Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Explaining theistic evolution to Martians

PZ Myers has requested an explanation of the difference between theistic evolution and intelligent design. Furthermore, he suggests that we imagine he's a Martian. This is a constructive suggestion, and I shall give it my best shot. I'm not sure what Martians are really like, so I'll presume that they are like PZ.

Background on Martians, for any human readers

Martians have good understanding of the natural world, and good appreciation of the areas where we don't have answers as yet. Technologically and scientifically, Martians are pretty much at the same position as humanity. Martians are social animals; who form stable family groups, and also like to engage constructively with others of their species. They are willing to put significant time and energy into their wider society, and put high importance on the well being of their fellows. They are curious about the world and seek to learn about it, and to share what they have learned, with passion and enthusiasm.

However, Martians have no concept of religion, or of a supernatural, or of Gods. They've heard about such things, since they regularly tap into the broadcasts we humans have been making; but this is one aspect of human society that Martians just don't get. They are inclined to think that humans who believe such things are, well, "a couple of tentacles short of a full cranium".



Welcome and Introduction

Honourable Ambassador, welcome to the third planet. You are aware, of course, that humans have a range of curious notions about the nature of the world. One common belief, in which you have expressed particular curiosity, is the notion of "God", an invisible intangible powerful conscious being. The reasons people believe such a thing are many and varied. None of them are particularly good. Humans are prone, from time to time, to have strange beliefs without any good evidence. A few other examples: We were meant to be together. I can still drive just fine. This shirt brings me luck.

The diversity of human beliefs about "God" is enormous, and many of them are in direct conflict with easily confirmed common knowledge about the world. Other beliefs about God are technically consistent, in the sense that they don't seem to make any empirical difference to anything we can effectively observe or sense.

Many people believe that such a being is responsible for making the world. The term "creator" is used, suggesting that in some way the putative intangible "God" causes other more tangible things to exist in the forms we can observe. This belief in a creator takes an enormous variety of forms.

Although none of these beliefs are well founded, it has still been convenient to classify some common themes. I shall attempt to describe three, and explain the utility for these broad classifications.

Creationism

This term is used for a belief that "God" used an act of special intervention to create things, in particular the universe, this particular planet, and the first living things. This belief has real substantive content (albeit ludicrous). It represents the creative act as a genuine alternative to the conventional discoveries we have made about how things were actually formed. It is common to hold that the interventions occurred comparatively recently, though there are exceptions. Creationists reject the notion that the form of living organisms, and humans in particular, can have evolved. They reject the discovery of biological evolution, the discovery that contemporary living forms developed from radically different ancestors by the agency of cumulative variation along a lineage modulated by natural selection.

Intelligent design

This is a form of creationism that has been shorn of any actual content. For political reasons they avoid explicit mention of God. In an effort to avoid refutations they avoid making any positive claims about, well, anything at all. They do reject the efficacy of natural processes and biological evolution in particular as the means by which living things take the forms we now observe, and their reasons and arguments are the same as those used by other creationists. They hold that living forms must have been "intelligently designed" instead – though they have no actual account of what that might mean. It's basically conventional creationism cut down to remove anything positive or any explicit mention of God.

Theistic evolution

The creationist position can be pared down even further, so that nothing is left except the statement that God is creator. To this, theistic evolution makes one new addition – explicit recognition of the validity of evolutionary biology. The theistic evolutionist considers that natural processes like evolution are the means by which the creator creates. How this works is unclear, and it is not something that is argued from an empirical basis.

Why distinguish intelligent design and theistic evolution?

Although intelligent design is a form of creationism, the same cannot be said for theistic evolution – at least given the ways of using terms I have described here. Creationism, including intelligent design, sees the action of God as something that is contrasted with the action of natural processes. Creationism is incompatible with evolutionary biology, because it is presented as an alterative to evolutionary biology.

Theistic evolution, on the other hand, recognizes evolution as a valid description of how living things came to have their currently observed physical forms. Theistic evolution sees God as in some sense responsible to the establishment of the evolutionary process itself; either by setting up initial conditions so as to enable evolution, or else by continuously maintaining the existence of a universe in which evolution can occur. There is no evidence for either proposition; but theistic evolution is not claimed to be a scientific model based on evidence; but rather a nebulous faith statement about some unevidenced responsibility of "God" for the ongoing operation of all aspects of the natural world.

The reason this distinction is of any interest to those who do not believe in God arises largely from a concern about science education.

Creationism, including intelligent design creationism, incorporates an explicit rejection of basic science. The cut down version of creationism called intelligent design is specifically tailored to avoid the social protections we have set up for education. Advocates for these notions are active in trying to degrade and distort science education, by inclusion of various trivially fallacious and pseudoscientific notions under the basically dishonest guise of alternative scientific models. They necessarily see the teaching of basic science as teaching a denial of their own beliefs.

Theistic evolution, on the other hand, is an unscientific add-on to conventional science. Most theistic evolutionists recognize that this add-on is not science, and do not seek to include it in the teaching of science. They do not regard the teaching of conventional science as a denial of their own beliefs.

Two design arguments

A convenient way to identify this subtle but significant distinction is to look at the perspective of the two groups on design. The arguments or apologetics given for beliefs about design and a creator come in two diametrically opposite forms.

Intelligent design and creationism claim that the natural processes studied by science are inadequate as an explanation for complex living things, and on that basis they claim that some other better explanation is required, which they label "design".

Theistic evolution considers that the natural processes studied by science are extraordinarily effective as an explanation for complex living things, and on that basis they claim that this fecundity was established by design.

One group sees design in the putative inadequacy of natural processes. The other sees design in the efficacy of natural processes.



