Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Myth of Irreducible Complexity

When I saw the op-ed by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) in the New York Times last week, I had to let it sink. Brownback at a Republican debate some weeks ago raised his hand to say he was one of three presidential candidates on stage who did not believe in evolution.

In the editorial, he seeks to stake out a middle ground between faith and reason, arguing that they are not contradictory. In so doing, he only makes his answer worse by filling in further implausible detail.

Quoting from the piece:

The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

The word "wholeheartedly" is revealing. Human emotion is critical to who we are and determines what our goals are, both as individuals and societies. They represent our wants. One of Brownback's biggest problems is he confuse what he wants with what actually is. Let me say it plainly: what we want has nothing to do with what is true, and in fact is often a poor predictor of it.

Arguments that there are different kinds of truth, such as a subjective idea that popcorn is the greatest food ever invented are fine, but here I'm talking about the no-doubt, universal truth that religion pretends to answer.

On my drive back to Boston Tuesday night, I heard a caller on the radio say there wasn't a single doubt in his mind that the lightning that disrupted the microphone system at the GOP presidential debate during Rudy Giuliani's answer about abortion was a purposeful act of God. Now, I can understand feeling that way, but how can one possibly say there isn't a doubt in one's mind about something like that? Or as almost all presidential candidates say about their belief in a creator? To believe anything for which there is not a single verifiable piece of evidence, not one?

One can believe what one will, but we need to stop confusing terms here. Emotion is a guide to figuring out what we want, something that gets us to act or not act, instinctual. Rationality is a tool to allow us to better fulfill those goals. Their domains are separate. And on questions of religion, they do in fact contradict in numerous ways.

The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true.

I had not heard of microevolution, but have read up on it since. It is the idea that while within a species evolution can happen - and this cannot be denied because we've seen it happen in many experimental trials - it doesn't create new species. This is also contradicted by evidence, but it's inherently more difficult given the far greater complexity involved.

Sharon Begley addresses the fallacy of irreducible complexity, which argues that complex organs and systems couldn't have evolved slowly because, for example, an eye would be of no evolutionary advantage in an intermediate stage, something that is mistaken on several counts. One is because an intermediate system for simply detecting light would be of enormous advantage vs. a creature that did not have that ability. Another is that organs and systems are not always used for the same purpose in different stages of evolution.

Stripped of its pretense, microevolution amounts to a strategic retreat by believers in creationism, necessitated by overwhelming evidence for evolution, that they hope will allow for keeping their fundamental tenets intact.

There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today.

This is a non sequitur, as the debate in question has nothing to do with whether those scientists believe "macroevolution" is a fact. They do.

Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.

This is also mistaken.
Science has much to say about man's unique place in the world, as it is relatively simple to tick off in which ways he is unique and which ways he is not.

I believe it is the noble feeling of sacredness for human life that Brownback and many others have that leads to this fallacious conclusion. That is, if humans are shown to be random and material, what is the basis for morality? This is an excellent and momentous question, but the consequences of an idea are independent of its being factual or not.

Brownback is partially right that there are questions that science alone cannot answer, but theology and philosophy don't belong in the same basket. The former inherently deals with what we hope to be true, while the latter generally does not rely on the supernatural for its lessons.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded.

Though again I understand the sentiment from which this comes, the sentence offers a corruption of the phrase "fundamental truth." If we were to speak of universal respect for human life, dignity and rights, I am right there with you. But I am looking for morality without the supernatural, and instances of such happen in real life many times a day.

While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

This last sentence must be addressed, as it is a frequent rejoinder by creationists. It is aimed at leveling the debate, arguing that atheists (which I am not, by the way) are just as "religious" as those who don't believe in evolution.

This is - and I do not use these words lightly - flatly wrong. Again, those who advocate evolution have an unbroken, massive collection of evidence pointing to their conclusion that can be tested and tested and tested again, all with the same result. Creationists, though they rely on reason and evidence whenever they can (e.g. the Shroud of Turin, Dead Sea Scrolls, or anything else that seems to support their beliefs) have literally none whatsoever. Believe what you will, but do not confuse that belief with science in any way.

Weighing a great deal of verifiable evidence that points toward, but does not prove that life was in some sense accidental, versus a created order with not a bit of evidence, does not lead me to being able to speak with conviction. Such uncertainty is daunting, but to deny it is intellectually dishonest.

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