If I Believed in God

November 6, 2008

(I’ve been quiet on the blog front for a while now, mainly because I have an insane number of essays to write for college. On top of that, I’ve been continuously ill for going on two weeks now – I’m coughing my lungs up as a I type. There’s plenty I want to write on, but unfortunately it will have to wait for a while.)

Theists frequently assume that belief in God will inevitably lead to belief in a particular religion. (Very often it’s their religion.) why they assume this is beyond me, since believing in God as a philosophical proposition certainly does not automatically lead one to believe that, say, Jesus Christ died and came back to life. I’ve had many people attempt to convert me in my time, and they frequently begin with one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God as laid out by Aquinas (the ‘five ways’), or some modern variation thereof. What they fail to realise is that convincing me or any other atheist of the existnce of an unmoved mover or an uncaused cause is not the same thing as convincing us that the Bible is true or that a whole host of associated supernatural entities exist. With that in mind, I give you a brief, hypothetical look at how belief in God would change my opinion on other, related matters.

If I believed in God:

I would not believe in the divinity of Jesus, Mohammad, Noah, or any other figure from a sacred text. There is no reason to assume that because some sort of god exists, the various stories and myths found within any particular holy book must therefore be true.

I would still accept the theory of evolution, unless the argument which convinced me of the existence of God was based upon said theory being flawed or otherwise completely unable to explain the diversity of life. (Note that such an argument would have to do two things for this scenario to come about: convince me that God exists and convince me that evolution does not occur; the latter does not necessarily imply the former.)

I would still accept that the universe is billions of years old and that the Earth most likely came to be through entirely naturalistic forces, unless the argument which lead me to believe in God was based upon the age of the universe or the Earth being wrong. (This one carries the same warning as above.)

I would still not believe in the soul or that humanity is inherently ‘unique’, unless the argument which convinced me of God’s existence was based upon proving that this is the case.

I would still not believe in any sort of afterlife.

I would still believe that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are concepts created entirely by humans, and that they are inherently subjective.

I would probably not ascribe to God some of the traditional ‘divine attributes’ (personhood, perfect goodness, simplicity etc.) popularised by Aquinas and others, although this of course would depend on the kind of argument that would convince me of God’s existence in the first place.

I would almost certainly need some sort of scientific backing for a belief in God. In other words, I am more likely to be swayed by a teleological or cosmological type argument than an ontological one.

I would still not hold my beliefs (religious or otherwise) dogmatically, and would be perfectly willing to revise my belief in God if I discovered new evidence that contradicted it.

In short, my life really wouldn’t change all that much.

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Expelled – The Review

October 26, 2008

Three hours ago I finished watching Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the infamous anti-evolutionary documentary by the equally infamous Ben Stein. It markets itself as a hard-hitting expose on the censorship of Intelligent Design Creationism in the academic community, but in reality is just another cog in the anti-evolutionary propaganda machine. It fails on almost every level.

First, the good: there’s some nice music at the start and camerawork is occasionally decent. That’s the good over. The bad is going to take a while.

Let’s get the central flaw of the movie out of the way first: nobody talks about the evidence. A few of the interviewees briefly mention the micro/macroevolution and information fallacies in a very superficial way, but for the most part the evidence for or against evolution is irrelevant. It’s assumed from the outset that the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) point of view is worthy of serious attention simply because it exists. The movie is very obviously pandering to an audience already convinced that evolution is wrong and equally convinced that IDC is right.

This bias is evident in every aspect of the movie. Pro-evolution scientists (PZ Meyers and Richard Dawkins among them) are allowed only short sound bites for the majority of the running time, while pro-IDC scientists and ‘the expelled’ (people who supposedly lost their jobs in academia or journalism for daring to mention IDC) are interviewed at length. Dawkins gets a sizeable section to himself near the end, but it’s mainly used to make it seem as if he’s seriously suggesting that panspermia happened. In fact, the only pro-evolution scientist to get a decent amount of face time throughout the movie is a guy who comes across as slightly unhinged and doesn’t believe in human free will.

