Saturday, May 10, 2008

Surrounded by Crazy People and Terrified

I haven't blogged in a long time and read a few different posts from blogs I subscribe to that struck a chord with me, so I'm getting off the blogging schneid by making one of those posts that don't have a whole lot of substance themselves and only refer to someone else's blog.

VD had a post recently named 'Intellectual maturation' that I found quite enjoyable to read. Let me first make the disclaimer to my atheist friends that read this blog that I'm actually not trying to explicitly push your buttons and piss you off. The short of it is, I liked what Rachel had to say, and I liked what VD had to say about what Rachel had to say (ooph, that makes this post a very shameless and insipid 3rd generation of pointing out what someone else said). If anyone bothers to read VD's and Rachel's posts, it'll be obvious and unsurprising why a Christian would like it... we all like being identified as not stupid and having people agree with us don't we? By the way, the title of this post is what it is because of what Rachel's post has to say.

A snippet from Rachel...

The truth is that I am not exactly seeking salvation or God or anything like that, and frankly if I were, I would not talk about it with virtual strangers at this stage of the game. At this moment, my biggest aim is simply trying to relieve myself of the terrifying feeling I’ve had for years that I live in a society full of and run by people who believe a theology I don’t believe in, and that therefore I am surrounded by crazy people. It’s a bit of cognitive dissonance that I simply couldn’t take anymore.

Is my dad a crazy person? Are 90% of the people who read my blog crazy people? Are most of my friends crazy people? If I think Christianity is crazy, then the only answer to those questions is YES. But it just never added up.

Another post I read recently, 'Atheism and Child Murder' on Dinesh D'Souza's blog made me aware of a prominent atheist I didn't know much at all about, Peter Singer. I'm going to presume that D'Souza wasn't flat out lying or constructing inaccurate and shocking misconstructions and strawmen of some of Singer's arguments and thoughts. I thought I'd post a few of them (Singer's words) here. After getting past the initial shock of what he's saying and trying to ponder it sans the emotion, it falls into the same category as assertions like "The only truth is there are no truths." In other words, it's simply bizarre and annoying that such arguments even need to be addressed... and yet they do.

On how mothers should be permitted to kill their offspring until the age of 28 days:
"My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of twenty-eight days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others."

On why abortion is less morally significant than killing a rat:
"Rats are indisputably more aware of their surroundings, and more able to respond in purposeful and complex ways to things they like or dislike, than a fetus at ten or even thirty-two weeks gestation."

On why pigs, chickens and fish have more rights to life than unborn humans:
"The calf, the pig, and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy, while if we make the comparison with a fetus of less than three months, a fish would show more signs of consciousness."

On why infants aren't normal human beings with rights to life and liberty:
"Characteristics like rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness...make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings."


demian said...

Could you find a better strawman? Congrats to Dinesh D'Souza and you for elevating the discussion by finding a wacko atheist. This proves so much.

Rod said...

I can play the strawman game too.

I win.

demian said...

Sure, as long as you call it what it is. I know the Westboro Baptist folks are not representative of Christians.

Bryan said...

The reference to Peter Singer and the D'Souza post were actually an afterthought. I mostly just mentioned it because of how shocking many of his positions are.

I was actually more intrigued by Rachel's comments and Vox's commentary. That being said, it's been awhile since there's been any conversation here, so I'll give it a go.

I'll reject the notion that I put forth a straw man, because that would mean I put forth some argument that an atheist is not trying to make. I did not do that, I simply quoted an atheist.

Demian, you refer to him as 'wacko.' He's a professor of Bioethics at Princeton... a position that holds a little more weight and influence than Fred Phelps' ministerial work at WBC. I can imagine doctors, lawyers, politicians, educators, etc being influenced by the papers, lectures, thoughts, etc coming from a Bioethics professor at Princeton much more so than I could ever envision Phelps having an impact on someone. Phelps simply doesn't have the platform for it, let alone the publicly subsidized platform Singer has. Simply go to amazon and search for books by Singer compared to books by Phelps and you'll find that he (Singer) does not in fact hold the position of some sort of social pariah and outcast that you'd expect a 'wacko' to hold (like Phelps does).

