Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why Do Top Atheistic Scientists Encourage Us to Ignore Objective Reality

It appears that humans are wired to tell the difference between created objects and things that are random.  If I see a rock that is shaped a bit like something familiar, I'm likely to think it is random and amusing that it looks "something like" something else.  But, if the rock looks very much like the face of a human, there is generally a good chance I will know if it is by some other human's hand that it has become quite like a face.

So we look at flowers, eyeballs, humming birds, and universal laws like gravity, and our mind naturally thinks these are designed.  The starting point for science is to observe and then hypothesize.  But many scientists today specifically admonish us to turn our back on observation and ignore first principles.  Somehow in this one instance, we should suspend orr rational minds in order to come up with more complex solutions for how things happened to come into existence looking like design, but actually the result of random chance over millions of years. 

10 comments:

Bernardo said...

I could write for a while picking apart the logic of your "We are hard-wired to perceive this, so it must be right" argument, one that vastly over-estimates the power of our intuition. Instead of picking it apart methodically, let me link you to others who have done this, because I have a few other things I would like to accomplish this morning ;]

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Argument_from_design

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theism/design.html

http://www.skepdic.com/design.html

Well, ok, I suppose I have time to tweak your writing in a slightly snarky way but one that I think will get my point across more time-effectively than any other way:

"It appears that humans are wired to tell the difference between curved surfaces and flat surfaces. If I see a hill, and I notice that a ball placed on it will roll down (and balls placed at different spots will roll down in slightly different directions), then I'm likely to think that this is not a flat surface. But, if the ball stays in one spot when I put it down, and/or if I cannot perceive the curvature with my eyes by looking at the outline that the surface makes with the sky, then there is generally a good chance I will know that the surface is flat. So we look at the earth, and our mind naturally thinks it is flat. The starting point for science is to observe and then hypothesize. But many scientists today specifically admonish us to turn our back on observation and ignore first principles. Somehow in this one instance, we should suspend our rational minds in order to come up with more complex solutions for how the shape of the surface of the earth is actually curved and round, but happens to look flat."

Randy Kirk said...

So then how do we trust anything? It would follow from your argument that even "scientific" experiments might have qualities of illusion.

We can certainly see that science of 5 years ago was illusionary in many regards compared to science now.

It would seem to me that my general ability to expect certain outcomes from certain patterns should get a higher rank in the order of thinking than a lower rank.

Derrida said...

Ignoring your gross misconstrual of the theory of evolution as "random chance over millions of years", there are a number of unjustified and implicit premises in your argument.

You say that our minds naturally tend to think that organic objects, and the laws of physics, are designed. I wonder what evidence you have that many or most people's minds do. Mine doesn't.

But let's assume that most people do naturally think that nature is designed. Is this irrefutable evidence that this is the case, as your title ("Why do top atheistic scientists encourage us to ignore objective reality") suggests? No. As Bernardo points out, our intuitions can, and often are, wrong. Our intuitions lead us to believe that the sun orbits around the Earth, that really small things act like normal sized things, etc.

Indeed, if human beings did evolve, then I don't think there would be much reason for us to trust our intuitions, since our minds evolved to cope with the environment in which we live, rather than reality in general. So, you shouldn't put much trust in intuition unless you believe that we were, as you state, "wired" to have truth guided intuitions. But that's what you're arguing for, that it looks like we were designed. You're begging the question by asking us to trust faculties that we should only trust if they're correct and should only think that they're correct if we can trust them.

That being said, the fact that we "seem" to be designed doesn't count for nothing. As you imply, science is founded on seemings and intuitions, although scientists try to limit and test those intuitions to the extent that they can, by running experiments and falsifying alternative hypotheses.

Of course, scientific experiments might be illusory, but everything might be an illusion. Complete certainty is probably impossible outside the disciplines of mathematics and logic.

So the fact that we seem designed is some evidence that we are, but this rather subjective evidence (Which many atheists might not share) is overwhelmed by the evidence for evolution, which almost all biologists, both theists and atheists, agree on. As Theodosius Dobzhanski said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. It's the best theory we have going.

Randy Kirk said...

Welcome Derrida,

First, I would suggest that your mind did think that organic objects and physics were designed until you overcame that conclusion through your studies in science and philosophy caused you to change that thinking. This then is the point of the post.