Whoever edited Expelled thought it would be a good idea to splice clips from old movies into virtually every scene (this is about as obnoxious as it sounds, and it goes on constantly), and here again there’s some pretty clear bias. When one pro-evolution scientist suggests that early life could have grown on crystals, we’re treated to a brief scene of a mugging fortune teller waving his hands over a crystal ball. This, along with Stein’s sneering ‘He’s being serious’, is apparently enough to debunk the idea entirely.

The creative editing doesn’t stop there, of course. Several interviews with pro-evolution scientists are blatantly truncated, so that one man’s annoyed assertion that he’s explained abiogenesis several times already is made to seem like a senseless outburst. Dawkins, Meyers and most other pro-evolutionists or atheists are given virtually no introduction and are interviewed on a dark background with (I kid you not) eery, occasionally threatening music playing in the background. This becomes truly unbearable by the three-quarters mark, when Stein stands in front of a statue of Darwin and honestly looks as if he’s about to weep.

Of course, his faux-tears might be justified by the fact that he’s Jewish. By way of a long (long) section on eugenics and Social Darwinism, Stein firmly establishes that the theory of evolution is directly responsible for the Holocaust. Or not; it’s the usual tripe, and doesn’t really bear repeating here.

Godwin’s Law is invoked in more ways than this, however. There’s a running metaphor throughout the movie which compares scientific thought in American to post-WWII Germany; the ‘censorship’ of IDC is apparently a lot like the Berlin wall…somehow. This point gets belaboured in predictably hyperbolic fashion: giving serious consideration to IDC is apparently a matter of freedom, that all-purpose buzzword. Here again is the assumption that IDC is ignored and attacked by the scientific community based on fear or ideology rather than the fact that it’s crap science, and we’re assured that breaking down this ‘wall of censorship’ is a matter of the utmost urgency.

But what of the much-touted ‘expelled’? Don’t their stories prove that there’s systematic supression going on? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s not exactly unheard of to fire people for supporting psuedo-science; I’d say it’s a pretty good policy for most academic establishments to have. The second thing to keep in mind is that there are more than a few holes in what we see in the movie. I’m not going to go into it all here, because others have already done that at length, but suffice to say that the ‘prejudice’ claim doesn’t fly.

Worse than all of the above is the fact that the movie contradicts itself. Early on we’re told that IDC does not make any claims about who the ‘designer’ is, yet the entire second half of the movie is focused on the conflict between religion (implicitly Christianity) and modern science, with the word ‘God’ suddenly thrown around casually. I’m not sure who Stein is trying to fool here, but he’s not doing much for the IDC movement’s pretences at secularity. Atheists are predictably treated like Satan incarnate; Dawkins and Meyers are both upfront about how studying evolution pushed them to become atheists, and it’s taken for granted that this is a bad thing. Things become almost farcical when the pro-IDC interviewees begin to complain that they’ve been locked out in the courts, shutting down communication before it starts. Stein even says something along the lines of ‘Shouldn’t it be about the evidence rather than lawsuits?’ Anyone familiar with the IDC movement’s activities over the last twenty years will realise what’s wrong with this, and Stein conveniently fails to point out that those lawsuits were necessary to stop IDC (which is, at the very least, untested science) smuggling its way into high schools via the back door. Worse, the movie implies that the trial was actually about whether evolution is suported by the evidence or not, when this wasn’t actually the case at all.

The most underhanded example of deception in Expelled, though, is also the most subtle. Too often, pro-evolution reviews forget that the movie’s target audience is not going to know much about evolutionary theory or about IDC. They are not going to have any idea what’s going on during the 3D animation of the inner workings of a cell, nor are they going to realise why the inevitable ‘factory’ analogy is so fallacious. Fence-sitters are likely to forget the scarcity of real scientific discussion being presented here and focus solely on Stein’s ham-handed attempts at demonising first evolution and then all of science.

