The Evolution Of A Blogginghead; Or The Ballad Of Jim And Jerry

Evolution

Earlier, we updated “B-head On The G-head” to include Jim Manzi’s post at Sully’s place on Jerry Coyne’s critique of Bob Wright’s book, “The Evolution of God.” Excerpts don’t do the debate justice, but that’s what we do here, so…

Jerry Coyne in TNR:

While many religious people have been persuaded by Darwin’s overwhelming evidence, there still remains a need to find greater meaning behind it all–to see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan. As the theologian John Haught notes, “For the universe to transform our hearts as well as our minds it must allow itself to be read–in one way or another–as having a purpose. To say that the universe has a purpose means quite simply that it is in the process of realizing something that is undeniably good, and that this good is also in some sense imperishable.”

And so the faithful–the ones who care about science at all–have tweaked the theory of evolution to bring it into line with their needs, to make it more congenial. Although life may indeed have evolved, they say, the process was really masterminded by God, whose ultimate goal was to evolve a species, our species, that is able to apprehend and therefore to admire its creator. This progressivist and purpose-driven view of evolution, rejected by most scientists, has been embraced by Haught and other theologians, by religious biologists such as Francis Collins, and, unsurprisingly, by the Catholic church itself.

Yet the notion of guided evolution leaves a problem. What good is a God-evolved species if it must inhabit a world as messy, contingent, and stricken with unpredictable horrors as the process of evolution itself? Is there any way that we can affirm, however dimly, that the world is getting better? And if so, might this, too, have something to do with God? The journalist Robert Wright has devoted much of his career to speculating about these questions, seeking divine purpose behind what he sees as social and biological “laws.” His thesis, in The Evolution of God, is that theologies have changed over time to accommodate the increased interactions among cultures that come with a more complex world, and that this theological change has made the world a more moral place. This is a historical claim about morality’s progress. But atop this claim Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God, who is pulling society toward moral perfection. What’s more, he says that this conclusion is not religious but scientific–that it is based on “facts on the ground” that should be obvious to any observer. In what he sees as the relentlessly progressive evolution of religion, Wright seems to find an argument for the existence of God.

Jim Manzi at Sully’s place:

Coyne is an eminent evolutionary biologist, but here makes an enormous claim about the philosophical implications of science: that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe. I think this claim is, in fact, a gigantic leap of faith unsupported by any scientific findings.

[...]

It is obvious from the factory analogy that evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that, as per the GA which spontaneously generates the initial population, that prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.

This, of course, is a very old question that far pre-dates modern science. A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect. If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress. No matter how far science advances, an explanation of ultimate origins seems always to remain a non-scientific question.

Now consider the relationship of the second observation to the problem of final cause. The factory GA, as we saw, had a goal. Evolution in nature is more complicated — but the complications don’t mean that the process is goalless, just that determining this goal would be so incomprehensibly hard that in practice it falls into the realm of philosophy rather than science. Science can not tell us whether or not evolution through natural selection has some final cause or not; if we believe, for some non-scientific reason, that evolution has a goal, then science can not, as of now, tell what that goal might be.

[...]

The theory of evolution, then, has not eliminated the problems of ultimate origins and ultimate purpose with respect to the development of organisms; it has ignored them. These problems are defined as non-scientific questions, not because we don’t care about the answers, but because attempting to solve them would impede practical progress. Accepting evolution, therefore, requires neither the denial of a Creator nor the loss of the idea of ultimate purpose. It resolves neither issue for us one way or the other. The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept.

Patrick Appel has the readers’ reaction at the Dish

Manzi responds to them:

I did not claim any evidence for “a writer”, simply that the existence of evolution through natural selection does demonstrate that there is no writer (to use your metaphor).   I think that the idea that “the ‘purpose’ of evolution (i.e., reproductive fitness) is simply a logical consequence of its existence in the first place” misses the whole point of my post.  In any relevant evolutionary context, including both what we see in the world around us and the factory GA example from my post, reproductive fitness is determined by an environment external to the organism.  Why does this environment exist as it does?  Why do the rules of the particular genetic process (e.g., crossover probabilities, etc.) exist as they do?  And so forth.  To say that “it is a logical consequence of its existence” is to avoid any such questions.

