Wednesday, 12 September 2012

responses to critics

I recently gave a talk on evolution vs creation. These replies to criticisms below should be self-explanatory.

Please note that I am unable due to time constraints to engage further in debate.


1. That my argument contains non-sequiturs and fallacies of affirming the consequent (FAC). That would be because it is an inductive, probabilistic argument. All inductive arguments are structured the same, logically speaking, as FACs. (If A, then B, B, therefore A). If you consult Swinburne (2004), the Existence of God, you’ll see that he justifies God’s existence using probabilistic arguments based on Bayes’ Theorem, which is bidirectionally implicative, unlike formal logic, which defines any bidirectionally implicative proposition as a fallacy or circular or self-justifying. IE in this argument the premises entail the hypothesis, and the hypothesis entails the premises. But all science is like this: a hypothesis derives from observed evidence, and predicts future observations or evidence, by stating a theory which has law-like entailments that the future will resemble the past. The evidence entails the hypothesis, and the hypothesis or theory entails future evidence of the same kind. So this criticism isn’t revealing anything I wasn’t aware of, hence my originally placing the Bayesian equation in one of the pages.


2. That my presentation doesn’t show nuance as to the various types of evolutionary arguments or presentations of sub-models etc. Yes, this is not a formal academic presentation or paper, in the sense of intended to show detail to an academic audience who are experts in evolutionary theory. I was presenting an intelligent layperson’s comprehendable model of evolution which an educated layperson could follow, and was limited by time to not go into detail. You may notice, for example, that the last few screens of philosophical argument do not go into as much technical detail as this response collection here. The reason is the same: if one has one minute per slide, it’s not possible to go into technical detail. I apologise for misrepresenting anything, however, or oversimplifying.


3. That the present research ignores recent research by Intelligent Design proponents. See my reply to (2) above regarding limitations. 


I also responded to this particular criticism by pointing out that the scientific consensus is in favour of evolution, which my interlocutor accepted as true. This does not, of course, mean that scientists are right, just that ID proponents need to get more peer-reviewed articles on ID published in scientific journals if they want to be taken seriously, by presenting incontrovertible evidence of something biological that had to have been designed, for which no mechanism would suffice as an explanation. I am not aware of any such journal article, but I look forward to reading one. 


In particular, my objection to ID is not that it is covertly theistic. My objection to ID is that it assumes that a complex designer, with complex (universe-sized and universe-detailed plans) pre-existed the universe, and pre-existed life, which means that something more complex than our existing universe pre-existed our universe. That strikes me as highly improbable. In our observation, less complex things come first and are followed by more complex things, hence, bacteria and jellyfish first, then fish, then amphibians, reptiles, etc. Or to use a human analogy: fire, spear, Boeing, not, Boeing first. If we use Bayes’ equation of probability, then, given that in our observation, complex things usually appear after simpler things in technology and in nature, it seems as if the prior probability of there being an intelligent designer is low. Given the massive explanatory power of evolution, barring perhaps an as-yet-unexplained example here and there from the ID camp, it seems to follow that the posterior probability of ID is low, too. From Bayes’ equation, it follows, that the total probability of ID is low. ID supporters have to provide an argument, like any other species of creationist, as to why they think the prior probability of a universal designing intelligence that wants to design and create, is high. Swinburne (2004) provides such an argument, as do Unwin and Plantinga. But they’re all mistaken if they consider such a being to be ‘simple’. For my detailed argument, see Ostrowick (2012), South African Journal of Philosophy, available on


4. That evolution is inherently a materialistic hypothesis and comes from the materialist paradigm, and is therefore anti-religious. If this were true, then Evolution would threaten religion broadly. But I do not think it is true. The specific simplified model of evolution presented does not require materialism to be true. It’s agnostic towards metaphysics. If angels were capable of genetic mutations, they’d evolve. Thus, if evolution is one possible answer to the problem of natural evils, and if evolution does not contradict Deism, then it follows that evolution helps a theist (or specifically a Deist) to respond to the problem of natural evils.


