Von Neumann, Berlinski, and evolution: Who’s the hooter?

| 222 Comments | 2 TrackBacks

by Douglas L. Theobald, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, Brandeis University

Jeffrey Shallit pointed me to a youtube video, in which David Berlinski makes the following remarkable claim: “… von Neumann, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, just laughed at Darwinian theory. He hooted at it.”

For those even tangentially familiar with the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann, this will come as a shock. One may ask, however, with some justification: who cares what a non-biological mathematician thinks about evolutionary theory? After all, anyone speculating outside of their field of expertise is simply doing that, and their opinion should carry no more weight than anyone else who talks about something they know little about. John von Neumann, however, is not just any mathematician, and his seminal work on self-replicating automata and game theory has had important, fundamental implications for evolutionary biology (as have, more indirectly, his contributions to ergodic theory, numerical analysis, and statistics).

Von Neumann is something of a legend, one of those people whose name keeps showing up again and again in the citations of technical papers in very disparate fields (somewhat reminiscent of Sir Ronald Fisher, but even more intellectually promiscuous). [1]

So, Berlinski’s pompous bit spurred me to do a bit of digging and jogging of the memory. I found that Berlinski’s unsubstantiated claim is—yawn—preposterous. Von Neumann was demonstrably pro-evo, especially regarding the usual mut/sel/drift mechanisms, yet he may have been critical of abiogenesis hypotheses given his theoretical work with self-replicating automatons. Regardless, the creationists have apparently wrung certain statements out-of-context and/or conflated evolution with abiogenesis (no surprise there). Here are three bits of fact on the matter:

Statement 1

There is one misleading, yet eye-raising, quote from von Neumann that I’ve seen repeated on creationist/ID sites:

I shudder at the thought that highly purposive organizational elements, like the protein, should originate in a random process.

This may be the ultimate source of many of the claims that von Neumann was anti-evo. However, this is clearly a partially mangled, out-of-context quote. Here is the original source, from a personal letter written by von Neumann to George Gamow in 1955:

I still somewhat shudder at the thought that highly efficient, purposive, organizational elements, like the proteins, should originate in a random process. Yet many efficient (?) and purposive (??) media, e.g., language, or the national economy, also look statistically controlled, when viewed from a suitably limited aspect. On balance, I would therefore say that your argument is quite strong.

(von Neumann to Gamow, 25 July, 1955. Gamow fld., von Neumann papers, LC. Quoted in Lily E. Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code, Stanford University Press, 2000, p 158.)

The context was a discussion regarding the nature of the genetic code, which at the time had not yet been solved. Gamow came up with some random model for the distribution of amino acids in proteins (for which I don’t understand the rationale, and neither evidently did Francis Crick). Von Neumann gave an analytical solution for the model, and Gamow found that the observed distribution didn’t match the theoretical one. From other considerations, Gamow concluded that the deviation from randomness must be due to a nonrandom distribution of nucleotide triplets in DNA, and he used this as support for his non-overlapping, triplet, combinatorial code hypothesis. Gamow made this argument to von Neumann, and von Neumann responded with the quote above. Gamow’s specific hypothesis turned out to be wrong (particularly the combinatorial part)—but of course there is a non-random distribution of nucleotides in codons (which are indeed triplet and non-overlapping).

So von Neumann’s statement has nothing to do with protein evolution, but rather deals with how amino acids are coded for in the translation apparatus. Obviously neither the genetic code nor translation in general are predominantly random processes.

Statement 2

There are two other similar quotes I have seen recounted by creationists, one from Harold F. Blum’s book Times Arrow and Evolution (Harper 1962) and another from A.G. Cairns-Smith’s book Seven Clues to the Origin of Life. On page 178G Blum writes regarding abiogenesis theories:

As the late John von Neumann pointed out, a machine that replicates itself can, with some difficulty, be imagined; but such a machine that could originate itself offers a baffling problem which no one has yet solved.