As for desiring to separate yourself from an atheist like this, that's cool... I get it, and respect it and would actually be a little freaked out if you didn't. That being said, from a purely logical point of view, this attempt at separation feels a bit like a 'No true Scotsman' argument to me.

No doubt you'll respond that I'm doing the same thing with Phelps and the Westboro folks. I would contend that I'm not, as Phelps and his ilk are demonstrably not Christian, particularly in their philosophy/theology surrounding homosexuals.

All of that being said, I can say that I respect Singer on at least one level. At the very least he is consistent in his argumentation based on how he defines personhood - rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness. I also see how it's a perfectly reasonable position to hold if you don't believe we humans are special or unique in any way or any more inherently valuable than any other animal.

Rod said...

How is Phelps demonstrably not Christian?

Also, I'm confused about how you claim in your comment that Singer's viewpoint is completely rational/consistent based on his definition of personhood, despite the fact that in the original post you compared his argument to the discussion-ending "The only truth is there are no truths" argument?

If his point is rational and consistent under a specific definition of personhood, then why is it worthy of such simplistic dismissal? Those two points of your seem at odds to me.

Bryan said...

How is Phelps demonstrably not Christian?

Christendom is not simply defined as those who identify themselves as 'Christians'. If you simply started calling yourself 'Rod the Christian' and that's all, that would not make you a Christian nor would it make the notion that you believe there is no God or believe there is not enough evidence to show that God exists 'Christian' beliefs, you would simply be calling yourself a Christian.

Christendom has many well accepted and universally recognized creeds and confessions of faith. When someone such as Phelps takes a stance not supported by such creeds, which are directly and foundationally undergirded by the teachings of Christ, then they are simply not traditional, orthodox Christians, regardless of what they call themselves. The creeds and confessions of faith I refer to are simply a tool, not the core thing really. What we're really talking about here is agreement with the teachings of Christ.

Your second question...

Combining his definition of personhood -- rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness -- with my assumption that he sees no more inherent value to human life than he does prairie dog life (which seems like a safe assumption to make given his atheistic and philosophical background, correct me if you think this is an outlandish assumption) results in the arguments he's making at least being consistent.

My warrant for simplistic dismissal comes from the absurdity and hypocrisy in his premises. And if you'll allow me to be an a-logical laymen for a moment, the sickening gut feel I get, the same one I'll bet you get, about the notion of a 27 day old baby's murder being justified because he/she is not quite self aware yet and doesn't seem to be able to understand something like the law of non-contradiction.

Rod said...

Then you were correct in your original claim: yes, I *DO* think you are a victim of the Scotsman fallacy in your assertion that Phelps is not christian.

You have your opinion on how to interpret the teachings of Jesus. Phelps has his. I've listened to Phelps talk about the bible before and the guy knows his stuff, and has a fully logical and rational understanding of how Jesus and the old covenant fit together.

You are able to simply say that anyone who doesn't agree with you isn't following the TRUE teachings of Jesus, and is therefore not TRULY a Christian. Yep, Scotsman fallacy, plain and simple.


Again, you're glossing over details. You claim Singer's points are logically consistent, but also absurd, without any kind of argument for what makes them absurd.

I don't agree with the guy about when life should begin, but IF you believe that a human being is just another type of animal and IF you further believe that moral permissibility is determined by the awareness of an agent being acted against, then Singer's point about abortion AND 27 days are both fully legitimate. Indeed, developmental psychology indicates that infants have no awareness or cognition at such an early age, so if you define agent awareness as a requisite for morally wrong actions, the 27 days is completely reasonable.

I happen to not agree that awareness alone makes this determination, but Singer does.

Singer has two main premises:
1) For an act to be morally wrong, the agent it is performed against must be cognitively aware of the act.
2) Fetuses and even young infants are not aware of their surroundings or actions.
C) Therefore, acts against fetuses and 27-day old infants cannot be morally wrong*

*Note that this does not permit something like killing someone else's infant, not because of the infant, but because the mother IS aware and would object.