Update: May 16 12:45. On reflection, I think the term "theistic evolution" is potentially confusing. What I really mean by that is "theism and evolution". The actual scientific descriptions of evolution remain totally unchanged. It's not a different theory of evolution; but the position of accepting perfectly conventional evolutionary biology while also being a theist. How theism can be consistent with evolutionary biology is a problem for theology, or for general theism/atheism debates. Such debates are fine by me; I engage in them also.

I was prompted to make this remark by reading these comments left at another blog, by Tyler DiPietro. I've also acknowledged below in comment #9.

32 comments:

  1. Ah, it all comes clear now to this Martian. IDists and TEists make exactly the same vague, mystical claims about invisible magical ghosts being involved in the creation and operation of the universe, but TEists realize that there is no scientific support at all for their beliefs, and shrink away from contention over their hypotheses.

    But now I'm left wondering...if TEists are aware of the tenuousness of their hypothesis, why do they continue to hold it, and more than that, demand that others respect a belief that is so insipid?

    Are they like the great B'rox beasts we use to plow our canals, in which the strinf gland is removed to make them placid and unaggressive?

    Or perhaps they are like the mindless, chitinous pleticorns that continue their migrations year after year, never questioning, always unaware, but simply shuffling along the same path, wearing great ruts in the landscape?

    What you call a subtle distinction I'm afraid I'd call only a methodological one; there doesn't seem to be any difference in the underlying hypothesis in the two groups. They're just both incompetent in different ways in assessing them.

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  2. Close, pz. Very close.

    You speak of making "exactly the same vague, mystical claims". But in fact there is some difference in the claims. Both are vague and mystical, but they do differ on the alleged activity of "God". One group says that evolution is an intended part of what God has created. The other says that evolution is not the major process in establishing living forms, and that God used some other means. The difference may not matter all that much to unbelievers; but theists can get into strenuous fights about it; and it’s a very significant difference for theists involved in teaching of science.

    It's true that TEs – for the most part – seem to recognize that there's no plain scientific support for their beliefs. But they do insist that their beliefs are consistent with the findings of science – a different, weaker claim. In this they are generally correct. That is, after all, a major constraint on how they set up those beliefs.

    You speak of "shrink away from contention over their hypotheses". That's not true, in general. Many theistic evolutionists engage strenuously; both in dispute with unbelieving critics, and in dispute with fellow believers who adopt a position directly in conflict with science. But if they don't claim that their beliefs are established scientifically, then naturally they do not frame their argument as an empirical scientific argument aimed to persuade unbelievers to become believers. They are often engaged in theological debate with fellow believers over whether the tenants of their religion requires a rejection of evolution or other well established scientific discoveries. They are often engaged in debate with unbelieving critics, in defense of religion as a rational perspective; but mainly in response to a criticism initiated by the unbeliever. Whether it actually is rational is beside the point; I'm simply pointing out that this IS a point where many engage in contention over their hypotheses.

    You ask why such people believe at all. I can't give a complete answer; the reasons are diverse. But since I was myself a theistic evolutionist as a young man, up until about the age of 25 or so, I can at least speak on my own behalf. I was raised as a Christian, and as a child took it pretty much for granted. As I grew older, I accepted that faith for myself, but as I never needed to be persuaded into it, so my own thoughts were largely a case of ensuring that I maintained consistency. I was never a creationist. Amongst humans, far and away the best predictor for an individual's beliefs is the beliefs of their parents.

    I don't think either of your examples from Martian biology are an adequate simile for human believers. There's no indication of physical pathology involved in such beliefs; it's quite normal for humans. I think perhaps the pleticorns are a slightly better analogy; in that believers are often strongly inclined to remain in an established rut absent a very strong reason for abandoning it. If their beliefs are carefully formed to avoid direct conflict with science, then reasons for dropping those beliefs become indirect and insufficient. Of course, there is a steady stream of believers who do become unbelievers; you can't presume than any individual will remain in the rut forever. But humans often have a strong mental inertia against shifting beliefs, and will hold on to them for longer than a Martian would consider rational.

    You are still not grasping the difference in content of beliefs between TE and ID. It truly is there, as you can see from the fact that they are so often in active disagreement. But be that as it may, you are quite right that the major difference from the perspective of an unbeliever like myself is in the methology they adopt. It's an important difference, from my perspective, because it means that a TE can potentially write a perfectly good book on the science of biology. An IDist cannot. A TEist can be a good science teacher. An IDist cannot – unless they compromise their own beliefs to teach what they think is untrue.

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  3. This is supposed to persuade me? "They differ on the alleged activity of god"?

    So, if we get a sectarian difference between one group that argues that Jesus cracked open his eggs on the big end, and another group that cracks them open on the little end, I should pick one to support rather than throwing out the whole god premise to begin with? Making arguments about the superiority of egg-cracking on one end or the other in that context is simply lending false credibility to the substantial bogosity lying at the heart of both.

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  4. I don't mind who you support. If you prefer to treat TEs and IDs in exactly the same way, go right ahead.

    My primary concern is that you are often factually incorrect.

    Do you see the difference between these two statements?

    1. TEs and IDs make exactly the same claims.

    2. I am going to treat TEs and IDs in exactly the same way.

    The first is a proposition, which is false.

    The second is a policy, which is a judgement you are free to make yourself.

    I'm much more concerned about the outright misunderstandings and errors that arise, than the personal choices you might make about how to approach people.

    In this post, I are truly taking at face value a request from you to explain the difference between TE and ID. There really is a difference. It is not just about their methodology; there is also a difference in the content of their beliefs.