Similarly, Cairns-Smith says on page 15:

Is it any wonder that Von Neumann himself, and many others, have found the origin of life to be utterly perplexing?

Both Blum and Cairns-Smith are respectable sources, and I don’t doubt their word, but in neither case are references given. I have not seen anything specifically where von Neumann has criticized abiogenesis per se; however, the following source may be what Blum and Cairns-Smith refer to.

Statement 3

Here von Neumann shows without question his acceptance of evolutionary theory, though there are hints that he may have had trouble seeing how a self-replicating and evolvable machine (i.e. an organism) could arise de novo. I quote this at length as it may be of use in refuting creationist claims (and because it could easily be misunderstood or quote-mined when taken out-of-context).

In 1949 von Neumann gave a series of lectures at the University of Illinois on self-replicating machines. They were published posthumously in 1966 under the title Theory and Organization of Complicated Automata. Much of this will sound very fuzzy from the lecture transcription, but von Neumann actually published several papers (and a posthumous book) where self-replicating automata were formalized (see von Neumann cellular automata and von Neumann universal constructor for more info).

From the fifth lecture, entitled “Re-evaluation of the problems of complicated automata—Problems of hierarchy and evolution”:

Anybody who looks at living organisms knows perfectly well that they can produce other organisms like themselves. This is their normal function, they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t do this, and it’s plausible that this is the reason why they abound in the world. In other words, living organisms are very complicated aggregations of elementary parts, and by any reasonable theory of probability or thermodynamics highly improbable. That they should occur in the world at all is a miracle of the first magnitude; the only thing which removes, or mitigates, this miracle is that they reproduce themselves. Therefore, if by any peculiar accident there should ever be one of them, from there on the rules of probability do not apply, and there will be many of them, at least if the milieu is reasonable. But a reasonable milieu is already a thermodynamically much less improbable thing. So, the operations of probability somehow leave a loophole at this point, and it is by the process of self-reproduction that they are pierced.

Furthermore, it’s equally evident that what goes on is actually one degree better than self-reproduction, for organisms appear to have gotten more elaborate in the course of time. Today’s organisms are phylogenetically descended from others which were vastly simpler than they are, so much simpler, in fact, that it’s inconceivable how any kind of description of the later, complex organisms could have existed in the earlier one. It’s not easy to imagine in what sense a gene, which is probably a low order affair, can contain a description of the human being which will come from it. But in this case you can say that since the gene has its effect only within another human organism, it probably need not contain a complete description of what is to happen, but only a few cues for a few alternatives. However, this is not so in phylogenetic evolution. That starts from simple entities, surrounded by an unliving amorphous milieu, and produces something more complicated. Evidently, these organisms have the ability to produce something more complicated than themselves.

The other line of argument, which leads to the opposite conclusion, arises from looking at artificial automata. Everyone knows that a machine tool is more complicated than the elements which can be made with it, and that, generally speaking, an automaton A, which can make an automaton B, must contain a complete description of B and also rules on how to behave while effecting the synthesis. So, one gets a very strong impression that complication, or productive potentiality in an organization, is degenerative, that an organization which synthesizes something is necessarily more complicated, of a higher order, than the organization it synthesizes. This conclusion, arrived at by considering artificial automata, is clearly opposite to our earlier conclusion, arrived at by considering living organisms.

I think that some relatively simple combinatorial discussions of artificial automata can contribute to mitigating this dilemma. Appealing to the organic, living world does not help us greatly, because we do not understand enough about how natural organisms function. We will stick to automata which we know completely because we made them, either actual artificial automata or paper automata described completely by some finite set of logical axioms. It is possible in this domain to describe automata which can reproduce themselves. So at least one can show that on the site where one would expect complication to be degenerative it is not necessarily degenerative at all, and, in fact, the production of a more complicated object from a less complicated object is possible.