Edward Feser:

One reason so many commentators on the so-called “religion vs. science” debate don’t see the Aristotelian implications of the modern scientific ideas to which they appeal is that they simply don’t understand what Aristotelians mean by “final causality” in the first place, and in general — as I never tire of complaining — are beholden to a fossilized set of “Enlightenment”-era clichés and caricatures of what Aristotelians and Scholastics really thought. Not understanding classical philosophy (whether Aristotelian, Platonist, Thomist, or whatever) they naturally also do not understand the theology it inspired. Hence they take William Paley and his successors – rather than an Augustine, an Aquinas, or even a Leibniz – as their guides to what the divine nature must be like, if there is a God. Hence, rather than directing their arguments against the (classical philosophy-informed) classical theism that has historically defined Christian orthodoxy, they target a (currently popular but historically aberrant) anthropomorphic conception of God. Perhaps Coyne, Dawkins, et al. draw some blood when this conception is their target; and then again, perhaps not. Either way, their arguments are utterly irrelevant to the question of the existence of the God of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – and thus of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Santi Tafarella

Coyne responds to Manzi:

Yep, I agree that evolution doesn’t disprove a creator or purpose.  You can have a deistic creator who set things in motion and went to lunch, and you can have a purpose that is “making everything look as if it evolved by natural means.”  Beyond that, Houston, we have problems.

In  the end, Manzi fails to tell us why we should even see “ultimate origin” and “ultimate purpose” as problems, at least, as problems whose solution is God.  What is the “purpose” of a snowflake? Its marvelous “designed” appearance is the ineluctable result of natural processes acting on matter.  There is no mind, no God, behind its appearance.  The products of natural selection and evolution are like snowflakes.  There is not one speck of evidence contradicting the idea that Homo sapiens, like all species, is the result of physical processes (transmuted into biological processes) acting on matter. As to where that matter came from, well, we don’t yet know, but we might someday. Manzi, on the other hand, will never know — not as long as he forsakes science for theology.  And perhaps, if he thinks about it, he will realize that science can indeed address — and refute– some religious theories about creation and purpose.

Manzi responds to Coyne:

Coyne, in his reply to me, says this about it:

“Wrong!  What I have said — repeatedly — is that there is no evidence for a divine plan for the universe.”Well, here is the first paragraph of Coyne’s review, which I quoted in my post [Bold added]:

“Over its history, science has delivered two crippling blows to humanity’s self-image. The first was Galileo’s announcement, in 1632, that our Earth was just another planet and not, as Scripture implied, the center of the universe. The second—and more severe—landed in 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, demolishing, in 545 pages of closely reasoned prose, the comforting notion that we are unique among all species—the supreme object of God’s creation, and the only creature whose earthly travails could be cashed in for a comfortable afterlife.”He doesn’t say that there is no evidence for it, but that Darwin demolished this notion.

Coyne, in his reply, makes a lot of the fact that he doesn’t dismiss the idea of a “deistic creator that set things in motion and went to lunch”, but that certain conceptions of God are ruled out by science.  What is ruled out exactly?  It’s important here to distinguish between mechanism and purpose.  In his original essay, Coyne claims that “Charles Darwin…demolished…the comforting notion that we are unique among species – the supreme object of God’s creation”, so presumably without regard to the mechanism of just setting things in motion versus intervening frequently, Coyne believes that there can be no divine plan that makes us unique.

The key issue in our disagreement, it seems to me, is therefore not whether or not a purported God is deistic or interventionist, but rather whether evolution through natural selection precludes a purpose for the universe that privileges humans.  Coyne accepts that a position of “it’s all an incredibly ingenious façade designed by an omnipotent God to fool us” is always logically possible, but sees this as a sterile point of view.  I agree.  What we are disputing, then, could be said more practically as: Do the findings of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology uniquely preclude, using the normal English meaning of words, the idea of a divine plan that privileges humans in the way we mean in normal speech as religious?

Matt Steinglass on Manzi’s response to Coyne:

I can sort of see why Jim Manzi would feel that Jerry Coyne’s response to him is intemperate, but I’m not sure how I can explain to Jim Manzi why his post really does seem extremely tedious to someone who accepts, not just the validity of the theory of evolution, but that people ought to approach the world by privileging evidence and Occam’s Razor. Essentially, Manzi has invented a new comforting notion for those who wish to believe that the universe is programmed by an intentional God. Maybe, he imagines, the universe is not a clock, as the folks who tried to rescue theism in the 18th and 19th centuries imagined, but a biological computer, like the ones that use DNA to solve problems. Those kinds of computers solve problems by setting some criteria for a solution and then running through zillions of combinations very rapidly, selecting out the more promising lines of inquiry and killing off the ones that begin to fail, until they arrive at a combination that meets the criteria established at the beginning.

