Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Dennis Prager - Michael Behe, Flawed Creation, and The Evolution Black Box

Today, Dennis Prager had Lehigh University biology professor Michael Behe on his radio program and discussed his now year-old book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism . I have read Behe’s books and articles and observed him at lectures and other forums. Behe is a microbiologist explorer and writer on “Intelligent Design.” A few things stood out in my mind relative to the discussion.

First, like Prager who was driven to controlled but admitted anger by the nonsense of a caller’s point that science and medicine, for example, depend on a fully Darwinist account of evolution, I quickly dismiss such dogmatically-inspired foolishness. But, the reason it is important to contain your anger and mildly engage such a supposition is precisely what Behe referred to after the break: Many people, both the secularist scientific clerisy and the often young pop-acolytes that populate and flood the Internet, believe exactly that line of thought. And, they hold it with the ardor similar to that of theists who believe that God has set forth moral standards to which we are accountable. That’s why I referred to a “dogma” and a “clerisy”: they say the authority of "science" dictates that it is so. “Authority” is defined as it is in theological discussion: “those who agree with me” on foundational metaphysical axioms. In this case, the only acceptable metaphysical axiom is, “No metaphysical axiom other than this particular one is valid.”

This is a restatement of an absurdity that analytical philosophy confronted long ago: Positivist empiricists insisted that “Only empirically testable assertions are meaningful,” which is not itself, an empirically testable assertion. Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon)still fervently embraces the idea. But, he well knows this justification problem. Dennett thinks that appeals to transcendent powers and principle are superfluous for a rational explanation of reality. Obviously, some of us disagree. But, Dennett’s statement that God or any transcendent principle is ontologically gratuitous is just a restatement of his premise: “I don’t believe…” which is hardly a startling revelation. Another caller complained as many do that the supposed design has flaws. But of course, it’s hardly news to most theists that both creation and people are flawed. That is much of what The Bible is about. What is perfect is our free will, which naturalist atheists are exercising perfectly well. What requires refining is not creation but our choices in challenging circumstances.

Another contemporary apostle of atheism is Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). Hitchens is very historically and literarily well trained. But, he is admittedly thin on scientific scholarship. I believe I read and would not be surprised that he has some awareness of historical philosophy. But, his philosophical standards would be considerably less complete, though similar in kind to Dennett’s, in that his standards are selective according to his a priori postulates.

I am also very familiar with Hitchens. And what is rarely discussed but very striking about Hitchens’ contention is that he brazenly appropriates the language of morality and wields it as a cudgel against “religious” beliefs, institutions, and people. This is arresting because it has traditionally been the challenge of naturalist (no transcendent reality) philosophers to justify the validity and compulsion of moral assertions. You might expect and would be correct that usually their efforts have been less-than-convincing to common-sense.

But, Hitchens, assumedly targeting a philosophically untrained audience, blithely hurdles this matter. Quite to the contrary, Hitchens insists that we know right from wrong independent from religious instruction and it is an audacity for the “religious” (I use the quotes because though it reflects ordinary language and understanding today, particularly as a Christian I do not prefer or use that language) to presume otherwise. He is correct that people have an independent sense of right and wrong outside of tutoring. But in fact, The Bible teaches exactly that: that men are naturally endowed with certain basics of knowledge.

For us, that awareness is the endowment of their creator; of God. At first brush with Hitchens’ polemic, the thoughtful person will ask, “With no God, how does he justify his moral talk?” Well, we can go back to a reference from Behe, here. Behe’s first book, in 1996, was called Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution . A black box is a coarsely or inadequately defined element of an account or explanation of some process. Coming from the perspective of a microbiologist, Behe identifies Darwin’s black box as the cell, the basic component of biological structures. Behe points out that in Darwin’s time, he understood the cell to be a sort of basic piece of protoplasm which combined in different arrangements to form the varieties of living things.

However in the context of contemporary biology, we now know that the cell is not simple at all. It is infinitely complex, with a veritable factory of entities and interdependent functions for each particular biological element in the millions of varied biological species. So complex are cells and their interactions that Behe describes then as “irreducibly complex.” In other words, there is too much diversity to have evolved step by step through random and undirected mutations AND the interrelated functions are so interdependent that they could not have arisen and persisted independently of one another. His simple analogy is of a mousetrap: without any single vital element of the mousetrap, the entire contraption does not operate. And needless to say, such a dysfunctional biological organism would not survive, let alone reproduce. So, the black box of “evolution” is precisely a fill-in word for an unexplained or inexplicable process.

Now, in his later book, “The Edge of Evolution” (above), Behe describes his assent to the Darwinian notion of “common descent.” Like Francis Collins who directed the human genome project (but also, incidentally, confesses a faith in God: The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief and Coming to Peace With Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology) Behe sees the similarity in DNA sequences and acknowledges an appearance of biological relationship. But, he rejects the idea that this process is unplanned and undirected. Myself, I don’t feel compelled to accept common descent. I’m not prepared to make an argument against it, but the matter is not so vital as to merit intense investigation. Whatever I might conclude, it would minimally affect the conduct of my life. To me it is plainly designed, one way or the other. I’m much more concerned about the relative efficacy of taxation proposals than the question of common descent.

But, much is made over the commonality of DNA. Without it being an obsessive question for me, I will say that prima facie that says little to me. It’s like saying all buildings have blueprints with walls and plumbing and electricity, etc. Yes, so what? All biological organisms are living, ingest, excrete, breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. They say that the DNA of humans and chimpanzees are highly similar. Let’s see: two eyes, two ears, two legs, two lungs, etc. If the DNA is the software code to direct development and function, pray, how might it be other than very similar? It’s like saying a Rolls Royce and a Volkswagen are very similar because the blueprints both have four wheels, a horn, headlights, an internal combustion engine…

A few things are different in humans and chimpanzees. But, those few things are a BIIIG deal! Try getting a chimpanzee to appreciate art or literature. See what its favorite ethnic food or style of music is. Take it on a date. Or have a philosophical discussion. How similar are we, now?

Anyway, the astonishing thing about Hitchens is that when he is asked about how morals came about, he says that morality “has evolved.” Forget all of the historical moral obstacles of naturalism. He has stowed away moral imperatives on Darwin’s black box of “evolution.” Surely, he will go for all the gusto and put aesthetics on the ship, too. Why not? It worked for getting God out of biology, which is the prized objective. Perhaps he can appreciate that chimpanzees practice NO religion.

I note that supposedly thoughtful men such as these or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris have declined even to engage someone like David Berlinski who has raised simply rational questions about their rash assertions. Heck, Berlinski’s book, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions is not even a year old. Going back a few more years, the longtime atheist philosopher Antony Flew of Britain, who is in terms of both history and reasoning is a relative giant next to Dawkins (even Dennett, who wrote some thoughtful and engaging books before mounting his zealous crusade) has concluded in his age that the evidence indicates that there must be a designer of creation, after all: “There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”
Noting that Flew had been influenced by the evidence presented by people like Behe, Dawkins sniffed that he obviously was no longer credible and may be under the influence of senility’ a shame for a once-great thinker. YouTube video of Dawkins For future reference, you might do well to suspect that there are limits to one’s rational case when one quickly resorts challenges of moral or intellectual defect. Dennett, Hitchens, Sam Harris and others do this readily. It’s a dietary staple. And alas for Dawkins, this seems near to all that he has on the platter.

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