The conclusion one should draw from this is that complication is degenerative below a certain minimum level. This conclusion is quite in harmony with other results in formal logics, to which I have referred a few times earlier during these lectures. … There is a minimum number of parts below which complication is degenerative, in the sense that if one automaton makes another the second is less complex than the first, but above which it is possible for an automaton to construct other automata of equal or higher complexity. …

There is thus this completely decisive property of complexity, that there exists a critical size below which the process of synthesis is degenerative, but above which the phenomenon of synthesis, if properly arranged, can become explosive, in other words, where synthesis of automata can proceed in such a manner that each automaton will produce other automata which are more complex and of higher potentialities than itself.

(Reproduced in Papers of John von Neumann on Computing and Computer Theory, W. Aspray and A. Burks, eds., MIT Press, pp 481-482)

Von Neumann goes on to explain how automata can mutate, replicate, and inherit mutations. He obviously was convinced of both the power of natural selection and of the fact of phylogenetic evolution.

Notes

  1. Von Neumann’s very existence is even used as evidence for extra-terrestrials. Enrico Fermi once famously asked concerning the potential existence of aliens: “Where are they?” Fermi reckoned that, given the size and age of the universe, many technologically advanced civilizations must exist and that the odds are that they should have visited us by now—an argument dubbed the “Fermi Paradox”. Leo Szilard supposedly provided an answer: “Maybe they’re already here, and you just call them Hungarians.” (Of course there are other stellar Hungarian mathematicians and physicists, like Erdos, Wigner, Polya, and Szilard himself, but Fermi and Szilard were both good friends of von Neumann, and of the same age).

2 TrackBacks

This is another wonderful example of the sloppy scholarship of the creationists. The always pretentious Berlinski made the interesting claim that John Von Neumann, the deservedly famous mathematician, thought that Darwinian theory was ridiculous. Dougl... Read More

over at the Panda’s Thumb Jeffrey Shallit pointed me to a youtube video, in which David Berlinski makes the following remarkable claim: “… von Neumann, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, just laughed at Darwinian theory. H... Read More

222 Comments

Another stellar breakdown of quote-mining tactics. It seems that any time the word “random” turns up from their side it’s either a straw-man by an anti-evolutionist, or a quote-mine hijacked to support the straw-man. I wonder of David Berlinski can safely be categorized as one of those misguided-and-ignorant types or the purposeful deceivers, as Jason Rosenhouse distinguished among the general Creationist population in his posts about the 6th ICC?

Hopefully the TalkOrigins.org archive will be freed from its crack-attacks soon so this can be added to the Quote Mine Project.

i think the most ironic thing about IDers heralding Von Neumann is that the question of “who designed the designer?” leads directly and unerringly to a Catastrophe of Infinite Regress

This is a significant mistake on Berlinski’s part. While he isn’t a mathematician, and has demonstrated so amply, he is IIRC a historian of mathematics and has published books on the subject. He shouldn’t be out to make unsubstantiated and erroneous claims here.

So pompous Berlinski is incompetent in all of his purported subjects. But … wait, he is a creationist. Well then.

There is indeed nothing new under the sun with these clowns. William Dembski earlier tried to claim Stan Ulam for the creationist cause because Ulam puzzled over problems of complexity (which Dembski thinks belongs to ID rather than to math or science). Now it’s Von Neumann’s turn to get kidnapped by the creationists, but Berlinski isn’t equal to the task of making Von Neumann into an icon of ID. Let’s all hoot at Berlinski like a pack of obstreperous simians, because his claim is hilarious.

When you have no great intellectuals of your own, you resort to trying to co-opt the geniuses of other disciplines. It’s not going to work.

So I guess Berlinski’s degenerated so far into solipsism that he only hears his own sneers and hoots, imagining them to come from others.

It’s time we made posters modeled on anti-drug campaigns, where we show a Dembski, a Berlinski, a Behe, as the people they are, and ask if ID could possibly be worth it.

Just run from it screaming…

Glen D
http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

There is one misleading, yet eye-raising, quote from von Neumann that I’ve seen repeated on creationist/ID sites:

“I shudder at the thought that highly purposive organizational elements, like the protein, should originate in a random process.”

