Evolution and Belief: Book review

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The subtitle of this book is “Confessions of a religious paleontologist,” but you will find only one confession: that the author, Robert Asher, believes in God. More on that later.

The heart of the book is 8 chapters that irrefutably demonstrate descent with modification. I found much of the book compelling, but also fairly difficult and much more detailed than I thought appropriate for a lay audience. A number of times, Asher uses a term that is obviously well known to biologists, but known to me only vaguely if at all – and I have been a fellow traveler in biology for approximately a decade. Pseudogene, for example, appears, undefined, in the very last sentence of the chapter that describes the evolution of whales from terrestrial to marine animals. I looked it up in the index and found that it is defined, implicitly at best, 50 pages later.

Elsewhere, Asher tells us that platypuses and echidnas are monotremes; the context cries out for an explanation, but all we get is the statement that the term “hints at” the fact that “the digestive and reproductive tracts coalesce into a single channel.…” OK, but precisely what distinguishes them from reptiles and from other mammals? Finally, Asher mentions a number of organisms and sometimes uses terms that are probably unfamiliar to most readers. I am afraid he has occasionally forgotten that what is trivial to him is not necessarily trivial to an uninformed reader.

For all that, the book establishes the fact of evolution by showing how similar trees of life can be established by examining the fossil record, anatomy, and DNA. Along the way, Asher describes the evolution of mammals and, in particular, discusses the evolution of mammalian ear bones from certain reptilian jaw bones; I have known about this discovery for years, but never before seen it laid out in such detail. Asher goes on to describe the evolution of elephants and whales, and, for example, seizes on the existence of inactive genes for teeth to show that toothless baleen whales must have evolved from toothy ancestors. A nice chapter on biology and probability shows why evolution is not random and discusses the well known selection for spines and armor in stickleback fish.

Asher takes on the creationists from time to time, and a chapter called “The fossils still say no!” certainly takes care of one or two buffoons. Other sections effectively refute creationist arguments, in particular, Behe’s irreducible complexity in a chapter on biology and probability. Asher is not otherwise effective against old-earth creationists, including intelligent-design creationists, who accept descent with modification but deny that it could have happened by natural causes.

The paleontology book I have just described is wrapped, like the Book of Job, in a prologue and an epilogue, though, unlike the Book of Job, the entire book was written by one person. The confession in the subtitle is presumably Asher’s admission that he believes in God, an admission about which he is at least somewhat defensive. Indeed, he is at pains to show that a belief in God is neither “schizophrenic” nor irrational, though he argues (and I could not agree more) that any religious belief that denies scientific facts is inherently irrational. Indeed, he categorizes a great many religious beliefs other than his own as superstition (and again I cannot agree more).

Asher admits that he cannot prove the existence of God but uses analogies to support his position. There is nothing wrong with analogy, but analogy has to be apt, and Asher’s are anything but. For example, he affirms (at inordinate length) that he loves the Buffalo Sabres and considers that statement to be a “truth.” Well, yes, it is a truth, but there is one major difference between his love of the Buffalo Sabres and his love of God: we know that the Buffalo Sabres exist. As I have noted elsewhere, internal reality does not necessarily correspond with external reality; if it did, then hallucinations would be real.

Similarly, Asher makes a very fair distinction between an agent and the mechanism (or cause) by which the agent’s invention works. He points out, correctly, that saying “God did it” gives no information about the mechanism – a fact that is lost on many creationists. The statement that Thomas Savery invented the steam engine says nothing about how the steam engine works, but neither does your understanding of the steam engine imply that Thomas Savery never existed. Similarly, says Asher, your understanding of the mechanism of natural selection does not imply that God never existed. True enough, but if I do a little research, I will find that Thomas Savery indeed invented the steam engine. (Savery, agent, cause, and steam engine, incidentally, are among several terms that are not found in a fairly weak index.) By contrast, I can look high and low for God and not find a shred of evidence for the existence of such an entity. Asher’s response to this argument is that we cannot expect God to have humanlike characteristics, and maybe he does not leave any traces; to that somewhat weak defense, I can only recommend Antony Flew’s essay, “Theology and falsification,” about which I have written here.

