on the snow leopard. I sat listening to all the predictable “our friend, the leopard” pap, and waited patiently for what I knew was coming: “The snow leopard is perfectly adapted to its environment.” effused the pretty young narrator. We’ve all heard this kiddy-darwinism a million times and we have a vague idea of what they are trying to say. But no one in his right mind would seriously describe humans that way, not even the remotest aboriginals (their political activism notwithstanding). If they were, they wouldn’t need fire, fur, poison darts, etc. and they wouldn’t be making totems, chanting at the sun or going on long nomadic treks.

Now, you may disagree. You may think DNA similarities and bone structures, etc. are enough to make the analogy, and so off you go into the exciting world of theoretical conjecture looking for natural explanations for things like religion, morality, art and alienation. As you have started with the assumption that they must exist, it is hardly surprising that you think you have found them. No harm in that, but Skipper, it ain’t science anymore than the 18th century doctor confidently predicting we would find the bug that causes cancer was science. There are simply too many huge and glaring differences between the nature of humans and salamanders and their historical developments to make the analogy fit respectably within the confines of sceptical, cautious, evidence-demanding, testable ‘I’m from Missouri” science, and you really shouldn’t pooh-pooh dissenters as just playing dialectical games. However, it is scientism.

February 22, 2005 5:56 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Brit, diamonds aren’t alive or sentient and they aren’t a subject of biology, so what is the point? What have gene pools, sexual and natural selection and random mutation, etc. have to do with diamonds?Well, the point was this: the scientific explanations of formation of diamonds and of evolution share some common properties: blind natural processes lead to complexity; they happen over vast time-periods, and mostly a long time in the past; neither has been 'witnessed' happening, so the explanations rely on deduction and falsifiable hypotheses supported by evidence.

There are a lot of protests that the ToE is bad science for these very reasons, but none that the diamond-formation is. The explanation of diamonds is universally accepted. The same could be said of plate tectonics.

I suggest that the chief reason for this inconsistency is that some religionists feel threatened by evolution, but not by the other sciences.

So evolutionary science is attacked for things that are accepted in all other sciences.

Those indifferent to religion to begin with tend to apply the same criteria consistently to diamond-formation, plate tectonics and natural history.

The fact that diamonds are not sentient but chimps, molluscs or dandelions might be is beside this particular point.

February 22, 2005 7:13 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I must have overstated my reliance on analogy.

I didn't meant to imply that because Evolution seems to cover the ground pretty well with some things, say the loss of vision in cave fish, that it must also do the same for something else, e.g. humans.

Rather, the argument is that if there is no identifiable characteristic preventing what operated on the former from happening on the latter, then there is no a priori reason to exclude the process.

In the absence of perfect information, in other words, Evolutionary theory seems a good place to start.

But, with regard to this article, I don't want to discuss the correctness of one explanation or the other.

Rather, it seems to me that EVERY Creationist/ID paper I have ever read is riddled with dihonest discourse.

The objections you have raised are sensible, and aimed at what could be stretching what is known far beyond its breaking point.

Now I don't happen to necessarily agree with that, but that is immaterial. You make your argument honestly.

Which is wonderful, but you haven't succeeded in giving me much insight as to why Creationists seem, as a class, utterly incapable of doing the same. The Berlinski discussion above is a perfect example.

Or do you find my objections overwrought?

February 22, 2005 11:38 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Peter said:
“The snow leopard is perfectly adapted to its environment.” effused the pretty young narrator. We’ve all heard this kiddy-darwinism a million times and we have a vague idea of what they are trying to say. But no one in his right mind would seriously describe humans that way, not even the remotest aboriginals (their political activism notwithstanding). If they were, they wouldn’t need fire, fur, poison darts, etc..

Sure. And the reason is that the fire, fur, poison darts, etc. serves much the same purpose - cultural evolution takes the place of regular old evolution. Actually, one could argue that we are very, very well adapted to our role as super-generalist, able to live in all sorts of places and circumstances. Which isn't to say that people don't adopt to their environment over time - skin color, sickle-cell anemia, etc. - but brains and tech probably take up a lot of the slack.

Homo floresiensis, on the other hand, did seem to adopt to its environment by shrinking, either because it had a little less brainpower, was there a lot longer than is usual, or something else altogether

March 18, 2005 5:28 PM  
Anonymous DaveScot said...

Neo-Darwinian theory isn't really a theory. It's a narrative.

The bottom line remains that no one has ever observed any living thing reproducing except after it its own kind.

April 12, 2005 12:38 AM  
Anonymous emanuel goldstein said...

In other words, to even question a naturalistic explanation of all reality is BAD; to follow mainstream evolutionary theory is GOOD.

To even question the mainstream is BAD; to believe what the public schools tell you is good.

Yes...I can see why the state would prefer that.

April 16, 2005 12:40 AM  
Blogger answer-man said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 04, 2006 5:15 AM  

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