    No offense intended! I'm not saying that either ID or TE is correct, or that either one makes any sense. Let's just clear the air on what I am attempting to acheive here.

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  5. You are still not grasping the difference in content of beliefs between TE and ID. It truly is there, as you can see from the fact that they are so often in active disagreement.

    Ah, but TEists argue among themselves, and TE is, indeed, pretty much indistinguishable from TE.
    :)

    I think the point is important, though. Neither group are uniform in their beliefs.

    The question is: can't some IDists believe that the method God uses to tinker and design is expressed as what humans interpret as evolution? And can't a TE believe that God, after creation, used evolution to create the various critters? That would be the intervention of an intelligent agency to design species...

    So couldn't it be said that the two groups actually represent a spectrum, two ends of the same philosophy? Some IDists believe exactly what some TEs believe. The distinction is not in their religious beliefs, which can be compatible, but in their attitude to science...

    But can't the odd IDist be exceptionally supportive of science? I mean, a lot - out of ignorance, I guess - genuinely believe that ID is more scientifically rigorous than evolution. And can't the occasional TEist be pretty strongly anti-science? Some (most?) TEists believe that the creation of life couldn't have occurred naturally.

    So then we're down to trends - these guys are generally anti-science, and these guys are mostly supportive, except for these bits over here...

    So, yeah, I can see how there'd be confusion.

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  6. Duas Quartunciae says,

    You speak of making "exactly the same vague, mystical claims". But in fact there is some difference in the claims. Both are vague and mystical, but they do differ on the alleged activity of "God". One group says that evolution is an intended part of what God has created. The other says that evolution is not the major process in establishing living forms, and that God used some other means.

    Which group is which? Both Michael Behe and Michael Denton accept evolution and common descent as the main mechanism behind the creation of modern organisms. They are both placed in the Intelligent Design Creationism camp.

    Francis Collins says that humans "defy evolutionary explanation." God made them. Collins is a Theistic Evolutionist. Simon Conway Morris is also a Theistic Evolutionist but he lists six "scientific" facts that point to a Creator, including complxity and the "emergence of sentience." Conway Morris makes it very clear in his book that scientific evolution cannot explain life as we see it. This points to God as the creator.

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  7. (On the other hand, there are TEists who are functionally atheist, and there are IDists who are bible literalists. Neither of these types are present in the other camp. So as much as there's an overlap (a pretty huge overlap, IMO) there may be, at the extremities at least, distinct groups.

    Does that justify the distinction?)

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  8. Which group is which?

    Anyone who says you can catch god in a mousetrap is an IDer. Anyone who says that the universe and its attributes somehow points to god but knows and acknowledges that such a conclusion isn't a scientific one is a TEer. Anyone who has had this explained many times but refuses to listen has been taking lessons from creationists about how to wear blinders and keep his ears stuffed.

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  9. Thanks very much for everyone who has come and left a comment on this article. I'll be commenting again myself to acknowledge some good points made and underline some remaining disagreement. Right now I'm reflecting on your input.

    I'm also reading on this topic in other places around the blogsphere; and have been moved by a comment by Tyler DiPietro at "Dispatches from the Culture Wars" to add an appendix to my original article.

    Tyler says:
    "I object to the entire premise of this current iteration of the debate that seems to never cease around here. There are theists who are also defenders of evolution, but there is no such thing as "theistic evolution." We don't have a "theistic periodic table" or "theistic classical mechanics". So while I otherwise sympathize with the NA's, I think constantly attacking "theistic evolution" is misguided. We should reserve that strength for individual supernaturalist infringements upon evolutionary biology, like Francis Collins' attempts to essentially turn morality into his version of Behe's bacterial flagellum."

    That's a fair point. What I have been calling "theistic evolution" should really be "theism and evolution". When I speak of "theistic evolutionist" I mean "evolutionist who is a theist". If someone tries to modify the empirical details of evolutionary biology based on their theism, then I am no longer inclined to say "theistic evolution". By my usage, a TE is someone with a theistic commentary on conventional evolution, or with with some kind of model of God that is consistent with conventional evolutionary biology.

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  10. Ian H Spedding FCD16 May 2007 at 3:52 pm

    Bickering about the fine differences between theistic evolutionists and creationists reminds me of debates I used to see about which would be the victor in a battle between an Imperial Star Destroyer and a Galaxy-Class Starship.

    Yes, there are differences, which the participants would discuss in excruciating detail when they were so minded but, in the end, so what? If there is no basis in objective reality then surely the subject is really only of interest to groupies, social historians and students of mythology.

    As far as I can see, the only difference between the believers and the Trekkies is that - mostly - one group actually recognizes that they are discussing fiction.

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  11. Ian:

    Yes, there are differences, which the participants would discuss in excruciating detail when they were so minded but, in the end, so what?

    There is a crucial difference. In the battle to ensure that only science is taught in science classrooms, TEists are on your side and IDists are not. And as a practical concern, TEists are more likely to be able to convince their fellow theists as to how important this is.

    Some people refer to atheists who are willing to work with TEists in this capacity as "Neville Chamberlain atheists". I disagree. This isn't appeasement, it's realpolitik.

    Interesting footnote: According to the Wikipedia entry on realpolitik, in the German Green Party, political realists who are willing to compromise are referred to as Realos, whereas ideologues are called Fundis. I found this amusing for some reason.