I cannot fathom exactly what Asher believes, but I take it that it is close to deism (yet another term that is found in the text but not in the index). I agree with Asher that is not irrational to believe in God, as long as your belief does not contradict known facts. But neither is it rational, so I prefer to think of a belief in God as nonrational. It would be substantially more rational, however, for a scientist such as Asher to take the approach that his belief in God is a hypothesis rather than a belief: I can see no reason for a good scientist, such as Asher, to believe in an entity that may not exist.

34 Comments

Yes, but evolution only makes sense in a certain world view.

You know, the one that looks honestly at the evidence and follows it, not the one that accepts exactly the same assumptions up until dogma disallows it, then comes up with every excuse possible to avoid normal scientific inference.

After all, bigotry is a kind of worldview.

Glen Davidson

It would be substantially more rational, however, for a scientist such as Asher to take the approach that his belief in God is a hypothesis rather than a belief: I can see no reason for a good scientist, such as Asher, to believe in an entity that may not exist.

No, Asher is right. A hypothesis can be tested, and a belief can not; this is the crucial difference between them. Asher’s god can’t be tested.

I suspect an honest scientist saddled with an untestable belief he can’t discard, works around this problem by making the belief increasingly abstract. Not exactly deism, but more like an appendix added to a good understanding of the world, which neither adds to any understanding nor conflicts with any. Ideally, such a god achieves the goal of being irrelevant to everything. Kind of like believing everything is covered by a coat of invisible paint, undetectible in any way. No matter how devout such a belief is, it remains harmless.

I cannot fathom exactly what Asher believes, but I take it that it is close to deism (yet another term that is found in the text but not in the index). I agree with Asher that is not irrational to believe in God, as long as your belief does not contradict known facts. But neither is it rational, so I prefer to think of a belief in God as nonrational.

I’ve made this same point many times, and, although I have no belief in gods whatsoever, I endorse it, on the grounds of good English usage.

In normal conversation, irrational means “directly at odds with reason”. The most common use of the term “irrational” is to describe people who are behaving in a self-harmful way due to a condition like schizophrenia or alcohol intoxication. Creationists are irrational; they directly deny physical reality and valid logical inferences.

Most human thoughts and behaviors are neither particularly rational, nor directly irrational.

Flint said:

It would be substantially more rational, however, for a scientist such as Asher to take the approach that his belief in God is a hypothesis rather than a belief: I can see no reason for a good scientist, such as Asher, to believe in an entity that may not exist.

No, Asher is right. A hypothesis can be tested, and a belief can not; this is the crucial difference between them. Asher’s god can’t be tested.

I suspect an honest scientist saddled with an untestable belief he can’t discard, works around this problem by making the belief increasingly abstract. Not exactly deism, but more like an appendix added to a good understanding of the world, which neither adds to any understanding nor conflicts with any. Ideally, such a god achieves the goal of being irrelevant to everything. Kind of like believing everything is covered by a coat of invisible paint, undetectible in any way. No matter how devout such a belief is, it remains harmless.

I’m inclined to agree.

A more fair description than “invisible coat of paint” might be “extremely pleasant invisible friend who never actually interferes with physical reality, but whose imagined existence generates a sense of companionship and shared experience”. That’s a pretty good description of how Jesus was conceptualized by the church I was raised in.

Of course, creationists pick up on this, too.

They want to use religion as a justification for giving themselves privilege and power. They recognize that an abstract religion is not much good for that. Hence their typically greater hostility toward people like Robert Asher, than toward non-religious people.

No, Asher is right. A hypothesis can be tested, and a belief can not; this is the crucial difference between them. Asher’s god can’t be tested.