The movies second great failing (or should I say its second group of failures) is how unbelievably boring it is. I’ll be hard pressed to remember much of what happened during its short running time a week from now, and my brain seems to be trying to flush every memory of Stein into oblivion as quickly as possible. I’ve seen this thing described as some sort of devastating blow to scientific ‘dogma’, but it’s hard to imagine even the most ardent supporter of Creationism honestly recommending a movie this bad. Even Wells, one of the best known IDC proponents in the world, looks faintly embarrassed when Stein insists on bringing up abiogenesis.

Don’t bother watching Expelled. If you really want to see what kind of dreck being churned out by the IDC machine, buy Icons of Evolution or, if you really want to do some slumming, Godless. Otherwise just look up some interviews with Richard Dawkins or PZ Meyers on YouTube and simulate what this movie would be like with all of the crap taken out.


Adnan Oktar

September 29, 2008

Have you heard the news? Adnan Oktar, a Turkish Creationist known for being slightly off the wall, has put a bounty of ten trillion Turkish lira on ‘any intermediate-form fossil that demonstrates evolution’ (paraphrasing). 

That’s ten trillion Turkish lira. Almost eight trillion dollars. Four and a half trillion pounds Sterling. Five and a half trillion euro. 

In other words, a lot of money.

This is essentially Kent Hovind’s challenge, except that Oktar is offering way, way more money for far less evidence. Hovind was essentially demanding proof of five different theories, with the caveat that you’d also have to prove that God was not involved in them in any way – which is obviously impossible. Oktar apparently just wants a single example of a transitional fossil that ‘demonstrates evolution’. This guy has produced an 800-page book (almost an encyclopedia) explaining why numerous fossils are evidence of Creationism rather than evolution, so I’m guessing showing him Archaeopteryx isn’t going to cut it.

I haven’t been able to find the original announcement (is it available in English?), so I have a few questions about this supposed offer:

1) Does he actually have that much money? He’s apparently a member of some sort of cult-like organisation that collectively has considerable wealth, but still – trillions of Turkish lira? I smell a fraud.

2) What exactly is he looking for? Hovind is a classic example of why these ‘challenges’ are never genuine, and I doubt Oktar is deluded enough to believe that there aren’t any transitional fossils out there. What’s the catch?

Before you rush off to become a multi-trillionaire, you should see what PZ Meyers has suggested would be a good way to use the money:

 

Instead, though, I’m going to suggest something that will help out the entire country. The US government should immediately send a plane to pick up Mr Oktar, bring him to our country, and take him on a guided tour of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, accompanied by Niles Eldredge, Kevin Padian, Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, and the entire scientific staff of those museums. Afterwards, they can accept the check from Mr Oktar, run down to the local bank and cash it, and use one trillion dollars to resolve the current financial crisis, seven trillion can be sunk immediately into the American educational system, and they can send the change left over to me as a reward for coming up with this brilliant plan.

 

I did a bit of reading on Oktar and discovered that his brand of Creationism is apparently almost identical to the Christian variety, except that he believes evolution is responsible for Buddhism –  in addition to the usual parade of materalism, Nazism, communism (isn’t that contradictory?) and atheism. Who knew?


What Do I Do Next?

September 27, 2008

I’ve covered a few Creationist myths by now, but I’m a bit stuck as to what to do next. The fossil record and the Cambrian explosion are two topics I haven’t dealt with yet (they’re coming, possibly by tomorrow morning), and I’d like to go a bit deeper into Flood Geology (it gets more ridiculous the more you read – mind-bogglingly so, in some cases). But what else is there out there? Feel free to comment and vote for your favourite myth that needs debunking.

For the time being, I’d like to point out that what I’m doing here isn’t real scientific debate. For a start, that would require that all parties involved have at least a passing familiarity with the topic being discussed, and since Creationists tend to have a mid-high school level of science education (if even that), this certainly doesn’t count as real debate. It’s more like debunking urban myths or conspiracy theories: interpretation of the evidence doesn’t play a big part in it, since the offenders generally rely on ‘evidence’ that’s wrong, inflated or entirely made up in the first place. This is the work of Snopes, not scientists.