[...]

The point is this: until the 19th century, the argument for God was that beings as complex and sophisticated as hummingbirds or humans could not possible have come into existence randomly; something had to have shaped them. Darwin showed that wasn’t true. Life evolves into existence constantly all around us without a creator. Once you get there, the only remaining reasons to believe in the existence of a creator are aesthetic ones, not centered on humans. The idea that humans are “unique among all species, the supreme object of God’s creation,” isn’t impossible. It’s just infinitely unlikely. I don’t see why Manzi keeps failing to get the point.

Manzi on Steinglass at The American Scene:

But a crucial point of my post is that Darwin showed no such thing. Evolution, contrary to frequent claims in the public square, does not act randomly. I won’t repeat my entire original post here, but if Matt rejects my argument for why this is not so, I think he needs to point out the flaw in my logic.

Again, to be clear, I am not claiming that somehow the theological argument from design is correct, only that evolution does not act randomly.

Noah Millman at The Scene:

I’m not 100% clear on whether Jim is making a factual or a hermeneutical claim. He presses several times on the question of randomness. “Random” is, indeed, a funny word. (Personal anecdotal aside: my first task at my first job on Wall Street was to organize regular lunches with the staff for the CEO. “The company’s now too big for me to really get to know everyone personally through normal business interactions,” he said, “so I want to meet on a monthly basis with random groups of staff to stay in touch with everyone and with all the different parts of the firm.” I asked if, rather that “random,” didn’t he really mean “mixed” groups of staff. That won me a gold star. Took a few more years to realize that, on Wall Street, you’re not competing for gold stars – you’re competing for money.) But I think the way he is using it nothing – with the possible exception of events on the quantum level – is truly random. That’s not the way we use the word normally, and I wonder whether Jim’s argument could be reduced to the statement “nothing is actually random if you believe God is behind everything.”

In any event, mutations are, in the sense that we normally use the word, random. In fact, I think they are random at least to some extent in the way that Jim means it – that is to say, they are caused by quantum mechanical events that are in principle unpredictable (because the underlying reality is actual uncertain rather than merely unknowable) rather than merely practically unpredictable (because so complex and chaotic as to be beyond human powers of calculation, even with the application of all currently engineerable technology).

Some people have also tried to make that claim that the selection process itself may be guided – that, basically, some overseeing intelligence could be determining who survives and prospers and who dies without reproducing, and thereby guiding evolution. I don’t think Jim is making that claim, but I don’t see how, in principle, it’s any different from the claim that some overarching intelligence is guiding the process of mutation. In either case, if there’s a factual claim here – that something other than chance is guiding either the mutations or the selection – that claim can, in principle, be tested. To take an overly simple example: suppose one believed that the overarching intelligence had set up the universe as a genetic algorithm to produce blue algae. You would expect some evidence of that preference – say, that mutations in green algae to produce blue offspring were more common than the other way around. In the absence of any such evidence, you’d say that, in fact, the overarching intelligence (if any) doesn’t appear to prefer either color of algae. In other words, if random mutation plus natural selection accounts for the facts, there’s scientific reason (Occam’s Razor and all that) to reject any other force in operation. And, in that case, Jim is reduced to saying that what appears to be random – and what is indistinguishable scientifically from randomness – is, in fact, caused by an overarching intelligence. This is akin to the claim that, if it were not for God, the strong and weak nuclear forces would not function, and therefore the universe would have no structure whatsoever. You can perfectly well believe that, but it’s not the kind of claim that will generate much interesting discussion.

That ends “The Ballad Of Jim and Jerry” for now. Onto “Evolution of A Blogginghead” or what happens when Science Saturday people quit.

The first controversial Bloggingheads, between Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson

The second controversial Bloggingheads, between John McWhorter and Michael Behe

Sean Carroll:

Unfortunately, I won’t be appearing on Bloggingheads.tv any more. And it is unfortunate — I had some great times there, and there’s an enormous amount to like about the site. So I thought I should explain my reasons.