I guess I was too terse. Beliefs do not pertain to facts, whereas hypotheses do. For example, I believe that everyone is entitled to a decent standard of living and wealth should be distributed accordingly. Whereas you may present arguments to make me change my mind, there are probably no facts you can adduce to force me to do so.

Whether or not there is a God, by contrast, is a matter of fact: either there is a God or there is not a God. You may speculate as to which of these conditions is true, but it seems to me it is improper to say you believe in God; all you can do is speculate or hypothesize. Hence, without compartmentalizing, a good scientist may only hypothesize that there is a God and even decide to act as if that hypothesis were true. In this sense, God is no different from Bigfoot: believing in God is begging the question.

harold said: A more fair description than “invisible coat of paint” might be “extremely pleasant invisible friend who never actually interferes with physical reality, but whose imagined existence generates a sense of companionship and shared experience”. That’s a pretty good description of how Jesus was conceptualized by the church I was raised in.

I’m currently reading “When God Talks Back (Amazon or Barnes&Noble), which is an anthropologist’s study of how evangelicals consciously and deliberately train themselves to perceive (or interpret; I’m not sure which: I haven’t finished the book) some internal–mental–‘voices’ as originating with a God that talks to them, advises them on everything from the choice of shoes to wear today to what mate to marry, and that intervenes on a level as detailed as providing a parking space when it is prayed for. The more I think about that deliberate practice of self-deception, the more dangerous it seems to me.

harold said:

Flint said:

It would be substantially more rational, however, for a scientist such as Asher to take the approach that his belief in God is a hypothesis rather than a belief: I can see no reason for a good scientist, such as Asher, to believe in an entity that may not exist.

No, Asher is right. A hypothesis can be tested, and a belief can not; this is the crucial difference between them. Asher’s god can’t be tested.

I suspect an honest scientist saddled with an untestable belief he can’t discard, works around this problem by making the belief increasingly abstract. Not exactly deism, but more like an appendix added to a good understanding of the world, which neither adds to any understanding nor conflicts with any. Ideally, such a god achieves the goal of being irrelevant to everything. Kind of like believing everything is covered by a coat of invisible paint, undetectible in any way. No matter how devout such a belief is, it remains harmless.

I’m inclined to agree.

A more fair description than “invisible coat of paint” might be “extremely pleasant invisible friend who never actually interferes with physical reality, but whose imagined existence generates a sense of companionship and shared experience”. That’s a pretty good description of how Jesus was conceptualized by the church I was raised in.

Of course, creationists pick up on this, too.

They want to use religion as a justification for giving themselves privilege and power. They recognize that an abstract religion is not much good for that. Hence their typically greater hostility toward people like Robert Asher, than toward non-religious people.

I think it depends on the scientist. I know Ken Miller has been criticized - and correctly I might add - for his embrace of a weak form of the anthropic principle. However, I would not use that as evidence damning him as a “creationist” which certain popular New Atheists have declared in their writings.

Whether or not there is a God, by contrast, is a matter of fact: either there is a God or there is not a God

No, you are playing games with logic, not with facts. What is the empirical distinction between no god, and a god in principle indetectible by any test? If there IS a god but it can’t be tested, we’re back to the land of make-belief, not hypothesis.

God that talks to them, advises them on everything from the choice of shoes to wear today to what mate to marry, and that intervenes on a level as detailed as providing a parking space when it is prayed for. The more I think about that deliberate practice of self-deception, the more dangerous it seems to me.

And of course, there was the Reagan’s astrologer actually influencing national policy decisions. Which strikes me as more harmful than the self-deception god you describe, which really does nothing more than ratify the believers’ opinions, which they’d act on in any case. If prayer fails to produce a parking place (or the winning lottery ticket), well, the gods work in mysterious ways.

Flint said:

Whether or not there is a God, by contrast, is a matter of fact: either there is a God or there is not a God

No, you are playing games with logic, not with facts. What is the empirical distinction between no god, and a god in principle indetectible by any test? If there IS a god but it can’t be tested, we’re back to the land of make-belief, not hypothesis.