5. I’d like to point out that the purpose of the presentation was to show that it is possible to coherently hold that God exists and that evolution is true, provided that one rejects scriptural infallibility. By self-identifying as a creationist, as two audience members seemed to do, one is presuming the truth of something and then afterwards interpreting the evidence in the light of that. 


One audience member suggested that “we’re working from the same evidence” but just “interpreting it differently” based on our “prior assumptions”. I am not certain that that is how science works, but I stand to be corrected. My understanding of the scientific method is that (i) one makes an observation, (ii) one draws a theory from it, and then (iii) one makes a prediction, which, if confirmed, (iv) confirms the theory. Theism, Intelligent Design, or creationism omits step (i) and starts at step (ii) - postulating a theory first, which is why it is unscientific. It starts by assuming that there’s an intelligent creator - the “theory”. If an ID supporter wants to dispute this, he has to explain why it is, then, that he thinks that intelligent purposive/teleological explanations are the only suitable ones, when less complex explanations that fit the normal scientific efficient-causal framework are available. That seems to be his starting point. 



Of course, he will then point to various examples of evolutionary oddities that are prima facie hard to explain from within evolutionary theory, without reference to an intelligent designer. All I can say in response is that this seems to require that we assume that they’re inexplicable, ipso facto, without a designer, that they are, ipso facto, purposive, and that ipso facto, science will never ever be able to explain them sans a designer, using a purely efficient-causal model like evolution. All three of these assumptions are false, and the latter, that “we will never find a mechanistic explanation” for how certain miraculously complex things eventuated, is another inductive assumption, prone to fallacy of affirming the consequent, like any induction. In this latter case, one is arguing from Bayesian probability and saying, it seems prima facie improbable, for example, that the eye could have evolved, and was not created. My response is that it depends on one’s intuitions, and these derive from one’s assumptions. So, if one assumes, ipso facto, that God exists, one will no doubt see his design in things. And if one assumes, ipso facto, that he doesn’t exist, one will no doubt see the “design” as explicable, at some stage, by a mere mechanism. 




So I acknowledge that my interlocutor was right about how our prior commitments lead us to assume different types of explanation. However, I disagree on the notion that these prior commitments must assume intentional design prima facie, or that it is the preferable explanation, and that we will never find a mechanistic explanation, for evolutionary oddities, or that a materialistic presumption is somehow ruled out prima facie. To be charitable, one must see which explanation best predicts the type of thing one is seeing. 




In one case, one explanation would be that God wanted bacteria to have flagella, and designed them meticulously. In the other case, one would say that some virus injected a cell, and the cell erroneously copied the DNA and produced instead a motile flagellum-bearing cell rather than another virus with an injector. Which of these explanations seems prima facie more probable? It strikes me that saying “God did it” in this case is really bringing up further questions, like, “Why did he want to do that?”, whereas the materialist explanation seems to bring up no further questions, just as one would not ask “why did the dice land on a double-six?” - They just did. The trick here is that "Why" is ambiguous. It can mean "For what goal or purpose?" and it can mean "Due to what previous cause?". It is this intuitive difference in the style of explanation one accepts that leads one to prefer ID or evolution.




6. That genetic mutations always destroy or remove information. This was a bald assertion, and is demonstrably false. As pointed out, certain genetic diseases exist because of the addition of codons, and meiosis involves the merging of two sets of DNA, and meiosis is one of the mechanisms of mutuation - indeed, probably the main mechanism. Hence evolution can occur because of adding, removing or changing quantities of DNA codons or information, provided that the changes have some effect as to the animal’s fitness for survival.




7. That natural evils are not evil, because no free-will or evil choices are made by animals. This observation is probably correct, however, animals are subjects of morality, in that they have moral worth. So their suffering is morally significant. Therefore, if they are subjected to wanton cruelty or other futile forms of suffering, they are morally significant as sufferers, and hence, as subjects of some ethical concerns. One such ethical concern might be the question as to why God allows them to suffer. The quickest and strongest response, in my view, is that it is so they can evolve into better creatures. No other response will suffice. My interlocutor at this point suggested that that is a bad argument, and I agree, but since I am, as it were, playing “God’s advocate”, I must stop there and not explore further lest I find the answer inadequate to support theism. The point I was making was it seems, prima facie, that theism and evolution are not incompatible, and that evolution might help theism. That’s all. Again, for reasons of time limits, it’s not practical to go into too much detail about whether an argument is really good or not.