I totally agree that the fact that we naturally think of things as designed when they have an appearance of design is not irrefutable evidence, but as stated, should be at a higher order than the opposite. Thus if I see clear evidence of design in flowers, trees, eyeballs, humans and bicycles, I have to do some hard work to think that these things may have occurred because of some other thing than design. That might be random activity resulting from large number theory, or it might be some yearning on the part of genetic material to survive.

Your next argument that we have evolved to cope with something other than reality in general would leave us with a significant problem. We should have evolved in our little communities with very different ideas about things like the existence of something greater than ourselves, or that we do better to stick close to our families and not have multiple wives.

I would next say that it is human nature to always be testing our seemings and intuitions. To do otherwise is the very definition of insanity. Thus the fact that scientists do this with more dedication and precision doesn't in any way detract from the conclusions that non scientists have arrived at with regard to what appears to be designed. Certainly you wouldn't argue that science has proven that the universe is not designed?

What would be the origin of mathematics and logic?

We have discussed the issue of polling as a method for arriving at truth previously on this blog, and I'm certain we will again. A poll of how scientist believe would have at least as much value as a poll of how humans believe.

And lastly, I would change the quote of Mr. Dobzhanski to say "nothing in the universe makes sense except in the light of a designer. It is the best theory we have going.

Derrida said...

"First, I would suggest that your mind did think that organic objects and physics were designed"

Of course you can suggest that, but what reason do you have to think that this is the case? I've never consciously thought that the world was designed, and when I learnt about evolution, this lead me to actively believe that nature wasn't designed.

Are you suggesting that I'm lying, or that I unconsciously did believe that things appear designed? If the latter, then what evidence do you have for thinking this?

"I totally agree that the fact that we naturally think of things as designed when they have an appearance of design is not irrefutable evidence, but as stated, should be at a higher order than the opposite."

Do you mean that seeming is the highest form of evidence we have, over and above repeatable observations, which science utilises, or that it's just more evidence than not? I would deny the former, because experience tells me that things can sometimes seem to be the case even when they aren't, and we know this because we can test our hypotheses of the world through the scientific method.

"Thus if I see clear evidence of design in flowers, trees, eyeballs, humans and bicycles, I have to do some hard work to think that these things may have occurred because of some other thing than design."

Right. I think people might have been at least reasonable in thinking that things were designed before the evidence for evolution was discovered. But I, along with most biologists, think that the work has been done. The evidence for evolution is compelling.

"That might be random activity resulting from large number theory, or it might be some yearning on the part of genetic material to survive."

I don't think that evolution implies that genetic material "yearns" to survive. Rather, natural selection weeds out deleterious mutations and holds onto beneficial ones, because beneficial mutations increase an organism's chances of surviving to adulthood and passing on its genetic material to the next generation.

"We should have evolved in our little communities with very different ideas about things like the existence of something greater than ourselves, or that we do better to stick close to our families and not have multiple wives."

Different communities do have very different ideas about things like the existence of something greater than ourselves. Just look at how many different religions there are in the world, with different ideas about the afterlife, how to be good, etc. I don't quite understand how evolution implies that we should not have multiple wives.

I was simply stating that if we evolved, we shouldn't expect our intuitions about the environment to apply to the world in general. And they tend not to. Take, for example, quantum theory, which is very counter-intuitive.

Derrida said...

"I would next say that it is human nature to always be test... Thus the fact that scientists do this with more dedication and precision doesn't in any way detract from the conclusions that non scientists have arrived at with regard to what appears to be designed. Certainly you wouldn't argue that science has proven that the universe is not designed?"

If non scientists test their intuitions just as precisely and dedicatedly as scientists, then why bother doing science at all? The difference is that scientists use controlled experiments, double blind conditions, etc, and constantly test each others' theories in order to minimise the possibility of error.

Now, of course science hasn't proven the the universe wasn't designed, although your title makes it sound as if scientists think they have. Science can't "prove" anything, as I said, but the evidence that biological systems are a result of natural selection acting on genetic mutation is overwhelming. Maybe someone set up the initial conditions that lead to evolution, but I see no reason to believe that this is so.

"What would be the origin of mathematics and logic?"