God that talks to them, advises them on everything from the choice of shoes to wear today to what mate to marry, and that intervenes on a level as detailed as providing a parking space when it is prayed for. The more I think about that deliberate practice of self-deception, the more dangerous it seems to me.

And of course, there was the Reagan’s astrologer actually influencing national policy decisions. Which strikes me as more harmful than the self-deception god you describe, which really does nothing more than ratify the believers’ opinions, which they’d act on in any case. If prayer fails to produce a parking place (or the winning lottery ticket), well, the gods work in mysterious ways.

I don’t understand. If a god is not detectable by any test, it does not exist, right?

Robert J. Asher, Cambridge University Lecturer and Curator, University Museum of Zoology - research projects and publications listed at http://www.zoo.cam.ac.uk/zoostaff/Asher.htm

I agree with Asher that is not irrational to believe in God, as long as your belief does not contradict known facts.

To some, the entire Bible is a known fact and a factual historical account from creation to the flood, crucifixion and resurrection.

The term “Fact” is like a string of rubber to those so inclined. And they resist correction.

phhht said:

I don’t understand. If a god is not detectable by any test, it does not exist, right?

No,it simply means that its freedom of action in this life is severely constrained by human knowledge, and it can (either now or in the past) communicate absolutely nothing to us about its expectations of us in this life, or its plans for us in the next.

E.G. Larry Moran.

John said:

harold said:

Flint said:

It would be substantially more rational, however, for a scientist such as Asher to take the approach that his belief in God is a hypothesis rather than a belief: I can see no reason for a good scientist, such as Asher, to believe in an entity that may not exist.

No, Asher is right. A hypothesis can be tested, and a belief can not; this is the crucial difference between them. Asher’s god can’t be tested.

I suspect an honest scientist saddled with an untestable belief he can’t discard, works around this problem by making the belief increasingly abstract. Not exactly deism, but more like an appendix added to a good understanding of the world, which neither adds to any understanding nor conflicts with any. Ideally, such a god achieves the goal of being irrelevant to everything. Kind of like believing everything is covered by a coat of invisible paint, undetectible in any way. No matter how devout such a belief is, it remains harmless.

I’m inclined to agree.

A more fair description than “invisible coat of paint” might be “extremely pleasant invisible friend who never actually interferes with physical reality, but whose imagined existence generates a sense of companionship and shared experience”. That’s a pretty good description of how Jesus was conceptualized by the church I was raised in.

Of course, creationists pick up on this, too.

They want to use religion as a justification for giving themselves privilege and power. They recognize that an abstract religion is not much good for that. Hence their typically greater hostility toward people like Robert Asher, than toward non-religious people.

I think it depends on the scientist. I know Ken Miller has been criticized - and correctly I might add - for his embrace of a weak form of the anthropic principle. However, I would not use that as evidence damning him as a “creationist” which certain popular New Atheists have declared in their writings.

Flint said:

If there IS a god but it can’t be tested, we’re back to the land of make-belief, not hypothesis.

Not all hypotheses are testable - only the useful ones.

Richard B. Hoppe said:

harold said: A more fair description than “invisible coat of paint” might be “extremely pleasant invisible friend who never actually interferes with physical reality, but whose imagined existence generates a sense of companionship and shared experience”. That’s a pretty good description of how Jesus was conceptualized by the church I was raised in.

I’m currently reading “When God Talks Back (Amazon or Barnes&Noble), which is an anthropologist’s study of how evangelicals consciously and deliberately train themselves to perceive (or interpret; I’m not sure which: I haven’t finished the book) some internal–mental–‘voices’ as originating with a God that talks to them, advises them on everything from the choice of shoes to wear today to what mate to marry, and that intervenes on a level as detailed as providing a parking space when it is prayed for. The more I think about that deliberate practice of self-deception, the more dangerous it seems to me.