For some debunking in video form, I suggest this YouTube channel. Here’s a particularly good example from there of why Kent Hovind is a moron:

“OI, HOVIND, WE CAN’T CARBON DATE THIS! THERE’S NO F*&!ING CARBON IN IT!”


Information in the Genome: The Debunking

September 26, 2008

Yesterday I posted a brief challenge to Creationists: define what you mean when you say that no known mechanism can add information to the genome. Nobody has accommodated me by taking up the challenge, so I’ll just get straight to the interesting part. (I know I didn’t allow much time, but I’m bored and have several hours to waste use productively until my next lecture.)

The information ‘problem’ is a relatively recent Creationist claim, and is a good indicator of the trend away from easily-debunked myths about the fossil record or radiometric dating and towards more complex (to them) myths about the genome or cellular biology. You’ve probably heard it a dozen times before: “Information can’t be added to the genome”. But what does this actually mean? There are a seemingly endless number of variations based on what ‘information’ and ‘genome’ are defined as (Creationists seem peculiarly unable to agree on basic terminology), so I’ll just go through the most common ones and debunk them all.

1) Genetic material cannot be added to the genome. This one often shows up when a Creationist is pressed to define what they mean by ‘information’, what which point they fall back on the simplest definiton Wikipedia can think of: actual DNA base-pairs. The ‘letters’ of the DNA ‘language’ (as I’m sure no Creationists reading this need to be told!) are A, G, C and T, which stand for Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymin respectively. RNA, DNA’s more simplistic cousin, replaces thymine with U, or Uracil. Each letter has a complimentary letter on the other side of the famous ‘double helix’ – A with T and G with C. They can only form hydrogen bonds in this way; you cannot, for example, have A joined to C. These are ‘base pairs’, and they are directly analagous to the 1s and 0s of computer binary information.

Enough of the elementary biology: does this version of the information argument carry any weight? It does not: gene duplication (and in some particularly dramatic examples, whole genome duplication) is a process that commonly adds large amounts of genetic material to the genome. There are others as well, but you get the idea.

(b) Gene duplication just copies the same information again, rather than adding new information. This sub-myth stops making sense when you apply a little though to it; if a duplication increases the amount of raw genetic data in the genome, subsequent mutations of that new data will lead to an increase in both new information and more varied information. As we’ll see in a minute, though, this isn’t even necessary.

2) Mutations don’t add information, they destroy it. This one is a bit of a word game, because it plays on the fact that mutations are ‘mistakes’ in the genetic copying process. It is never clear what Creationists mean when they say that mutations ‘destroy information’ – presumably they don’t mean that the actual DNA base pairs always disappear, so they must be working off some other definition of ‘information’. As far as I can work out, they’re usually talking about the phenotype rather than the genotype, and falling back on the Creationist myth that mutations are always harmful. Of course, this is not the case – benifical mutations, while quite rare, have been found to occur with enough frequency to allow natural selection to take place.

(b) A mutation only adds information if it conveys a benefit to the organism. Again, this sub-myth is tied to the idea that mutations are always harmful. It’s also a brilliant example of the ‘moving goalpost’.

3) Mutations don’t add information. This one is even more vague, but it’s by far the most common version of the myth (even if the word ‘mutation’ isn’t actually used). Here, most Creationists are unknowingly invoking Information Theory (or Shannon-Weaver Information Theory), a field of mathematics that can be applied to many different situations. According to this theory, the ‘random noise’ of mutation actually helps to increase genetic information. Any reduction in redundancy (genetic material that does nothing, of which there is an enormous amount) is an increase in information. This is why I said earlier that duplication is not necessary for an increase in information: because the genome of any organism is huge, there is ample room for mutation to create new genes.

