The End is Nye

1267825310-billnyeSo Bill Nye is ‘debating‘ Ken Ham.

Many people are decrying this as a terrible idea and quoting various people who have their reasons for not debating creationists – and these are excellent reasons. Dawkins and others have chosen not to debate creationists because the ‘debates’ are not entered into honestly by creationists and because it lends credibility to the creationists who manage to ‘bag’ a scientist. It puts them on a – perceived – equal footing.

I don’t know that this is one of those cases though.

Much as I love Bill Nye and consider him an important educator and populariser of science and critical thinking, he’s a TV scientist and not a Dawkins, a Dennett, a Krauss or a Cox. There is little in the way of kudos to be gained by getting to debate him.

I’ve watched some of Ken Ham’s talks about creationism and the style he affects is a very self-effacing, jokey, down-home-country-style approach. It puts one in mind of the folksy lawyers so often used in The Simpsons and Futurama, playing up their idiocy and humility to play on the emotions of the jury and the gallery.

Eminent scientists can misread to your average punter as arrogant. Certitude, based on a lifetime of study and ready access to the facts, is seen as somehow sneering at or demeaning the common man.

Nye is a humble man, a man of good humour and a man effective at getting quite complex ideas across to people, especially children. These seem, to me, to be perfect qualifications to get through to what will likely be a fairly ignorant, predominantly creationist audience.

However…

I would not suggest that Bill goes into this as a debate, but rather that he uses the opportunity to lecture and to teach.

His opponent will throw a huge amount of garbage at him, all at once. The well known ‘Gish Gallop‘. If Bill tries to explain and defuse every bullshit argument thrown at him he’ll get nowhere because he’ll run out of time. Explaining why creationist arguments are wrong, unfortunately, takes a lot more time and effort than presenting them.

Rather, then, Bill should talk about:

1. The Scientific Method.
2. Why Ken’s historical/observational science split is dishonest.
3. The differences between and evidences for for BBT, abiogenesis, evolution and human evolution.

Randomness? Not a Chance!

UrsulaAndress5143“You really believe this wonderful universe came about by chance do you? If not god then you MUST believe it’s all just random chance!”

How many times have we had to deal with this strawman argument? Over and over and over again. I am now very tired of answering it, so maybe I (and you) can use this as a handy reference.

1. Just because I don’t believe your answer (god) doesn’t mean I need another answer. All that is required for atheism is not believing in god and we have no reason to. It would be perfectly fine just not to believe your explanation and so long as there’s no evidence for your explanation that is perfectly reasonable. Saying: “Look at this perfect universe! God must have done it!” is not only ignorant of the hostile nature of the universe in which we live, but it is a perfect example of the argument from ignorance and the argument from personal incredulity.

2. Given the sheer scale of the universe (13.75 billion years old, hundreds of billions of galaxies each with hundreds of billions of stars) even sheer chance has pretty good odds at that scale anyway.

3. There is pretty much no instance in which ‘random chance’ is involved in cosmogenesis, abiogenesis or evolution.

3a. The fact is we don’t know that much about the origin of the universe yet. There’s some rather difficult and profound questions around it. It seems, though, that the fundamental factors that constitute the natural laws of the universe are interrelated and may be confined to a relatively small range. There’s also the fact that if the universe was not one in which we could come about to think about it, we wouldn’t be here to think about it. You must also consider that we formed to fit the universe in which we exist, not vice versa.

3b. The planets and stars came together through gravity, not chance. It is no more chance that these bodies formed than it is that a released stone drops to the ground. This is also the case for the formation of elements in stellar cores and their interactions. These are fundamental qualities and they interact as they do not randomly, but according to conditions and opportunity.

3c. Abiogenesis is not a matter of chance but a result of chemical interactions under specific circumstances. We have problems recreating it in a lab because of a matter of scale and time. Not because it’s impossible. Szostak’s work is some of the best on this. Really, replicating molecules are just a matter of inevitable chemical interactions – given enough time, the right conditions and the opportunity.

3d. Evolution is not random. Variation is semi-random due to mixing of genes. Mutations are somewhat random. Selection is not. The faster lion catches the wildebeest, the slower wildebeest gets eaten. That’s deterministic, not bloody random.

In short, shut up.

Arguing with Atheists: A Muslim Primer

IslamicMore and more the arguments over creationism/evolution, science/religion and atheism/theism are going on between members of the Islamic religion and atheists more than Christians. On the one hand this may be a hopeful sign, Christians seem to have given up trying to argue that their beliefs are rational or empirical and – instead – tend to resort to emotional arguments which, obviously carry little weight in a debate on whether something is real or not. Islamic debaters, on the other hand, still seem to fiercely cling to the notion that Islam is a rational, scientific and evidential religion whose truth is ‘undeniable’.