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  12. The "so what" is that the question of a scientist's commitment to science is a matter of substantial public and professional import. Accusing a scientist of being just the same as an Intelligent Design Creationist, as Larry Moran is wont to do, can seriously damage the reputation of a scientist and seriously derail (or at least seem to derail, a la Gonzalez) a scientist's career. On such matters involving basic human rights, such as freedom of religion, a person at least deserves the respect of not having him or herself lumped together willy-nilly with people they do not agree with, as some might do by throwing around terms like "Islamofascist" and other slurs meant to stop, rather than enhance, rational thought.

    ... there is no such thing as "theistic evolution." We don't have a "theistic periodic table" or "theistic classical mechanics".

    There is, of course, no such scientific position as TE. But that is the point, damn it! "Theistic evolution" is a religious tenet, not a scientific one. And it is a tenet developed precisely because certain theists and non-theists insist that the science of evolution has religious consequences. For those people to then go around and try to say, on the one hand, that evolutionary theory weakens or destroys religious belief and, on the other, that theists are not allowed to develop religious responses to evolutionary thought, is the cheapest sort of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose rhetoric.

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  13. John Pieret,

    "For those people to then go around and try to say, on the one hand, that evolutionary theory weakens or destroys religious belief and, on the other, that theists are not allowed to develop religious responses to evolutionary thought, is the cheapest sort of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose rhetoric."

    I don't think I'm one of "those people" for two reasons: 1.) I've never, to my knowledge, said anything to the effect that evolutionary theory is some kind of wholesale destruction of theism and 2.) I have no problem with purely theological positions that do not modify the science, at least with regard to the topic at hand.

    I think you should be taking issue with certain "TE'ers", as many of them seem to have a problem with adhering to point no. 2 above. Collins and Conway Morris have already been mentioned in this thread as people who insist on having some kind of gap to stuff their god(s) into.

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  14. I don't think I'm one of "those people" ...

    Fair enough, though there are plenty around and that is enough reason for the rest of us to keep the concepts straight. Not doing so still contributes to the cheap rhetoric whether you intend to or not.

    Collins and Conway Morris have already been mentioned in this thread as people who insist on having some kind of gap to stuff their god(s) into.

    What the heck do you expect them to do? That has nothing to do with science, since science says nothing about the gaps in our knowledge anyway.

    And they are going to point to the Big Bang and go "Oooh! God ..." but that doesn't have anything to do with science either. I think that the fact that the hair in my nose grows down, instead of up, where it would clog up my brain, is evidence for the existence of god. But would you mistake that for a scientific conclusion? The mere pointing to some fact about the universe and asserting that it "supports" your belief in god is not co-opting science in any sense. It is only when you claim that science, the methodology and process itself, not just some fact revealed by it, supports your religious beliefs that you are abusing science.

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  15. "What the heck do you expect them to do? That has nothing to do with science, since science says nothing about the gaps in our knowledge anyway."

    Science most certainly does have something to say about gaps in our knowledge. Science is a process of looking for operationally physical explanations and when we approach a gap, the logical procedure is to look for such an explanation. Or are you claiming that "god of the gaps" is a legitimate position? That would certainly upset the idea that the theism we're talking about can't conflict with science.

    "The mere pointing to some fact about the universe and asserting that it "supports" your belief in god is not co-opting science in any sense."

    Only if the "support" being invoked is a purely subjective notion, meaning that the "god" being spoken of a purely subjective and wholly uninteresting idea. That's not the impression I'm getting from Collins and Conway Morris when they invoke various phenomena as "support" for their theism.

    (BTW Chris, in case you haven't returned to my blog to see it there, I'd like to offer thanks for linking to my commentary. It's much appreciated!)

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  16. If there we no gaps, science would be dead. We NEED those gaps, dammit!

    If everyone was happy to accept that the answer to the origin of life, or the big bang, or any gap, was "god did it", then wouldn't that kill all research in the area? The answer is known, why look?

    That kind of enforced blindness seems at odds with the objectivity we expect of a scientist.

    Ian: does the Star Destroyer get to use its fighters?
    :P

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  17. Science most certainly does have something to say about gaps in our knowledge. Science is a process of looking for operationally physical explanations and when we approach a gap, the logical procedure is to look for such an explanation.

    No, that is the philosophy of science that makes a methodological assumption about how to proceed. The process of science claims no knowledge as to what answer, if any, might eventually be found for the gap until something is indeed found. Theism is not, of course, bound by that assumption and scientists need not (indeed, cannot, as a practical matter) apply the method of science to everything in their life. All a good scientist should do (ideally) is to yield to the information when it is found. However, that is at least equally found in the breach as it is in the observance (obligatory plug for Wilkins' favorite book on science: David Hull's Science as a Process).

    Only if the "support" being invoked is a purely subjective notion, meaning that the "god" being spoken of a purely subjective and wholly uninteresting idea.

    I have no idea what you mean by "subjective" here. If you mean non-scientific, I have seen both of them deny that their arguments are scientific. There is a wealth of philosophical dispute to be had about whether science is the only "non-subjective" knowledge or even if science is objective.

    Certainly, any assertion that scientific ideas are the only interesting ideas will meet some considerable opposition from philosophers, ethicists and artists, to name just a few.

    If everyone was happy to accept that the answer to the origin of life, or the big bang, or any gap, was "god did it", then wouldn't that kill all research in the area? The answer is known, why look?

    I've seen no indication that people like Ken Miller, Collins and Conway-Morris have shown even the slightest predilection towards anything but a continuation of the most vigorous possible search for scientific answers in all areas.

    A significant portion (if not a majority) of scientists since the time of Newton have been theists who thought god had something to do with the origin and workings of the cosmos. And still we have gotten as far as we have. The usual theistic justification is that a deeper understanding of nature gives us a deeper understanding of "the mind of God." I'm not advocating that position but there is no empiric evidence that belief in god necessarily retards science, at least among scientists themselves.