A few weeks ago we were a bit startled to find a “Science Saturday” episode of BH.tv featuring Paul Nelson, an honest-to-God young-Earth creationist. Not really what most of us like to think of as “science.” So there were emails back and forth trying to figure out what went on. David Killoren, who is the person in charge of the Science Saturday dialogues, is an extremely reasonable guy; we had slightly different perspectives on the matter, but in the end he appreciated the discomfort of the scientists, and we agreed to classify that dialogue as a “failed experiment,” not something that would be a regular feature.

So last week we were startled once again, this time by the sight of a dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Behe, some of you undoubtedly know, is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and chief promulgator of the idea of “irreducible complexity.” The idea is that you can just look at something and know it was “designed,” because changing any bit of it would render the thing useless — so it couldn’t have arisen via a series of incremental steps that were all individually beneficial to the purpose of the object. The classic example was a mousetrap — until someone shows how a mousetrap is, in fact, reducibly complex. Then you change your choice of classic example. Behe had his butt handed to him during his testimony at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial over teaching intelligent design in schools; but embarrassment is not an arrow in the ID quiver, and he hasn’t been keeping quiet since then.

[...]

What I objected to about the creationists was that they were not worthy opponents with whom I disagree; they’re just crackpots. Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas. If I’m going to spend an hour of my life listening to two people have a discussion with each other, I want some confidence that they’re both serious people. Likewise, if I’m going to spend my own time and lend my own credibility to such an enterprise, I want to believe that serious discussions between respectable interlocutors are what the site is all about.

Here’s the distinction I want to draw, which might admittedly be a very fine line. If someone wants to talk about ID as a socio/religio/political phenomenon worth of study by anthropologists and sociologists, that’s fine. (Presumably the right people to have that discussion are anthropologists or sociologists or historians/philosophers of science, not biochemists who have wandered into looney land.) If someone wants to talk to someone who believes in ID about something that person has respectable thoughts about, that would also be fine with me. If you want to talk to a theologian about theology, or a politician about politics, or an artist about art, the fact that such a person has ID sympathies doesn’t bother me in the least.

But if you present a discussion about the scientific merits of ID, with someone who actually believes that such merits exist — then you are wasting my time and giving up on the goal of having a worthwhile intellectual discussion. Which is fine, if that’s what you want to do. But it’s not an endeavor with which I want to be associated. At the end of our conversations, I understood that my opinions about these matters were very different from those of the powers that be at BH.tv.

Bob Wright responds in the comments:

Sean, in your account of the phone conversation with me and Carl Zimmer and some BhTV staffers yesterday, I wish you’d included some key points I tried to drive home.

Here’s what I remember telling you and Carl yesterday:
1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

It’s true that I didn’t give you the pledge that apparently would have kept you appearing on BhTV: No more creationists or Intelligent Design folks ever on Bloggingheads. I said that, for example, I could imagine myself interrogating ID people about their theological motivation. And I said I’d welcome a Behe-Richard Dawkins debate, since Dawkins is a rare combination of expertise and accessibility. But I also said that offhand I couldn’t imagine any other Behe pairing that would work for me (though there may be possibilities I’m overlooking).

The key thing that I tried to underscore repeatedly in our phone conversation yesterday is this: The two diavlogs in question were not reflective of BhTV editorial policy, and steps have been taken to tighten the implementation of that policy so that future content will be more reflective of it. Sean, I wish that in your post you’d conveyed this to your readers, though I realize that you had a lot of other things you wanted to say.

Carl Zimmer at Discover:

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.

This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I’ve written this post mainly just to put my decision in words. It may matter to very few people, and if most readers of the Loom have skipped this post to await some juicy science, I understand entirely. But the arc of this two-year experiment has got me thinking a bit about where the public discussion of science is going these days.

Bob Wright responds in comments

John Horgan:

I have enormous respect for Carl and Sean. They are extremely smart, knowledgeable, gracious men, and they upgraded the level of discourse on BHTV. I’ll be sad to see them go. But I’m staying, and I disagree, strongly, with their stance that some topics (with one exception, noted below) should be shunned on principle.

Bob Wright and I disagree, strongly, on a lot of things, as anyone who watched our recent chat about his new book knows. But I’m glad that Bob has refused to exclude, a priori, certain topics, attitudes, people from BHTV. The basic premise of BHTV, as I see it, is that dialogue and debate are intrinsically good, leading to enlightenment and progress in human affairs and all sorts of other good stuff—even though of course it doesn’t always work out that way in practice.