I don't understand your question. Two plus two has always equalled four, and it is impossible for anything to make this false. Mathematics and logic are based upon universal truths, so I don't think mathematics and logic have an origin.

"nothing in the universe makes sense except in the light of a designer. It is the best theory we have going."

Dobzhanski would probably agree with you, since he wasn't just an evolutionary biologist, but also a Russian Orthodox Christian. But I don't see how you can show this to be the case.

Bernardo said...

Let me take something that Derrida said and use it to ask a question.

You and I at some point intuited that the Sun travels around the Earth, and that the Earth doesn't move much. We now know that the Earth travels around the Sun (well, they both travel around the center of gravity of the system, but the Earth does a lot more traveling than the Sun) and rotates about its axis (thus causing the apparent motion of the Sun).

We could look at the Sun going around us every day, and the fact that the ground feels different from any moving platform we've ever been on, and call these things "clear evidence" for the intuitive geocentric model. But we don't, not after elementary school, definitely not after high school when we understand things like acceleration and inertial frames of reference.

My question is... Why don't you? Why don't you see the trajectory of the sun and the stability of the ground as "clear evidence" that confirms our geocentric intuitions? Alternately, why DO you see the self-replicating optimizations brought about by natural selection as "clear evidence" that confirms your teleological/creationist intuitions? Like the trajectory of the sun and the stability of the ground, this "clear evidence" could easily be discarded for a better model, if you want.

So, like I keep saying, in the end it's about what you want to believe, not about what the "evidence" says. The same observations can be evidence for one model to me, and for another model to you.

When it comes to theological questions (Is there a creator? What is his plan? Do things happen for a reason?), there's no real way to say that the "evidence" favors one model over another. But when it comes to questions about the physical world (How did the solar system come to be as it is? What causes the seasons? How did life come to be as it is?), there ARE ways to use evidence to say that one model is better than the other.

And, sorry, all those ways point towards evolution being a superior explanation, compared to divine miracles.

Randy Kirk said...

Sure, Bernardo, evolution is a much better way of explaining some things, but how the universe came into being, how life came from non life, the source of intelligence in cells, and what happens to the mind after death are not well explained by evolution.

And whether or not it matters to you, a huge percentage of folks would like to think they live here for a reason, not just exist like a flower or a pig. Most folks would like to believe that their choices matter, and that each choice is not merely the result of a long succession of other actions and reactions. And most folks have had one or more spiritual experiences which they clearly believe are supernatural. You can't dismiss these experiences as foolishness. You have no evidence AT ALL that they are.

Bernardo said...

Evolution also cannot explain how gravity works, how airplanes fly, how computer works, or why the Pythagorean theorem is true. So? big deal. You can't shoot down evolution by claiming that it fails to explain things that it never intended to explain.

Well, it does have something to say about how life came from non-life. Competitive chemical replicators. It's all in "The Selfish Gene". I'm sure I've told you about this before.

As for intelligence, it does have a little bit to say about why it's easier for a more intelligent being to survive and have offspring (all other things being equal), but I don't think that's what you mean. You mean to ask how intelligence and self-awareness and wants and thoughts and emotions could arise in a naturalistic, mechanical, causal system. Well, there are explanations out there, and I like them. (Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter have the best ones, and V S Ramachandran is pretty good too). If you are not inclined towards wanting to understand the mind naturalistically to begin with, then you won't like those explanations. But I do want to, so I do like them.

Whether or not it matters to you, I would like to think that I am a knowable system, not created to fulfill someone else's plan, instead able to decide pragmatically what I want, what kind of impact I want to have, and how to achieve those things. Thinking of myself as a knowable, hackable, mechanical system is one of the most empowering things I have ever done, and it has led to great improvements in my life.

It is not foolish to want to model oneself (or the universe) in terms of the wants of supernatural spirits. It is also not foolish to want to model oneself (or the universe) in terms of causal, mechanical, naturalistic systems. What is foolish is to claim that one of these kinds of models is clearly right while the other is clearly wrong.

Randy Kirk said...

The Title of this thread is not why do Christians want to stop atheists from asserting their truth claims, but rather why do leading atheistic scientists want to stop Christians from asserting their truth claims, and to your point claim that our truth claims are foolish or worse.