The problem is that these arguments are all the same ones we’ve seen before and have disposed of before. To the Islamic debater they seem new and powerful while to the atheist they seem tired, boring and have been gone over time and time again. Perhaps this means that we dispose of these debaters too quickly and dismissively but its hard not to when they’re fired up and excited over something that was disposed of decades, even centuries ago.

Let’s save ourselves a lot of time by covering the basic arguments that really have no place in this debate any longer.

Atheism
Atheism is simply the personal statement ‘I do not believe in god/s’. It is not anything more than that. While a lot of atheists come to this opinion because of logic, reason and science people can be an atheist for many reasons. Some of them worse reasons than others. Still, confusing atheism with anything else confuses and mixes up the argument.

The Prime Mover Argument
We’ve heard this one so many times that it will always meet with an eye-roll. Yes, paintings have a painter, buildings have a builder, but the natural world, the universe, life, these are not the same things. If you argue that everything must have a cause then you are still left with the need to explain the origin of your god. IF everything requires a creator then it follows that this must also apply to ‘god’.

A slightly more ‘advanced’ version of this argument is the ‘Kalam’ argument. Which argues that god is an exception to the requirement for a cause. The problem with this is that it doesn’t further the argument. If there can be an exception to the rule then why not something other than god? Why would it be your god?

Arguing for a prime mover does nothing whatsoever for the argument. It’s a pointless distraction.

Look at that Tree/Flower/Baby!
Just because you don’t know how a tree (or whatever) could come about naturally doesn’t mean that it did not. Evolution is massively well evidenced and it produces things which seem designed, but are not. When you make this argument you’re not actually making an argument at all. You’re engaging in one of two logical fallacies (or even both). The argument from ignorance: “I don’t know. Therefore god did it”, and the argument from personal incredulity: “I can’t believe it happened the way you say, therefore god did it.”

The Koran is all Scientific and Shit!
You say the Koran ties in with science but there are problems with this claim.

Firstly the Koran is a mythological (and bad) poem, not a science book. Its language is vague – Arabic is a particularly vague language – and can be interpreted any number of ways which makes it particularly fluid in being rewritten to fit modern understanding. Let us give one particular example as a case in point:

“Have not the unbelievers ever considered that the skies and the earth were once one mass, then We split them asunder?” 21:30 (Malik Translation)

If you don’t consider it very deeply – as most don’t – this seems to be something to do with The Big Bang. If you consider it for more than that single moment however it all falls apart. The Big Bang is the origin of the universe (if such a world is appropriate for the universe), not the earth. That isn’t the only problem though as anyone with a passing interest in science will know. The Big Bang is not an explosion or a splitting asunder but rather an expansion, an inflation of spacetime.

You’d think a god would know better and get it right.

Secondly Islam is far from the only religion to make such claims and much of the ‘science’ in the Koran is cribbed from the ancient Greek scholars and philosophers. Its wrong, but less wrong than many religions simply because it is newer than many of the others. Still, one can find aspects in many religions – many of them much older than Islam, Christianity or even Judaism – which resemble (or have resembled) scientific thought.

An Appeal
A bearded imam shouting fallacies and asserting incorrect statements on a Youtube video is not convincing. What will convince most atheists? Evidence, plain and simple. You need evidence for the existence of a god. Please check whether your arguments have been refuted before and bring your ‘A’ game because we find re-treading old ground particularly tiresome.

Thanks.

Four Reasons that Don’t Hold Up

The author of the Blog My Reasons seems to have made me a project to debate these reasons they believe in god, but having a debate hidden away purely in the comments isn’t a great way to proceed. I’ve taken a look at their reasons in the hopes that it would be something different and new but alas, it seems not. If this post seems curt it’s because these are mostly old hat and have been dealt with many times before.

1. Complexity

There’s a lot of stuff listed here but unfortunately it’s mostly redundant. The basic idea is that the modern cell is so complicated that it couldn’t possibly have evolved. Well, there’s a problem with that right away. The modern cell is itself the result of around 3.75 billion years of evolution and not the simple replicator that the first proto-cell or proto DNA/RNA would have been. There are two great primers and indications of how simple early replicators can be. Firstly Dr Szostak’s work on early replicators and secondly Spiegalman’s Monster.

The blog also cites non-organic material but in actuality planets, galaxies, stars etc are all pretty damn simple. They’re just BIG. Gravity and motion is all it takes to explain any of them.