(b) There is no ‘junk’ DNA. This sub-myth attemps to negate the above defence by claiming that there is no ‘junk’ DNA, and that any mutation of existing genetic material will most likely lead to a negative effect on the organism (it is true that harmful mutations are more common than beneficial ones). Since genetic information supposedly cannot be added to the genome (as per Myth #1), the genome must be a more-or-less static entity, with only minimal variation allowed. It’s wrong, obviously: while some non-coding DNA does seem to have a purpose, very large sections of an organism’s genome can be cut out or reversed without any noticeable effect on the organism. (Incidentally, the idea of the genome as static and mostly unchanging is very appealing to those who believe in the special creation of the Bible or Qur’an. This type of thing is a good red flag to look out for when someone claims to reject evolution on purely scientific grounds; the religious bias is always lurking somewhere in the background.)

(c) Mutations just corrupt the genetic template. Vaguness-ahoy! This one plays off of the idea that there’s an original or ‘ideal’ form of the genome, and that any variation on this is corruption (and as we all know, corruption is a bad thing). Usually there are some appeals made to Adam as having this mytsterious ideal genome – if someone goes this far into the waters of fundie-hood, you can safely begin to ignore them. In reality, there is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ genome, for any organism. (The Human Genome Project took examples of those sections of the human genome which vary from many different individuals, since taking it from any one individual would have lead to a database that didn’t represent the diversity of humanity. Too bad they didn’t have any of Adam’s cells lying around!)

(c) Richard Dawkins couldn’t give an example of a process that adds information to the genome. This one is pretty irrelevant, but I thought I’d toss it in here anyway since it’s so common. According to Dawkins, he invited a camera crew into his home to give an interview on what he thought was to be a documentary on the interaction between science and religion. When he was asked about genetic information (with the question phrased in a way that made it sound as if it was lifted directly from Creationist literature) he realised what was happening and, in accordance with his rule about not debating Creationists, decided to cut the interview short there and then. While the cameras were off, the film crew supposedly begged him to continue (they had come a long way) and he relented. when the documentary was aired, he was appalled but not surprised to discover that it had been edited in such a way as to make his long pause (when he says he was deliberating over whether to answer) look like an inability to come up with a reply, followed by a quote, taken out of context, that made him seem as if he was trying to dodge the question.

Obviously only those involved know for sure what actually happened, and the possibility that Dawkins is lying can’t be ruled out. However, I find it hard to believe that he would be unable to answer a question like this, and Creationist deceit is not exactly unprecedented – the widespread use by them of ‘quote mining’ throughout the internet is evidence of that, as is the dubious methodology employed by the producers of Expelled. But, as I said earlier, whether Dawkins was able to answer the question or not is irrelevant, since the scientific evidence clearly and easily refutes this particular Creationist myth.

As usual, comment, criticism and suggestions are very welcome, particularly from those who know more about this than I do and feel that I missed something important due to ignorance of the subject,  or that I made a mistake.


Ars Technica Reviews ‘Exploring Evolution’

September 25, 2008

Ars Technica, the well-known technology site, has reviewed the latest ‘supplementary’ textbook from the equally well-known psuedoscience peddlers the Discovery Institute. I hadn’t heard about the book before now, but it looks as if it follows the general trend of Creationism tactics, in that it does not explicitly mention Creationism (in either it’s crazier form or as ID) and tries to present itself as purely scientific rather than religious. Predictably, Ars Technica reports that this ploy is pretty transparent to anyone familiar with Creationist literature.

One paragraph in the review sums up Creationism pretty well:

 

This is pretty typical of all the scientific material in the book. Even when it has its facts right, they’re embedded in interpretations that none of the actual scientists cited are likely to recognize. The mere presence of actual science does nothing to outweigh the general morass of errors, distortions, and faulty logic that comprise the bulk of the book. The book as a whole acts like a funhouse mirror, distorting and removing the context from the bits of science that do appear.

 

Well said.


Information In The Genome

September 25, 2008

It’s time to knock down another piece of Creationist silliness! This time it’s the claim that no mechanism exists by which information can be added to the genome.

Before I get started, though, I’m going to need a few Creationists to define what exactly they mean by ‘information’ (and ‘genome’, for that matter, since I don’t trust them to know what the scientific definition is). You can think of this as a bit of audience participation. I’ll refute the information claim by whatever definition(s) I’m given.