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  18. Ian H Spedding FCD17 May 2007 at 7:26 am

    SmellyTerror said...

    Ian: does the Star Destroyer get to use its fighters?
    :P


    Yes, although their blasters being ineffective against the shields on a Galaxy-Class means they can only serve as a distraction. 8-)

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  19. Ian H Spedding FCD17 May 2007 at 7:46 am

    Pseudonym said...
    Ian:

    "Yes, there are differences, which the participants would discuss in excruciating detail when they were so minded but, in the end, so what?"

    There is a crucial difference. In the battle to ensure that only science is taught in science classrooms, TEists are on your side and IDists are not. And as a practical concern, TEists are more likely to be able to convince their fellow theists as to how important this is.

    Some people refer to atheists who are willing to work with TEists in this capacity as "Neville Chamberlain atheists". I disagree. This isn't appeasement, it's realpolitik.


    I agree entirely. Enlisting the support of TEists in the fight to preserve the integrity of science education is an appropriate tactic. To achieve that narrower political end, it makes no sense to offend them unnecessarily by poorly-aimed rhetoric.

    None of which, of course, changes the fundamental reality - of which I suspect all parties are well aware - that there is no compelling evidence for the existence of a god as usually understood, which makes the TEist position as much a question of faith as that of Intelligent Design/Creationism.

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  20. Ian H Spedding FCD17 May 2007 at 8:13 am

    John Pieret said...
    The "so what" is that the question of a scientist's commitment to science is a matter of substantial public and professional import. Accusing a scientist of being just the same as an Intelligent Design Creationist, as Larry Moran is wont to do, can seriously damage the reputation of a scientist and seriously derail (or at least seem to derail, a la Gonzalez) a scientist's career. On such matters involving basic human rights, such as freedom of religion, a person at least deserves the respect of not having him or herself lumped together willy-nilly with people they do not agree with, as some might do by throwing around terms like "Islamofascist" and other slurs meant to stop, rather than enhance, rational thought.


    No scientist should suffer adverse discrimination on the grounds of their faith - or lack of one. Providing their personal religious beliefs do not affect the integrity of their research and are not proselytized to their students on their authority as scientists, then they should be free to pursue their careers unimpeded.

    At the same time, scientists who publicly proclaim their personal religious beliefs should be aware that those statements - rightly or wrongly - carry additional authority by virtue of their source. For that reason, they cannot expect those beliefs to be immune from challenge and criticism but rather, being professional academics, they must expect to be held to a higher standard of probity than a layperson.

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  21. Accusing a scientist of being just the same as an Intelligent Design Creationist, as Larry Moran is wont to do, can seriously damage the reputation of a scientist and seriously derail (or at least seem to derail, a la Gonzalez) a scientist's career.

    Example, please. I am highly suspicious of the claim that a harsh comment in a blog's comment thread, or in a blog post, could have any impact whatsoever on a scientist's actual career.

    Getting a paper rejected repeatedly, getting denied tenure or promotion, retracting a published paper... these are all events that could have significant impacts on a scientist's career. Getting called a naughty name on some website is not in the same league. You imply an argument from authority - Larry Moran is a senior, respected scientist, therefore if he calls someone a poopy-head, that poopy-head is no longer to be trusted with the lab chemicals. I doubt the existence of many journal editors or science department tenure-review committee-members who would be swayed by such an argument.

    Legitimate debate between scientists in the scientific literature is common and is widely considered both acceptable and encouraging, as a demonstration of the robust health of the adversarial model of scientific discovery. A published critique of a study, that calls the methods, results, and conclusions into question, does not usually result in penalties to a scientist, except for the time spent answering those (usually legitimate) criticisms. Feuds between practicing scientists are likewise not uncommon, though they are usually not so well-liked by third parties as the more respected academic debates.

    As for your specific example of Gonzalez... was there a post on Panda's Thumb or elsewhere that led to a sudden about-face on the part of journal editors and others in regards Dr. Gonzalez's work? I was under the impression he was denied tenure for the rather pedestrian reason of not producing very high quality work. I know little about that specific case, though, so feel free to enlighten me if I am mistaken.

    Finally, as for the distinction between TEs and IDs: I agree that there is a legitimate distinction and difference, and much of the importance of that difference centres on political considerations, especially regarding public education. But from the point of view of a practicing evolutionary biologist, that fine distinction is mostly meaningless, in that neither group is likely to contribute any fresh insights into the theory of evolution, though admittedly the TEs are slightly more likely to say something NOT profoundly stupid in the context of, say, speciation research, or population genetics of extant species.

    Apologies for the long comment.

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  22. I am highly suspicious of the claim that a harsh comment in a blog's comment thread, or in a blog post, could have any impact whatsoever on a scientist's actual career.

    Well, it may have been a bit of hyperbole but reputation is all that a scientist has. It is his or her's only professional asset.

    And the people that have been saying that Gonzalez might not have been denied tenure because he espoused ID have also been emphasising that the personal impressions of one's peers is a large factor in such decisions. It is certainly possible that the kind of whispering campaign that can catch fire in the blogosphere could tip the decision in an otherwise close case.

    You might also want to look up the case of Leon Croizat and the effect reputation can have on perceptions of a scientist's work.

    Legitimate debate between scientists in the scientific literature is common and is widely considered both acceptable and encouraging ...

    But that's just it. Larry is accusing others of engaging in illicit behavior (for a scientist), about which there cannot be "legitimate debate."

    Let's assume that all of Larry's victims are immune from his unfair accusations. Is that somehow a justification for his doing it?