Just out of curiosity, has anybody ever done a study of how many times ID has relied on lifted quotations that cut off exactly at the word “yet” or “but”?

Um, just like, this one

I still somewhat shudder at the thought that highly efficient, purposive, organizational elements, like the proteins, should originate in a random process. Yet many efficient …

Or Darwin’s famous…

I do not much underrate the many huge difficulties on this view, but yet it seems to me to explain too much…

One day I’m gong to have to go over the “quotemine project” at talkorigins and make a list.

A creationist like Berlinski only has to execute a simple Google search on topics such as “von Neumann gene” or “von Neumann random” or similar topics to come up with tens of thousands of items from which they can readily exercise their quote-mining skills. And as we all know, the creationist will never seek out the truth regarding those quotes, nor will anyone else other than those who support truthfulness, which is obviously not Berlinski (or the Dishonesty Institute’s) modus operandi.

The asshole who posted that seems to have disabled ratings and be monitoring comments, is that true?

And Creationists wonder why I have no patience and less respect for their deceptions?

Oh, and fuck Berliski. He is unworthy to teach on any subject except his own vanity.

Thanks Doug for an interesting read.

When I saw the video I was dubious but I was leaning more to the view of “shows that even great people can believe stupid things”. Thanks for setting me straight!

I would also like to thank Douglas Theobald, and add that I found an online copy of Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata.

I am still waiting for Berlinski to produce his list of 50,000 traits that differentiate whales from camels.

My fave quote from Berlinski (http://www.discovery.org/a/130) goes like this:

The Darwinian mechanism neither anticipates nor remembers. It gives no directions and it makes no choices.

Right, it doesn’t anticipate, this is why we get helpless flightless dodo birds, and it gives no directions except for improved fitness. OK – but it has the ultimate power to choose, between survival and extinction.

The real howler, however, was saying it had no memory. At this point one wants to reply, with strained patience: “No memory? There is this thing called HEREDITY, you know.” But I’d almost hate to say that because, though the comment above is sad, the response would be even sadder.

I keep telling the Darwin-bashers that I don’t have a dog in the fight, I don’t care one way or another how nature works, I only buy Darwin because the evidence demands it. But then I have to add that there really is another reason: If there was a fraction as much wrong with modern evo science as Berlinski and his friends insist there is, they’d be able to come up with arguments that weren’t so transparently flimsy.

BTW, great blog entries by Jason Rosenhouse.

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwin.html

stevaroni Wrote:

One day I’m gong to have to go over the “quotemine project” at talkorigins and make a list.

I actually did that a couple of years ago. At that time, if I am recalling correctly, I counted over 130 examples. Of course, these are just the ones that have been documented. The actual list is very likely much larger; they hit everything from distorting scientist’s words to distorting history. There isn’t an idea or concept they haven’t mangled.

wikipedia:

David Berlinski (born 1942 in New York City) is an educator and author of popular books on mathematics. He is a leading critic of evolution within the intelligent design movement and author of numerous articles on the topic.[1] Berlinksi is a secular Jew and self-described agnostic, and according to a 2008 Slate magazine profile “a critic, a contrarian, and — by his own admission — a crank.”[2]

Berlinkski describes himself as an agnostic and critic of evolution. There is a contradiction here. How can an agnostic be a creationist? And if goddoneit, why be an agnostic? And if god didn’t do it, and evolution didn’t do it, then whodidit?

After trying to figure out what he was thinking for a few seconds, I decided that if he didn’t know either, it wasn’t important. Berlinski seems to be like Howard Stern or Madonna, getting attention any way he can to earn a living.

Berlinski seems to be like Howard Stern or Madonna, getting attention any way he can to earn a living.