8. The purpose of the talk was primarily to reassure theists that it’s not necessarily the case that evolution is a threat to theism. You have to first demonstrate that it is a threat, and I believe that I have shown that evolution is not necessarily a threat, particularly if the theist opts for Deism. This means that arguments such as ID which assume that evolution is a threat, are starting from false assumptions (that ‘designed-looking’ things can’t appear by accident), and hence, their entire argument becomes a moot point (whether evolution occurs). If evolution supports theism, as I argued above, then it follows that everything that has evolved might also have been intentionally pre-designed to do so by God, and allowed to manifest through evolution. Etc. So my point is that an argument can be made for the compatibility of evolution and God, and that theists are barking up the wrong tree by attacking evolution; they should be attacking neuropsychology. 




9. As for designed-looking things appearing spontaneously, I mentioned the clock experiment in which a mathematician showed that random clock parts can and will spontaneously evolve into working clocks, given just the requirement that non-working clocks ‘die out’. Moreover, chaos theory shows that certain convergence points of statistical randomness, called ‘strange attractors’, exist. Just this fact alone is sufficient to explain a large proportion of the apparent order that we see in the universe. Indeed, whorls like galaxy shapes or flowers follow from fractal mathematics. Likewise, crystals are organised and structured in a manner that looks like intentional artifice, but quantum mechanics explains it away. Design, then, could just be an illusion. So to assume design instead of evolution is an assumption. It is stronger to argue instead that God just created the laws of evolution.




10. That evolution is a tautology, and predictions from it derive from a mere tautology. I am not sure that this is a criticism. Many tautologies are useful, e.g. I saw three tigers enter my forest, and now I see two leaving (3-2=1). That tells me I ought to watch out. I go to the shop and buy something and pay $5, and the item I bought had a price tag of $3. I get $1 change. That tells me something: that I’ve been short-changed (5-3=2). So tautologies are not necessarily bad. As for whether evolution is a tautology (“Things survive because they’re fit to survive”) - that’s neither here nor there regarding my argument. My argument was that it’s apparently coherent with the theory of evolution to be a deist, and that evolution may help answer the problem of natural evils. What exactly the theory of evolution says, and how its logic is structured, doesn’t really matter for my argument. Moreover, I don’t think evolution has the logical structure of a formal tautology. I think it has the logical structure of a predictive model, ie “Things will probably survive if they have a feature which will probably lead them to survive”. This is not virtus dormitiva, it’s statistics. Moreover, the claim is more like this: “Things will probably live long enough to breed if they have a feature which will probably lead them to survive”. Since it’s a probabilistic argument, it means that it’s Bayesian, and hence, bidirectionally implicative, or inductive. That means that it cannot, by definition, be a tautology.


11. That we might just not know God’s plans for evil, and that is the better response to the problem of evil. I address this criticism in my PhD research. The reply, briefly, is that this argument, called Skeptical Theism or Appeal to Omniscience, is simply that if we cannot claim to know why God allows evil, we cannot appeal to theodicy, which relies on providing an exact answer as to why God allows evil. IE you can either appeal to skepticism as to our ability to understand God’s purposes, OR you can appeal to a theodicy such as free-will, but not both. If you appeal to skepticism, moreover, you lose the claim to know that God wanted to create the universe and did do so for good purposes. So skeptical theism actually costs you too much in the end; it costs you theodicy and cosmology, which are the strongest theistic arguments.


12. That I have not acknowledged how other religions cope with things such as evolution or the problem of evil. Hinduism, in particular, has replies to these. My reply was yes, I acknowledge that, but I am primarily addressing Abrahamic religions as they seem to be the ones complaining about evolution,

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