What’s interesting about the self-deception you describe is that it is quite normal to have that type of cognitive experience. In fact, one of the amusing irrational things that the human brain does is that it provides made up post hoc “rational” explanations for actions that were performed according to an unconscious urge. That happens to everybody and can very easily be demonstrated experimentally. I’m not at all talking about lying. “I must have done this because…” is a rapid, powerful function of the brain, and people are absolutely convinced that these post hoc self-justifications are correct. You are and I am. However, adding the word “God” to this type of thing must be a conscious reaction. The actual tendency of the brain to interpret unconscious behavior in a conscious way is universal.

What I do notice post-modern right wing Christians doing is competing to label everything “God”, except negative experiences of their own. Bought a pair of shoes? God guided me. Saw a pretty sunset? God made it pretty for me. City hit by a hurricane? God is righteously punishing some kind of people I want to feel superior to. I think to some degree the goal is a purity competition. “If you see a sunset and forget to praise God, that makes me more Christian than you.” I can’t help being reminded of kid’s ritualistic games where not forgetting to say some phrase is part of it, and someone eventually forgets.

harold said: I think to some degree the goal is a purity competition. “If you see a sunset and forget to praise God, that makes me more Christian than you.” I can’t help being reminded of kid’s ritualistic games where not forgetting to say some phrase is part of it, and someone eventually forgets.

Great observation. It reminds me of about 90% of Academy/Oscar/Emmy/etc award winner speeches. Somebody mentions Jesus in one of the early speeches, and then suddenly everyone after them does the same thing.

Matt Young said: It would be substantially more rational, however, for a scientist such as Asher to take the approach that his belief in God is a hypothesis rather than a belief: I can see no reason for a good scientist, such as Asher, to believe in an entity that may not exist.

Pragmatically, I don’t care what he does with such beliefs outside of the lab, so long as he doesn’t let it affect his scientific work. I’d say the same thing about his love of the Buffalo Sabres, too, or anyone else’s various hobbies.

Dave Lovell said:

phhht said:

I don’t understand. If a god is not detectable by any test, it does not exist, right?

No,it simply means that its freedom of action in this life is severely constrained by human knowledge, and it can (either now or in the past) communicate absolutely nothing to us about its expectations of us in this life, or its plans for us in the next.

What possible reason can there be to postulate the existence of gods in the absence of evidence? Hunch, guess, mute intuition? Wish fulfillment? Revelation?

eric said:

Great observation. It reminds me of about 90% of Academy/Oscar/Emmy/etc award winner speeches. Somebody mentions Jesus in one of the early speeches, and then suddenly everyone after them does the same thing.

eric said:

Great observation. It reminds me of about 90% of Academy/Oscar/Emmy/etc award winner speeches. Somebody mentions Jesus in one of the early speeches, and then suddenly everyone after them does the same thing.

Heh. At a Canadian country music awards show, everyone was thanking Jesus and God, then Corb Lund – with the pedigree the name implies – said “I want to thank Odin, who makes all things possible”. I laughed. A lot.

No, you are playing games with logic, not with facts. What is the empirical distinction between no god, and a god in principle indetectible by any test?

I thought that was precisely my point in discussing Antony Flew’s article.

If there IS a god but it can’t be tested, we’re back to the land of make-belief, not hypothesis.

I would say so too, but my point is, irrespective of the properties of the putative God, if there is no evidence, then you have no intellectual right to believe in God. All you can do is hypothesize. The quality or usefulness of the hypothesis is another discussion.

Thanks, incidentally, to Mr. Burnett for providing the link to Robert Asher’s research.

phhht said:

Dave Lovell said:

phhht said:

I don’t understand. If a god is not detectable by any test, it does not exist, right?

No,it simply means that its freedom of action in this life is severely constrained by human knowledge, and it can (either now or in the past) communicate absolutely nothing to us about its expectations of us in this life, or its plans for us in the next.