One of the few things Berlinski is good at is self-promotion. (Another is writing pretentious prose, if that is actually a talent.) He has people thinking he’s some kind of brilliant mathematician (his Ph.D. is actually in philosophy) and he affects a world-weary attitude toward controversy, as if he can’t understand why anyone would get upset at his idiotic remarks. He’s made himself useful to the creationist community even while promoting himself as an agnostic who has joined the movement solely for intellectual reasons. He launched a supercilious attack on John Derbyshire because the Derb didn’t like Expelled. You can see chunks of it here, along with occasional gentle barbs from me.

raven said:

wikipedia:

David Berlinski (born 1942 in New York City) is an educator and author of popular books on mathematics. He is a leading critic of evolution within the intelligent design movement and author of numerous articles on the topic.[1] Berlinksi is a secular Jew and self-described agnostic, and according to a 2008 Slate magazine profile “a critic, a contrarian, and — by his own admission — a crank.”[2]

Berlinkski describes himself as an agnostic and critic of evolution. There is a contradiction here. How can an agnostic be a creationist?

I could understand being an agnostic and a creationist. You can believe that it’s impossible to make a convincing, sound argument for the existence of God and still believe in one, believe that evolution is wrong, etc. But being an agnostic a cdesign proponentsist, which entails saying that you CAN make a convincing empirically sound case for God, there’s the contradiction as I see it.

raven said:

How can an agnostic be a creationist?

I have some familiarity with Einstein-bashers – you know, the kind of people that the physicists get mail from all the time. They are by and large not ideologues. Some are antisemitic (it’s blatantly obvious when they are) but for the most part the motivation is: That Einstein guy wasn’t so smart! I’m smarter than he was! In evo science the proportion is reversed: most are ideologues, but you get a few contrarians: That Darwin guy wasn’t so smart!

It is certainly true that Berlinski’s motives might seem baffling if one were to give the matter much thought. Why would an agnostic write a book titled: The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions – ? Being an “agnostic of indifference” myself, with no dog in the fight one way or another, I might be puzzled as what motive an agnostic would have to take sides. But being indifferent to the matter and having other things to do with my time, I shrug and move on.

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwin.html

In my dealings with Berlinski over the years (including his curious and unsuccessful effort to get my anticreationism book “Troubles in Paradise” publised in truncated form as “Three Macroevolutionary Transitions”) it has been clear that he has a limitless aptitude for not thinking about things he doesn’t want to think about, and once he gets a notion in his head (von Neumann as antievolution eg) it is impossible to dislodge it. He simply cycles around the same drain (note his obsessions with Richard Dawkins).

Berlinski can be a vague nonreligious antievolutionist in exactly the same way British Mensa’s Richard Milton can. Both are prone to superficial and limited reading combined with a vaulting certainty in the power of their own intellect. I have coined a term for the complex of cognition displayed here: Tortucans. From the Latin for turtle, it describes people who have a true affinity for not thinking about things they don’t want to think about (“Matthew Harrison Brady Syndome” to be precise, in honor of the “Inherit the Wind” character) coupled with a desire to believe certain things to be true (or not) rather than only desiring to believe things that actually are true.

Only when the tortucan mind has a strong God Module need for religion would such minds map onto the body of specific religious beliefs. As it is Berlinski has tumbled part way there in his latest tome, “The Devil’s Delusion” where he once again flails Richard Dawkins and blithely fails to apply his standards across the board to religion too. Given the depth and bredth of Berlinski’s apparent tortucan ruts in his brain (zones of the cognitive landscape off limits to evaluation or rejection) it is unlikely he would ever turn his bleerily confident eye to discussing why Young Earth Creationism might be a might sillier (or more intellectually dangerous) than Dawkins’ worldview.

creationists are highly trained to interpret physical evidence according to their preconceptions … in other words, they see their preconceptions given any evidence. So it’s not surprising that this same talent allows them to read pretty much any opinion and see it as a powerful argument in their favor; deliberately so in the case of people not famed for supporting evolution, and accidentally tripped by their own falsehood in the case of supporters. (Pause for shudder that Gould is probably more often placed in the first group). cringeingly typical is the ability to see “one gets a very strong impression that complication, or productive potentiality in an organization, is degenerative”, and the complete inability to see that it is followed by an explanation of why this intuition is misguided

raven said:

Berlinkski describes himself as an agnostic and critic of evolution. There is a contradiction here. How can an agnostic be a creationist? And if goddoneit, why be an agnostic? And if god didn’t do it, and evolution didn’t do it, then whodidit?