    ... neither group is likely to contribute any fresh insights into the theory of evolution ...

    Your turn now. On what basis do you say that Conway-Morris has not contributed any fresh insights into the theory of evolution ... or Ken Miller or Theodosius Dobzhansky or quite a few other TEers.

    At the same time, scientists who publicly proclaim their personal religious beliefs should be aware that those statements - rightly or wrongly - carry additional authority by virtue of their source. For that reason, they cannot expect those beliefs to be immune from challenge and criticism but rather, being professional academics, they must expect to be held to a higher standard of probity than a layperson.

    I see. Everyone should have religious freedom unless they happen to be a scientist and might be misunderstood?

    At the risk of being misunderstood ... that's a load of coprolites.

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  23. Theistic evolutionists are Intelligent Designers. TE states that all creation was created by an omnipotent being that set forth the natural laws of the Universe in such a way as to bring about all life, especially humans. This position implicitly requires predestination. If all activities within the Universe were not predestined by the creator, then the creator would not be all knowing, nor all powerful by induction. Such a being would thus not be a deity so much as a natural phenomenon, which could then be tested and disproved.

    By insisting on a Deist creator, TEists remove all probability from evolution. There was no chance that alligators and gazelles would evolve. The creator preordained such creatures to exist. The TE god explicitly refuses to throw dice. Thiestic Evolution inherently assumes that natural selection is not natural; everything developed according to a divine plan in a most unnatural selection. Thus both TE and ID assume that all life was designed. They simply differ on which drafting program was used.

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  24. Your turn now. On what basis do you say that Conway-Morris has not contributed any fresh insights into the theory of evolution ... or Ken Miller or Theodosius Dobzhansky or quite a few other TEers.

    Alright, point taken. I stand corrected. Many TEers have historically contributed to evolutionary biology in a variety of ways. Perhaps that is the distinction between IDers and TEers - the former have not contributed anything as useful as have Drs. Miller and Dobzhansky.

    It is certainly possible that the kind of whispering campaign that can catch fire in the blogosphere could tip the decision in an otherwise close case.

    I'll grant it's possible, in some hypothetical "otherwise close case", but I still remain unconvinced that any activity of any kind in the blogosphere has any significant or frequent effect in the careers of scientists. Yes, reputation is very important for scientists - but how does the blogosphere impact professional reputation? What fraction of working scientists actually read at least one blog on a regular or semi-regular basis? A scientist's reputation is based primarily on published peer-reviewed work, and secondarily on presentations and conversations at scientific meetings. Having a crappy website doesn't enter the equation. Having a disagreement on-line with some annonymous commenter on a blog isn't even among the possibilities.

    Let's assume that all of Larry's victims are immune from his unfair accusations. Is that somehow a justification for his doing it?

    No, it's not justification. It's irrelevant. It's neutral. If we take that extreme assumption, that all of Larry's "victims" are immune, then his "unfair accusations" are meaningless. If his victims are not immune, then Larry's name-calling has some effects. What are these effects? Denial of tenure? Rejection of a manuscript submitted to Evolution? I don't think so.

    My point is that the importance of commentary on blogs and websites is trivial compared to the considerations that actually impact a scientist's career. If everyone here stopped lurking and universally came out to denounce me, if everyone who reads Pharyngula and the Panda's Thumb universally accused me of, say, being a closet creationist out to get an advanced degree in evolutionary biology for the purpose of discrediting the entire edifice of modern science... what would the impact be upon my career?

    I don't know the answer to that question, but my guess is the worst-case scenario would be I have a very uncomfortable committee meeting in which I defend myself against these baseless accusations, and demonstrate to my committee that I am, in fact, an honest scientist. The best-case scenario would be I get angry and punch my keyboard a few times, and nobody else pays any attention whatsoever. I consider both scenarios quite plausible.

    The entire internet could rise up against me, and I'd still be allowed to register for, attend, and present my work at a major scientific meeting. I'd still be allowed to apply for funding, both now as a PhD student and later as a post-doc or professor. My chances of success in these endeavors would not be damaged.

    You might also want to look up the case of Leon Croizat and the effect reputation can have on perceptions of a scientist's work.

    I will look up that case, thank you for bringing it up, I know nothing about Leon Croizat. Was his reputation largely dependent on opinions espoused on the internet?

    Everyone should have religious freedom unless they happen to be a scientist and might be misunderstood?

    Religious freedom means the government doesn't step on your beliefs. Other academics at a university do not count as the government, despite one's ability to trace funding. If I denounce your beliefs, I am not impinging on your freedom of religion, since my political status is not one of great powers.

    You can believe any foolish thing you like, but if you can't defend your beliefs to me then don't expect me to respect those beliefs. That's all. If I don't respect your beliefs, what happens? I'm certainly not going to lock you up or torture you or whatever, and not just because I'm unwilling to do such things to another human being, but because I have not capacity to do such things.

    Why should a person's religious beliefs be exempt from the same scrutiny that all other "beliefs" an academic may hold are subject to? What's special about religion?

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  25. My point is that the importance of commentary on blogs and websites is trivial compared to the considerations that actually impact a scientist's career.

    What about conversations at scientific conferences? If Larry were to go around to conferences buttonholing people he knew and saying that various scientists are closet creationists, might that have some effect? How about if he went around saying that the data in somebody's paper was faked? Is there really a difference in the level of dishonesty Larry would be alleging in each case? If not, what real difference is there doing either at a conference or on a blog?