What possible reason can there be to postulate the existence of gods in the absence of evidence? Hunch, guess, mute intuition? Wish fulfillment? Revelation?

Once upon a time our very existence could surely be seen as evidence, but no longer in the light of scientific discoveries. Now if a god is not detectable by any test it is irrelevant, regardless of whether it exists or not. The only reason to postulate it is personal incredulity that every thing we see around us could have happened without guidance by those who don’t stop to think that the only reason they can ask that question is because it already has.

irrespective of the properties of the putative God, if there is no evidence, then you have no intellectual right to believe in God. All you can do is hypothesize.

Well, if by believe you mean what I mean by hypothesize, and by hypothesize I mean what you mean by believe, then I guess we agree. The way I read the definition of these words, in the absence of any evidence all you can do is believe. A hypothesis is formed in an attempt to explain evidence. No evidence, no hypothesis. Nothing but belief.

phhht said:

What possible reason can there be to postulate the existence of gods in the absence of evidence? Hunch, guess, mute intuition? Wish fulfillment? Revelation?

Most likely, our ability to seek patterns and causes, which might even be an internally rewarded drive to figure things out. Think of how much we like puzzles, mysteries, and games, how satisfied we feel when we’ve solved them, and how frustrated we feel when we haven’t.

Thus, way back before written records, when something powerful or impressive happened that wasn’t immediately explicable, we hypothesized (Hi Matt!) about causes. Faced with floods and hurricanes and such, nobody was likely to think of warm and cold air interacting - it had to be more than that. Back then, the gods were primarily explanations for such events.

Once cultures came together and individual ideas of gods started competing, they had to have different properties. And once an idea starts in a culture, it spreads if it seems to work. Nowadays, it still serves as an unimpeachable authority to back whatever opinion we happen to hold and, as Harold said, a bastion of entitlement - you can be ‘good’ without actually doing any good actions, as ludicrous as that sounds. Most of it’s subconscious, and a great deal of it is emotional appeasement - again, as Harold said, that’s (too) often how we make decisions.

I think we (Flint and I) may be at cross-purposes. A belief is a statement that you hold to be true. I do not deny that people believe in God, but I claim that they have no intellectual right to believe in God because there is no evidence to show that their belief is true. Therefore, all they can honestly do is provisionally assume their belief, that is to say, hypothesize.

A hypothesis may be developed with or without evidence; it requires evidence only for its confirmation, not for its development. The God hypothesis is typically not well formed, and it is certainly not a scientific hypothesis, so it may be better to call it a speculation or even an assumption. My only point is that there is no basis for a belief in a statement (God exists) that may or may not be factual.

Matt Young said:

I think we (Flint and I) may be at cross-purposes. A belief is a statement that you hold to be true. I do not deny that people believe in God, but I claim that they have no intellectual right to believe in God because there is no evidence to show that their belief is true. Therefore, all they can honestly do is provisionally assume their belief, that is to say, hypothesize.

A hypothesis may be developed with or without evidence; it requires evidence only for its confirmation, not for its development. The God hypothesis is typically not well formed, and it is certainly not a scientific hypothesis, so it may be better to call it a speculation or even an assumption. My only point is that there is no basis for a belief in a statement (God exists) that may or may not be factual.

However, that does seem to imbue the word “belief” with a rigorous meaning that is not at all consistent with its common English usage.

The implied definition of the word “belief” is, essentially, an emotional sense of conviction. It can and often is based on criteria that are extremely weak. People “believe” in ghosts, they “believe” in God, they “believe” that their wife really loves them, they “believe” that the Buffalo Sabres are finally going to do it this year, etc.

If fact, many of us here make a point of noting that we don’t (merely) “believe” in the theory of evolution. We have evidence beyond the flimsy minimum for “belief”.

“Belief” and “faith” border on synonymous.