After trying to figure out what he was thinking for a few seconds, I decided that if he didn’t know either, it wasn’t important. Berlinski seems to be like Howard Stern or Madonna, getting attention any way he can to earn a living.

I think he’s just a crank who enjoys taking swipes at the scientific community, one of the few who does so without explicit motivation by religious dogma. In that respect he reminds me of Steve Fuller. And, shockingly, neither of them are scientists.

James Downard said:

I have coined a term for the complex of cognition displayed here: Tortucans. From the Latin for turtle, it describes people who have a true affinity for not thinking about things they don’t want to think about … coupled with a desire to believe certain things to be true (or not) rather than only desiring to believe things that actually are true.

I think you have a different angle on Glenn Morton’s demon. I would say Morton’s read is a bit more compelling – he had the unenviable advantage of first-hand experience.

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwin.html

Whenever I hear an outlandish attack against the theory of evolution, I know that it is either a distortion of facts or an outright lie. The quote from Von Neumann was taken from computer science not biology, thus any attempt to equate it to biology could easily incorrectly applied. However, any concepts related to LOGIC is beyond the scope of those who argue against evolution. Theories in computer science more easily support the theory of evolution.

Berklinksi is not a creationist!! Can’t you foolish atheists git it thru yer skulls?

A creationist is someone who thinks God created everything.

A IDer is someone who can’t see how anything could have been created (unless God did it).

Do you not see the difference? ‘God’ is in parentheses for an IDer but right in the sentence itself for a creationist. TOTALLY DIFFERENT!!

White Rabbit said: “I think you have a different angle on Glenn Morton’s demon. I would say Morton’s read is a bit more compelling – he had the unenviable advantage of first-hand experience.”

Under my working hypothesis of the Tortucan Model of the Mind (or How Do People Believe Things That Are Not True) Morton’s gradual disengagement from his creationist upbringing would suggest he (like many of us) had only a mild propensity for generating insulating tortucan ruts in the first place. Odds are such people’s curiosity will wear away at even those and the scaffolding of the belief system can then break down. The recognition that you’d been wrong is often painful, but non-tortucans take that in stride as they prefer getting things right over mere certainty. Richard Feynman or Arthur C. Clarke might be interesting likely instances of non-or-low tortucan minds.

If there is indeed a tortucan aspect of cognition, it should in principle be possible to investigate it, to find out what neuronal structures or genetic determinants play a role, or to what extent environmental factors encourage or impede their formation. It doesn’t seem that strong tortucans are prone to change their minds, which puts up a cautionary warning on the limits of education.

James Downard said:

It doesn’t seem that strong tortucans are prone to change their minds, which puts up a cautionary warning on the limits of education.

As the saying goes: It takes a surgical operation to get the understanding of a contradiction into the head of a lunatic fringer.

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/tadarwin.html

I’m reminded of William James, who annoyingly thought about too many things ahead of everybody else. Anyway, he described Hegel back in 1879 as someone of the tortucan stripe. To paraphrase James, he said of Hegal that once you can see A and not-A as noncontradictory, there’s no stopping your philosophy.

The conclusion one should draw from this is that complication is degenerative below a certain minimum level. This conclusion is quite in harmony with other results in formal logics, to which I have referred a few times earlier during these lectures. … There is a minimum number of parts below which complication is degenerative, in the sense that if one automaton makes another the second is less complex than the first, but above which it is possible for an automaton to construct other automata of equal or higher complexity. …

Seems to me Von Neumann knew more math, logic, information theory, theory of computation and game theory than all of the cdesign proponentsist combined. Which is why I think the DI is keen to have him “in their corner”.