My placement above of things like psychoanalysis and multiverse theories alongside astrology and homeopathy was my passive-aggressive way of making the point that it ain’t always easy to draw the line between real and pseudo-science. Some titans of science have espoused wacky beliefs. Linus Pauling insisted that vitamin C could cure cancer. Fred Hoyle suspected the flu virus comes from outer space. Freeman Dyson believes in ESP and thinks global warming may be good for us. Sean Carroll thinks multiverse theories deserve serious attention.

Bloggingheads features conservatives with extremely hawkish views, which I think are potentially far more dangerous than creationism or astrology or multiverses. Should they be excluded? No! My attitude is, Let’s talk about it! I’d like to find out why you hold these views, and to tell you why you’re wrong. Maybe you’ll persuade me you’re right, although I doubt it, but at least we may achieve some mutual understanding, which can’t be bad.

John Horgan and Bob Wright at Bloggingheads on the affair

John Coyne on the controversy, here and here. He links to Phil Plait at Discovery:

Bloggingheads had full-blown creationists being interviewed, making all the same long-debunked claims while the other person talking basically supported them. And BloggingHeads called that science.

So Bzzzzzzzt! I’m done with them. I was on BloggingHeads (with Carl) a few months ago, and I won’t ever do it again either. If they want to cast creationism as science, they might as well say Holocaust denial is real history, 9/11 truthers are engineers, and Birthers are patriots. They can do that, but it’s a crock.

Folks, the debate is over, and has been for decades: creationism is wrong, and provably so. And it’s certainly not science. Portraying it as such is either breathtaking ignorance, or a lie. Sorry, BHTV, but creationism is the shark, and you’re Fonzie.

Greg Fish:

Wright needs to think about what kind of reputation he wants his site to have in the popular science world. He could allow it to become an irrelevant laughingstock that once used to host scientists, skeptics and scientific discussions of serious merit, or he could admit a mistake and allow creationists and their fawning followers to stew in their own self-congratulatory pseudoscientific muck. It’s his call.

P.Z. Myers at Scienceblogs:

Several of the commenters on Phil’s site do not think it is a good idea, because lunacy like creationism ought to be confronted whenever we can do so. I agree! The problem with bloggingheads wasn’t simply that creationists were given a venue — it was that creationists were given a venue without voices opposing their ideas. It was setting up crackpots with softball interviews that made them look reasonable, because their peculiar ideas were never confronted. That’s what has to be rejected, not the idea of arguing with bad ideas (although Sean Carroll makes a good case that some ideas are so bad they don’t even deserve debate), but a site that promised discussion yet became open mic night for loons.

Greg Laden at Scienceblogs:

One possible conclusion that could come of all this is the following: Bloggingheads.tv is practically a mouthpiece for creationism. Yes it is true that the creationists only get on Blogginheads once every year or so, but that would be like NOVA producing one or two pro-creationist one hour long specials every decade. Unacceptable and outrageous. Robert Wright and his whole team need to be driving into the swamp.

Another possible conclusion is that Blogginheads.tv is run like a half baked lemonade stand, and thus does not serve well in protecting the high standards of decision making and management that the rest of the blogosphere adheres to. They need to be punished for their inefficacious behavior. Drive them at least in the general direction of the swamp and they will surely blunder into the mire on their own. But if new management or editorial practices are demonstrated, make nice and start once again using Bloggingheads.tv as a mouthpiece for rationality and science.

Yet another possible conclusion is that the creationists have done an admirable job at getting Carl Zimmer, Sean Carrol, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers, four of the most widely heard and widely loved (or hated, depending) voices of science and of anti-creationism, to commit to never using this popular venue. Now, if the creationists can do this with, say, Public TV and some of the major news outlets, they have it made. It won’t be long after that they will be able to drive all of us into the swamp.

Coyne:

So much for the virtues of accommodationism. If you pretend that religion has something to say about science, or if you present these two magisteria as coequals, those who have genuine respect for science — and integrity — are going to flee faster than rats on a sinking ship.

EARLIER: B-head on the G-head

UPDATE: Jim Manzi at The American Scene

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Filed under Books, New Media, Religion, Science

One response to “The Evolution Of A Blogginghead; Or The Ballad Of Jim And Jerry

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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