The implied minimum for “belief” is “lack of definitive evidence against whatever is believed in”. That’s simply how the word is used in contemporary American and Canadian English. It does not necessarily imply any significant degree of rigor.

This really is a semantic argument though. I think we all agree that 1) There is actual evidence FOR biological evolution, 2) There is actual evidence AGAINST creationist claims; it is irrational, ignorant, or dishonest to accept them, and 3) There is no evidence for or possible evidence against highly abstract conceptions of God - I personally have no need of such conceptions, but I also certainly can’t prove that they are wrong. Useless? Well, let’s simply say that I think that the benefits people gain from indulging in such conceptions can equally be gained without them. Useless is a strong word.

phhht said:

I don’t understand. If a god is not detectable by any test, it does not exist, right?

That is your philosophical assumption. Philosophical assumptions do not equal absolute truth.

phhht said:

What possible reason can there be to postulate the existence of gods in the absence of evidence? Hunch, guess, mute intuition? Wish fulfillment? Revelation?

Human exercising their freedom of choice to be theists, the same way others do when they decide to be atheists.

But you have a problem with that because, like the religious bigots, you can only understand one way of thinking.

harold said:

Matt Young said:

I think we (Flint and I) may be at cross-purposes. A belief is a statement that you hold to be true. I do not deny that people believe in God, but I claim that they have no intellectual right to believe in God because there is no evidence to show that their belief is true. Therefore, all they can honestly do is provisionally assume their belief, that is to say, hypothesize.

A hypothesis may be developed with or without evidence; it requires evidence only for its confirmation, not for its development. The God hypothesis is typically not well formed, and it is certainly not a scientific hypothesis, so it may be better to call it a speculation or even an assumption. My only point is that there is no basis for a belief in a statement (God exists) that may or may not be factual.

However, that does seem to imbue the word “belief” with a rigorous meaning that is not at all consistent with its common English usage.

The implied definition of the word “belief” is, essentially, an emotional sense of conviction. It can and often is based on criteria that are extremely weak. People “believe” in ghosts, they “believe” in God, they “believe” that their wife really loves them, they “believe” that the Buffalo Sabres are finally going to do it this year, etc.

If fact, many of us here make a point of noting that we don’t (merely) “believe” in the theory of evolution. We have evidence beyond the flimsy minimum for “belief”.

“Belief” and “faith” border on synonymous.

The implied minimum for “belief” is “lack of definitive evidence against whatever is believed in”. That’s simply how the word is used in contemporary American and Canadian English. It does not necessarily imply any significant degree of rigor.

This really is a semantic argument though. I think we all agree that 1) There is actual evidence FOR biological evolution, 2) There is actual evidence AGAINST creationist claims; it is irrational, ignorant, or dishonest to accept them, and 3) There is no evidence for or possible evidence against highly abstract conceptions of God - I personally have no need of such conceptions, but I also certainly can’t prove that they are wrong. Useless? Well, let’s simply say that I think that the benefits people gain from indulging in such conceptions can equally be gained without them. Useless is a strong word.

I stand by this comment, but it isn’t intended to be hostile or condescending toward all people with religious beliefs.

Matt Young said:

I think we (Flint and I) may be at cross-purposes. A belief is a statement that you hold to be true. I do not deny that people believe in God, but I claim that they have no intellectual right to believe in God because there is no evidence to show that their belief is true. Therefore, all they can honestly do is provisionally assume their belief, that is to say, hypothesize.

A hypothesis may be developed with or without evidence; it requires evidence only for its confirmation, not for its development. The God hypothesis is typically not well formed, and it is certainly not a scientific hypothesis, so it may be better to call it a speculation or even an assumption. My only point is that there is no basis for a belief in a statement (God exists) that may or may not be factual.

Why the hell are you even applying scientific terms and methods to religious concepts? That simply does not work. We don’t condone Creationist con artists and other religious apologists pulling that stunt, we should not let atheists get away with it either.