Here is a link to a mirror of this video without comment censoring.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_u4jLHJKDw

The original poster TheJaredJammer is a known crackpot who allows comments but moderates them only allowing positive comments through (thus wasting the time of people who think that their comment is going to get posted). He also has at least one sock puppet account that he uses to comment on his own videos.

Joseph Knecht said:

Berklinksi is not a creationist!! Can’t you foolish atheists git it thru yer skulls?

A creationist is someone who thinks God created everything.

A IDer is someone who can’t see how anything could have been created (unless God did it).

Do you not see the difference? ‘God’ is in parentheses for an IDer but right in the sentence itself for a creationist. TOTALLY DIFFERENT!!

Or put it anudder way:

Classic Creo: “God created it all” ID/Creo-Lite:”It was created” (winks, points upwards, draws halo over head)

See? Active voice vs passive voice

John Kwok said:

Yours is an acute case of being intellectually-challenged Lee.

He doesn’t appear to have any point other than to taunt and start an argument.

Your assessment of his intelligence appears to be spot-on.

Here is the fundamental argument used by AiG.

And here is the relevant assumption spelled out in the part under Assessment:

The fundamental argument of this article is not new. It asserts that scientific knowledge supersedes the historical narrative of Scripture. In this view, science interprets Scripture. Thus, at root, it is the question of authority. What is truth?

Actually this misrepresents what scientists are doing.

The actual case is that the secular person - using familiar patterns of behavior and the lack of credibility on the part of sectarians making such claims - can legitimately and accurately assess the competence of the sectarian who makes such claims about scriptural authority.

One doesn’t even have to attempt to gage the “authority” of some holy book, although there is plenty of historical evidence that allows one to question it.

It is even easier to assess the competence of the sectarian making authoritative claims because these particular sectarians get everything wrong that can be objectively checked out.

When a sectarian always puts his pants on backwards, he is either incredibly stupid or he knows he is putting them on backwards. Either way, he can’t be trusted on any statement he makes about authority or truth.

It’s not a question of accepting change or how science advances. It’s about deception.

indeed.

yours.

…and it’s rather obvious, and pathetic.

There are good reasons why Kwok eventually gets banned from EVERY forum he posts in. You’ve just drawn attention to one of them, I’m afraid. The funny thing is, he’s generally pretty right on evolutionary theory. Just don’t ask him about history.

Lee said:

Kwok,

“it takes one to know one”? Are you twelve years old?

Lee said:

Elzinga,

Your defense of this specific example of tautology marks you as a fool.

The assumption that evolution is true becomes the assumption that common descent is true, which they then use to prove that evolution is true.

And you defend this perfectly good science.

You are a fool.

And you are a liar. We only use the theory of evolution (natural selection) to explain common descent, which in turn is inferred from the fossil record, from the structures and distributions of modern organisms, and from their genetic sequences. This “circular reasoning” crap just doesn’t hold water.

“Common design”, in and of itself, is an utterly vacuous term. Anyone who wants to actually, like, mean something when they invoke “common design” as an honest-to-god explanation for one or another feature of Earth’s living things, had better pony up some details about this alleged “design” to which they refer. Such as: What, exactly, is this “design” which you’re claiming is in “common” – and what other critters also have it? Also – if whatever-it-is realio, trulio, is the result of “common design”, how can you tell? What’s the difference between “common descent” and “common design”, such that you can actually tell whether or not any given shared feature is due to the former rather than to the latter? Because if all you’ve got is “common DESCENT cannot account for it, therefore it’s common DESIGN”, well, you ain’t got squat. Even granting, for the sake of argument, the premise that common descent is genuinely unable to account for whatewver-it-is, you still need to make an evidence-based case for common design! So how about it, Lee? You up for presenting an argument for your position which doesn’t boil down to your side’s wrong so my side MUST be right ? Hmm?

Mike Elzinga said: The actual case is that the secular person - using familiar patterns of behavior and the lack of credibility on the part of sectarians making such claims - can legitimately and accurately assess the competence of the sectarian who makes such claims about scriptural authority.