    And how much exactly is an irrelevant or neutral effect on someone's reputation? Is there some quantifiable amount? If not, how can you be sure that it is irrelevant or neutral? It's not like anyone is going to say: "I won't hire you because you might be a creationist." It might not even be conscious on the part of the person who counts – just a "feeling" or an "impression" or a niggling doubt about the person that they could not identify. That was the lesson of Croizat (who lived and died long before the internet but not before gossip was invented). After he got the reputation he did then the work he produced was largely ignored and rejected despite its merit.

    And that's just the direct effect. There could be secondary effects of chilling younger scientists' willingness to even acknowledge their religious beliefs, which could further skew public perceptions of the profession, actually hurting the American scientific community.

    I don't know what present impact the blogosphere actually has within the scientific community, though I'd bet pretty close to my bottom dollar that it is growing, and will continue to do so, as it has in every other sphere of life.

    But that's enough bludgeoning of moribund Equidae. Even if I were to accept your characterization that the blogosphere is somehow ineffective on the scientific community, unlike what is the case in politics and pretty much every other endeavor in life today, why should anyone have even one "uncomfortable committee meeting" because of Larry's intransigence? It seems to me that it is the equivalent to intentionally or recklessly shooting at a person and happening to miss or having the gun jam. If Larry has not hurt the reputations of these people, it is not because he hasn't tried.

    Religious freedom means the government doesn't step on your beliefs.

    What I said there was actually in response to Ian Spedding's claim that "[n]o scientist should suffer adverse discrimination on the grounds of their faith - or lack of one ... [p]roviding their personal religious beliefs do not affect the integrity of their research," which I agree with. He went on to say that such a "right" not to be discriminated against was somehow qualified in the case of scientists. That was the part I was saying was bullhockey.

    In any event, assuming that university affiliations of one sort of another constitute a goodly portion of the scientific community today and given that quite a few of those are state or local government run and given the Federal funding of all types to both universities and the private sector always comes with civil rights strings and not even considering the laws applied to institutions of "public accommodation" under the Commerce Clause, its fairly safe to say that few employers in the scientific community in the U.S. are free of restrictions against religious discrimination. Again, though, my point wasn't whether it was legal or illegal, just whether it was right or wrong.

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  26. Ian H Spedding FCD18 May 2007 at 1:21 pm

    John Pieret said...
    What I said there was actually in response to Ian Spedding's claim that "[n]o scientist should suffer adverse discrimination on the grounds of their faith - or lack of one ... [p]roviding their personal religious beliefs do not affect the integrity of their research," which I agree with. He went on to say that such a "right" not to be discriminated against was somehow qualified in the case of scientists. That was the part I was saying was bullhockey.


    I think there has been a bit of a misunderstanding. I was not saying that scientists are only entitled to qualified protection against discrimination on the grounds of religion but rather that they should not expect their personal religious beliefs to be immune from criticism once they have been introduced into the public arena.

    If Joe Blow from Pocono were to say that he believes the Earth is only 6000 years old it would probably not raise an eyebrow. But if palaeontologist Professor Joseph Blow on the science faculty of the University of Pennsylvania at Pocono were to announce his adherence to a faith that includes a similar belief it might attract a little more attention.

    Even if the good professor were to be emphatic that his faith has no bearing on his academic work and nor does he claim his beliefs are supported by science in any way, it is undeniable that his professional status would add weight to his views in the minds of a lay audience.

    The fact that Prof. Blow is fully entitled to worship as he chooses does not mean that others are not entitled to criticize his beliefs whenever they choose.

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  27. The fact that Prof. Blow is fully entitled to worship as he chooses does not mean that others are not entitled to criticize his beliefs whenever they choose.

    I have no problem with theologians criticizing anyone's apologetics.

    But these critics not only aren't theologians, they resolutely remain proudly ignorant of theology, often (though not always) erecting strawmen versions of others' beliefs and generally displaying a deep lack of understanding of the topic that choose to [cough] pontificate upon.

    On the professional side, why should scientists be interested at all in the religious beliefs of fellow scientists, as long as those theists keep it out of their scientific work? What legitimate interest do they have as scientists in that or any other part of Prof. Blow's private life, such as his sexual orientation or marital relationships? If it doesn't enter into Prof. Blow's work, they have no more "right" to professionally punish Prof. Blow, either formally or informally, because of what he may write on other topics than they do to because of what positions he uses in bed and on whom.

    And before Larry starts his fainting routine again, I'm not suggesting that he should be "banned" or anything. He has as much right as anyone to make a fool of himself in public. I simply claim the right to point and giggle.

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  28. John Pieret has absolutely no credibility on this subject. He can whine all he wants that it is so awful to lump theistic evolutionists with IDists, but...he's one of those guys who is most fond of accusing unbelieving scientists of being "fundamentalist atheists", and he clearly sees no problem in trying to lump the atheists with the religious fundamentalists -- he's been trying to poison the well, plain and simple. John has his own habit of "accusing others of engaging in illicit behavior" on far more tenuous grounds, and I'm honestly a little fed up with his strident and irrational defense of religious inanity.

    I think it's perfectly fair to point out that there are some strong similarities between TEists who say a creator made a miraculous intervention in creating humans and IDists who say a creator made a miraculous intervention in creating humans. They are both making unsupported assertions about supernatural entities. They are not comparable to the scientists who say that there is no evidence of any kind of supernatural intervention and that natural process seem to be adequate to explain evolution.

    Unless you're John Pieret. Then a scientist pointing out that the god-talk is ridiculous is equivalent to some nutcase speaking in tongues and insisting that the bible is literally true, or some fanatic who wants to stone adulteresses.