The problem is really that a) complexity is not indicative of design and b) irreducible complexity… isn’t.

2. Religions Point to a Deity

Well the earliest religions are more animistic, pointing to ‘spirits’ and we see no indication of those either. Most religions have been polytheistic, but if you’re trying to argue for ‘a’ god, then that’s singularly unhelpful. Right off the bat it’s obvious that this is an argumentum ad populum and so can be dismissed without further ado.

That said there are other reasons why humans would have this common weakness for religion. Humans tend to false pattern recognition with a particular weakness for seeing human agency or imagery. We think we see a human face in the moon. Is it a human face? No. This is pareidolia. Similarly we expect concious, human agency where there is none. “OK, who hid my car keys?”

Why does this happen? Evolutionary Psychology suggests that there must be an evolutionary reason but that doesn’t mean our modern conclusions are correct. Humans are social animals who live in a social context. Amongst other humans most interactions and events DO have agency and erring on the side of suspecting and accounting for that would have survival value. Similarly there’s survival value in being paranoid. Mr Caveman is walking through the woods when he hears a twig snap. Should he assume it’s a sabretooth and run for his life or brush it off and ignore it? Even if it isn’t a sabretooth most of the time, paranoid caveman is more likely to survive and father children and pass on the ‘RUN!’ meme socially.

3. Pascal’s Wager

I cover some of the profound issues that shoot this argument to shit in a previous post. Little point going over it again.

4. NDEs

Are hallucinations caused by the release of DMT in the brain under extreme duress and ‘coming up’ out of oxygen starvation to the brain. Some include Out of Body experiences but these have similarly been debunked and have been artificially induced. Skepdic has a good summation of NDE claims and debunking.

The only variance here is the claim that the congenitally blind can have visual NDEs. Well, as it turns out only 10% of people who are legally blind are actually completely blind and even they often have some sense of light and of spatial awareness.

The study most often cited examined a whole 30 blind people who had supposedly had NDEs and reported 80% had had visual hallucinations in their NDEs. Keep in mind that 10% of 30 is only three and that this really doesn’t constitute a good example. Furthermore their star witness did not report full visual hallucinations but ones without colour. This is good reason to suspect that they might simply be reporting what they were expected to or how sight had been described to them.

The way to settle this would probably be to induce an NDE like experience in a person who was congenitally blind while scanning them in an fMRI for activity in the visual parts of the brain. We’ll have to see if this ever happens but in the meantime the paucity of evidence and its suspicious cast forces one to suspend judgement and hold the proposition false under the burden of proof.

Outside of this particular wrinkle, NDEs (and OOBEs) have been more than adequately explained at this point.

Why do people report similar experiences? Similar situations and stresses upon the body will induce similar effects just as certain drugs induce similar effects. Prior to the popularisation of  the ‘typical’ NDE, reports were very much varied according to cultural inculcation and tradition. It is only with the emergence of the typical NDE story that we have seen this homogenisation. It’s a similar phenomenon to how alien ‘abductees’ used to report a panapoly of different aliens from hairy dwarfs to giant lizard men but the popularisation of the ‘grey’ has homogenised that.

 

Those 15 Questions for ‘Evolutionists’.

There’s various versions of these going around. The ones I’m going to go with are from THIS video. I’m only going to bother with those that are what they purport to be, questions about evolution (there’s no such thing as an ‘evolutionist’).

1. How did life originate?

This is not a question about evolution.

2. How did the DNA code originate?

This is not a question about evolution.

3. How do mutations add information? (paraphrased).

Replication errors can copy whole lengths of DNA as well as changing the information within existing DNA. Virii and other agencies that cause mutation can also insert information.

4. How does natural selection explain the diversity of life? (paraphrased)

Simply put, populations separate and travel and adapt to different circumstances. This principle is amply demonstrated by instances of speciation in the wild and in the lab and in the phenomenon of ring species. Incidentally the original version of this question stated that creationists accepted natural selection. If that’s so they must accept evolution as a whole as it’s evolution BY natural selection.

5. How did new biochemical pathways, which involve multiple enzymes working together in sequence, originate?

Multiple changes can happen at once, just as individual ones do. Those that are better – or at least no worse – will be transmitted. Multiple improvements can happen at once.

6. Living things look like they were designed, so how do evolutionists know that they were not designed?

Holdovers such as the coccyx, the appendix, wisdom teeth, redundant structures, vulnerabilities and so on. If it were a design the designer would be incompetent. It is explicable through evolution and changes can be tracked through fossil and genetic records.