Hmmm, I’d phrase it somewhat differently. We cannot accurately assess our confidence in religious claims, and that is the whole problem. We know where claimants place the ‘points’ but they make no attempt to calculate ‘error bars’ around them. Vice science, where our confidence may sometimes be low (big error bars), but at least we try to figure out what those error bars are. Knowing the size of your error bars is what confidence is all about.

Anti-science fundies tend to see admission of possible error as a weakness. They think a conclusion with caveats is not as good as a conclusion without them. Wrong - the latter is more desirable to be sure. But when it comes to emiprical claims, a clear understanding of potential errors is a strength, while not understanding your potential errors (or claiming that there are no potential errors) is a weakness.

I’ll take “based on this method - which has boundary conditions A, B, and C - we calculate that there’s a 99.7% chance the observed value lies in the range of 5 +/- 3sigma” over “the truth is 5 because thats what this book says it is” any day of the week.

eric said:

I’ll take “based on this method - which has boundary conditions A, B, and C - we calculate that there’s a 99.7% chance the observed value lies in the range of 5 +/- 3sigma” over “the truth is 5 because thats what this book says it is” any day of the week.

WRONGO! The TRUTH is …

42.

eric said:

Hmmm, I’d phrase it somewhat differently. We cannot accurately assess our confidence in religious claims, and that is the whole problem. We know where claimants place the ‘points’ but they make no attempt to calculate ‘error bars’ around them. Vice science, where our confidence may sometimes be low (big error bars), but at least we try to figure out what those error bars are. Knowing the size of your error bars is what confidence is all about.

It is relatively easy to know when someone pretending to know something about science is bluffing. They toss around scientific concepts clumsily and incorrectly; and they don’t show any awareness of the provisional nature of scientific findings. Nor are they able to distinguish well-established conclusions from those in flux.

When it comes to religion, I claim no competence whatsoever. But I think it is possible for those without expertise regarding any particular sectarian assertions to recognize bluffing here as well. Sectarians making authoritarian, dogmatic assertions in the face of conflicting assertions by literally thousands of mutually suspicious and warring sects of presumably the same religion hardly leads one to place much confidence in any of these assertions.

When such religious assertions are made against a background of objectively wrong assertions about science; we can justifiably reject all assertions from such a sectarian.

Those of us who have been watching creationists since the late 1960s have noticed that all creationists get the science wrong egregiously. They have to in order to maintain dogma.

And, just by watching the newly minted PhDs like Jason Lisle or Georgia Purdom over at AiG for example, one can recognize the fundamental inexperience and incompetence that drives them into the arms of charlatans like Ken Ham. There they can become instant celebrities without ever having to go through the shakedown of putting their scientific concepts to a real test that would purge them of the misconceptions they still carry. In the science community, neither of those two youngsters over there at AiG would get away with any of their glib assertions about science; despite their “PhDs.”

Mike Elzinga said: When it comes to religion, I claim no competence whatsoever. But I think it is possible for those without expertise regarding any particular sectarian assertions to recognize bluffing here as well. Sectarians making authoritarian, dogmatic assertions in the face of conflicting assertions by literally thousands of mutually suspicious and warring sects of presumably the same religion hardly leads one to place much confidence in any of these assertions.

Yep, I totally agree. I think I said something similar to FL a couple a weeks ago: even without knowing anything about the truth of one or more religious claims, the spread of claims arising from the same method (bible study) still tells us we should have little confidence in the method.

It isn’t only that. This loon demanded an answer to two questions he thought couldn’t be answered. He received one. His reaction? To sneer that the answer wasn’t an answer, although it was.

It was the classic denialism that got me: “This doesn’t satisfy me, although I can’t and won’t say exactly why, and I don’t believe it. Therefore it isn’t true.” It was as threadbare and as blatant as that.

DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS!

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Guest Contributor published on August 20, 2008 4:01 PM.

The Sixth International Conference on Creationism was the previous entry in this blog.

Padian’s Takedown of “Of Pandas and People.” is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Categories

Archives

Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.381

Site Meter