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  29. On the matter of whether Larry Moran could buttonhole people at academic conferences and destroy their careers by calling them creationists: complete nonsense, well past the border and into lunatic territory. There are ferocious egos and personal battles in science all the time. There are people who don't hesitate to say far, far worse about their competitors than that. I have, for instance, heard some very big names in science call Francis Collins a kook and an embarrassment -- but I don't think he's at much risk for losing his position in the scientific community for that (his own maundering book o' foolish crap will do much more damage to his reputation than anything any big name could do.)

    It's not just that people at the top of their fields, like Collins, are protected. I've also witnessed extremely harsh criticism of graduate students (and was the subject of some when I was one!) -- who can weather it quite well if they've got a thick skin and the support of their advisor. The institution of science is all about incessant criticism at various levels of intensity, and to counterbalance it scientists are also pretty good at considering the actual performance.

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  30. What about conversations at scientific conferences? If Larry were to go around to conferences buttonholing people he knew and saying that various scientists are closet creationists, might that have some effect? How about if he went around saying that the data in somebody's paper was faked? Is there really a difference in the level of dishonesty Larry would be alleging in each case? If not, what real difference is there doing either at a conference or on a blog?

    In both cases, at a conference or in a (series of) posting(s) on a blog or other webstie, Larry's accusations could only be damaging if they were SUPPORTED. If he's just tossing around unsupported accusations, the effect on a practicing scientist's career or reputation would be negligible in either case.

    If I am swayed by some person telling me unpleasantnesses about some other person, then I am swayed by an argument from authority. I hope to avoid ever being swayed by an argument from authority. If Larry (or anyone) were to "buttonhole" me at a conference and present credible evidence, ideally in the form of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies, of another conference attendee's falsified data, that probably would have some effect on my future decisions regarding that person. But if he "buttonholes" me and just starts spewing rumours and conjecture, I'm going to ignore him, change the subject, or, if Larry is somehow particularly convincing, confront the supposed wrong-doer at the next opportunity for confirmation. Actually, I'd look for confirmation and give the accused a chance to defend themselves in any case.

    ...they resolutely remain proudly ignorant of theology, often (though not always) erecting strawmen versions of others' beliefs and generally displaying a deep lack of understanding...

    Courtier's reply. Also, I am proud to be ignorant of theology, of all the various sects of Christianity and of the various forms of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. I spent my time, and continute to spend my time, learning about things that are demonstrably real and have demonstrable impacts upon my and other's lives. Before we start discussing the relative merits of various theologies, please a) define precisely which theology we'll be discussing and b) demonstrate the validity of the underlying assumptions of that theology.

    Is "John Pieret believes a God exists" a strawman, or an accurate characterisation of another person's opinion?

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  31. Friends, my thanks for all your thoughts. I've been intrigued to follow along and your writings are having their impact as I take up this topic again on the front page.

    A few special mentions...

    Ian H Spedding (FCD) is pretty much on my wavelength.

    Jonathan; I think you dictate too much the form of theistic evolution (here). It's not a single monolithic belief, and there are theists who hold that the precise physical form is not necessarily the choice of a designer any more than the precise shape of a cloud. Some do (Ken Miller seems to take this approach with his billiard balls analogy) but even then, this is definitely not a rejection of the randomness of within selection; since randomness can be taken simply as a function of our inability to model in exhaustive detail all the causes and effects that apply.

    On the other hand, a fairly common theological perspective (common in the liberal circles I tend to read, and especially in those who are more theologians than scientists) to hold that God granted to the creation a capacity to be creative itself. In other words, He designed into the universe the capacity to play a crucial part in its own development -- a kind of free will to physics. In this form, the theistic evolutionist is not presuming determinism at all.

    John Pieret is very welcome here. Emphatic declarations of his supposed lack of credibility don't mean much. Make your own case, Paul, and let that refute John on its merits, or not. His credibility is for readers to judge, not for you to impose.

    John Pieret is right about many critics failing to understand theology. The plea that theology is all bunk anyway is a bit weak; because in point of fact the specifics of criticisms from those who dismiss all theology often fail when stacked up with certain theological perspectives. There's no obligation on unbelievers to try and sort out abstract theology! TheBrummell is under no obligation to get a theological education. Me… I'm a queer fish, and I shall explain more about that in the blog one day; I do read some of the theologians.

    My friendly advice to fellow atheists is to make a positive argument of your own against God... as Dawkins has done, for example. Clarify what you mean by God and why that does not exist; and you've given substantive engagement.

    But attempt to be specific in the criticisms of religion -- such as a presumption that theistic evolution presupposes determinism -- and you are likely to be refuting more of a subset of the faith than you realize.

    PZ; you are particularly welcome as one who drives the debate forward and gives it a major prominence. You make me think, even when we differ on a point or two. And I agree with you entirely on it being absurd that you can destroy a career just by calling someone a creationist. John also has acknowledged this was hyperbole.

    When someone actually is a creationist, then exposing that may damage their career. I certainly hope it would! But merely making the claim when there's no substance to it will do little beyond making the accuser look like a nut.

    I've been slack in commenting in this thread! I hope I've touched on most of the bases where anyone may have wondered how I was reacting. Thanks for your comments!

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  32. 'John Pieret is right about many critics failing to understand theology. The plea that theology is all bunk anyway is a bit weak; because in point of fact the specifics of criticisms from those who dismiss all theology often fail when stacked up with certain theological perspectives.'

    Of course, thats exactly the point. There are so many perspectives it's impossible to whack them all. Better to say it's all bunk until one shows some remote semblence of being correct. There are as many theologies as there are people to some degree.

    'There's no obligation on unbelievers to try and sort out abstract theology!'

    Exactly. They all are on equal footing in many ways.

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