7. How did multi-cellular life originate?

Colony organisms are still individuals but benefit from being in the same place. Bacterial colonies, mats of algae etc. So long as there’s an advantage to it there’s evolutionary pressure for it to deepen and broaden. There are examples of plant and animacule life at various states of interaction and those that come together temporarily. Slime moulds for example.

8. How did sex originate?

Sexual reproduction allows for greater gene-mixing and propagation of traits through a population. We have life with intermediary positions between sexual and asexual reproduction and those that have both. Again, so long as there’s an advantage in a niche it’ll be selected for.

9. Why are the (expected) countless millions of transitional fossils missing?

They’re not. Every fossil, indeed every living thing, ever, is a transitional form. Fossilisation is rare though. You wouldn’t expect one sample of every generation of every living thing. That doesn’t mean you can’t piece together the timeline though, just as you can work out the missing numbers in the following:

1, 2, X, X, 5, 6, X, 8, 9, 10.

10. How do ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged over supposed hundreds of millions of years?

a) They don’t.

b) If their niche is stable then their morphology etc has much less impetus to change, much less need. They’re successful as they are, so long as they remain successful there’s less reason for them to change in a large way. Punctuated equilibrium.

11. How did blind chemistry create mind/intelligence, meaning, altruism and morality?

They have positive survival value in our niche (and others) and were selected for. Evolutionary psychology.

12. Why is evolutionary ‘just-so’ story-telling tolerated?

It isn’t. Remember, different traits have different survival utility in different circumstances. Evolution doesn’t ‘work’ towards a goal, it adapts to the present circumstance. Variable solutions.

13. Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution?

Genetic modification, retroviral treatments, detecting inherited disorders, common descent, advances in vaccinations, genome projects, working out how people are related, paternity tests and on and on and on…

14. Science involves experimenting to figure out how things work; how they operate. Why is evolution, a theory about history, taught as if it is the same as this operational science?

It’s not history, it’s science. We can do evolutionary experiments, and we have. Predictions have also been made based upon it which have been shown true by later genetic examination or fossils. So, it is operational science.

15. Why is a fundamentally religious idea, a dogmatic belief system that fails to explain
the evidence, taught in science classes?

I guess this is referring to evolutionary science rather than creationism, though it’s a bit vague. Evolution is not a religious idea, science is incapable of being dogmatic since it must always be open to new information, it does explain the evidence and because it’s science, that’s why it’s taught in science.

Cowboy Builders

*Doorbell rings*

*Mrs Humanity opens the door, a hinge breaks as she does so*

Humanity: “Hello, yes?”

Mr Vishnu: *Presents his card* “Vishnu and Zeus, builders. You called about a problem?”

Humanity: “Oh thank fate you’re here Mr Vishnu! We’re having all sorts of problems with our universe.”

Mr Vishnu: “I’d best come in, Mr Zeus will check the roof, drainage and the outside for you.”

Humanity: “Yes, yes, come in, come in, can I get you a cup of ambrosia and a prayer biscuit?”

Mr Vishnu: “No, no… that’s fine thanks, let’s see what the trouble is. Shall we start in the kitchen?”

Humanity: “Oh, yes, certainly, if you’ll just look over here…”

Mr Vishnu: “Oh my me! You’ve had the cowboys in here! Look at that, black holes all over the place, cracks up the wall from subsidence… what’s that in the oven?”

Humanity: “Oh, those, those are New Species. We ordered a creationist universe, you know, everything already made, but Jehovah and Son seem to have given us something different.”

Mr Vishnu: “Oh yes, they’re notorious Jehovah and Son, bodged jobs up and down the multiverse. Did you pay them?”

Humanity: *visibly flustered* “Well, I wasn’t going to, but then Jesus dropped by, he had a black eye and a swollen lip, he said his father was very upset with me for not paying and could I possibly see my way clear to coughing up just to help him out.”

Mr Vishnu: “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before, classic tug at the old heartstrings, all a scam of course.”

*Mr Zeus plummets through the roof in a shower of tiles and smashes through the floor into the basement.*

Humanity: “Oh my…”

Mr Vishnu: “I don’t think I need to see anything else, this universe isn’t up to code, it’s not even steady state for crying out loud! Plus you’re infested with evolution. If you hadn’t told me different I’d have thought this was one of those messy naturally occuring universes.”

Humanity: “Can you fix it?”

*Mr Vishnu sucks his teeth and makes a few notes on a notepad*

Mr Vishnu: “It’ll cost ya.”

Mr Zeus: (From below the kitchen) “Can I get a hand up? I think I fell in some dark matter.”

*Fade*