Your statement about what a “belief” is just makes no sense. Anything subject to confirmation via empirical means would not be a matter of faith and thus the word “belief” is pointless in that case.

I think this is a consequence of bastards like Josh McDowell writing such rediculous books like “Evidence That Demands a Verdict.” By claiming there was evidence for Christianity (there really isn’t any), he and others like him opened the door to that “evidence” being discredited and with it, Christianity itself!

THERE IS NO EVIDENCE FOR ANY RELIGION! People do not follow any religion because of evidence. That should no longer be a matter of dispute.

Human exercising their freedom of choice to be theists, the same way others do when they decide to be atheists.

But you have a problem with that because, like the religious bigots, you can only understand one way of thinking.

I confess that I, too, am bigoted in favor of choosing convictions based on evidence, rather than exercising my freedom to Make Stuff Up and claim it’s just as good.

I don’t have a problem with believing in invisible pink flying unicorns. If that’s the beliefe you choose, great, have at it. But the question was, what is your REASON for believing without evidence. “Freedom of choice” is NOT a reason, it’s an opportunity to be unreasonable.

But maybe you can’t understand that because you’re a bigot for irrationality?

I don’t see the the point of an invisible pink unicorn. (Or any other part of it, either!) ;)

Sorry to interrupt all the Yes/No/God discussion. This sentence in Matt’s review describes an important point about the evidence for evolution:

For all that, the book establishes the fact of evolution by showing how similar trees of life can be established by examining the fossil record, anatomy, and DNA.

That is the most important type of evidence for common descent. Even 150 years ago, even somewhat before Darwin, biologists were impressed by the similar hierarchical pattern emerging from studies of many different characters. The evidence is not just from the similarity of trees from morphology and trees from DNA. There is also the similarity of trees within each of those – between different characters in the morphology or different regions in the genome. Resistance to common descent collapsed fairly soon after Darwin published the Origin, because biologists had already been impressed by this evidence.

This pattern does not require fossils. We can get concordance of trees from different sets of characters in the morphology, or in the DNA or protein sequences, even in groups that have few fossils. I hope that Asher’s book spends some time on this – the point is far too little stressed by biology texts and biology courses, even though it is the essential argument for common descent.

And of course creationists twist themselves into knots trying to get around it. They point to discrepancies in trees, and to nontreelike genealogies involving horizontal gene transfer or hybridization, and using those they try to persuade their audience that there is no treelike genealogy. “See, there is no Tree Of Life – evolutionary biologists have been forced to admit it”. Or else they put on a straight face and invoke Common Design. Since they refuse to specify what a Designer would want to do, or would be capable of doing, they can’t rule out a Designer creating any pattern whatsoever. So Common Design is just a name for whatever observed pattern we see.

So an incredibly important phenomenon. I’m glad to hear that Asher dealt with it.

Joe Felsenstein said:

Or else they put on a straight face and invoke Common Design. Since they refuse to specify what a Designer would want to do, or would be capable of doing, they can’t rule out a Designer creating any pattern whatsoever. So Common Design is just a name for whatever observed pattern we see.

As I have said, even if it were true, “intelligent design” would be a completely useless bit of information. It tells us nothing useful, and cannot be used to produce any results or discoveries.

Yeah, without knowledge of methods, limitations, or goals, or preferably some combination thereof, “designed” doesn’t imply any patterns to be expected in the data collected from observations.

I’d add that they’re trying to explain (away) the patterns that support common ancestry. So they say “It could be common design, you can’t rule that out!” Since there is no way of predicting what designs the Designer wants, there is equally no way to predict how common those designs would be.

But is is notable that the Designer seems to want those patterns of design to be common among species, in a hierarchical, treelike pattern. She doesn’t have to favor that, but she always seems to. Hmm …

I liked the extensive treatment of the definitive mammalian middle ear. He takes the history of the studies from the pre-Darwin demonstration of homology done by Reichert up to the recent investigation into the genes.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on June 17, 2012 9:49 AM.

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