You have essentially acknowledged that Singer's conclusion DOES follow from the premises (and it does), and yet you also casually dismiss the conclusion. In order to do this logically (meaning, without using your gut), you would need to invalidate premise 1 (as premise 2 is obviously correct).

You haven't done so. In fact, your claim is that the conclusion is so icky that you shouldn't have to invalidate premise 1. Logic, reason, and facts do not care about your gut or how unhappy conclusions make you. If logic and reason do indeed take us to an unpleasant conclusion, that is grounds to reformulate our worldviews and adjust to harsh realities, not grounds to dismiss any and all conclusions that make us frowny.

If Singer's conclusion is wrong, and obviously so (as you claim), invalidating premise 1 should be incredibly simple.

If it's simple, why bother making a lengthy post about how you shouldn't have to? Rational discussion doesn't care about your feelings. If someone makes an argument and you believe it to be erroneous, say how. Why bother quoting someone and then say "LULZ THIS IS DUM I WONT EVEN DIGNIFY WIT RESPONSE" ? Obliterate his argument with your powers of logic and reason, then move on. This kind of crap just makes it look like you can't actually formulate an argument against his premise. Can't you?

Bryan said...

You say: Note that this does not permit something like killing someone else's infant, not because of the infant, but because the mother IS aware and would object.

There are other avenues to take in terms of addressing his premises, but I'll deal with this one. My question to you is, why? What does the mother being aware and objecting have to do with the logical argument you made? Absolutely nothing. So, the argument you made justifies the killing of any 27 day old baby you like, regardless of who the mother is.

And spare me the lecture about reality. As I've pointed out (and I believe you've yet to acknowledge) before, this notion of all thought processes and decisions humans make being based on strict and pure rationalism and logic is a fictional one. People don't work that way. Let me, for the sake of argument, even concede that Singer's premises are okay. Is that the world you actually think we live in? Is that the world you live in? The one where you wouldn't mind if someone killed your 27 day old child, because hey, it lines up with the harsh reality of the logic? That's an example of the hypocrisy of the whole premise. In what worldview does the notion that a good logical argument trumps the right to a 27 day old infant's right to live? The evolutionary worldview (even the strictest from goo to you via the zoo line of thinking)? How would those selfish genes get passed on in such a framework? The Biblical worldview? Obviously not.

Are you seriously saying we should ignore that gut feeling I mentioned? Adherents to both strict Darwinism and a Biblical worldview can give good reasons for why the gut feeling exists. Are you asserting that the reasons I (abstract I, I as a Darwinist or Biblical creationist) have for listening to the gut feeling should be ignored in favor of your logical proof? Why? Give me a reason why I should give more weight to Singer's premise than my gut feeling.

The comical thing to me is that atheists taking a position like you are, that of an unrealistic logical purist who would bow to logic if you think it demanded you must not feel guilty for killing a 27 day old baby (because I dare say you have more faith in logic than your gut feeling that it is wrong to kill a 27 day old baby) and argue this silliness, are the same crowd who will in the same breath express shock and amazement that there aren't enough atheist politicians and that atheists don't receive enough respect in public circles. At least Demian identifies it as the loatheable horror that it is by calling the guy a 'wacko' instead of playing this song and dance where you try to smugly teach me life lessons using logic. If you agree with Singer, come out and say it, so we can place you in the same 'wacko' bucket.

As for dealing with harsh realities. How about this one. Someone who believes what Singer does kills my 27 day old child because the kid is crying too much and is bothering the Singerish-minded person. I, in turn, go medieval on the Singerish-minded person... and eliminate them. A murder case would either never be brought against me or one would, and not a jury exists who would convict me. I have no doubt that this scenario would play out this way, do you? How far would the logical reality adhered to by the Singerish-minded person have gotten him then?

Rod said...

Haha, good god.

I'm surprised you didn't understand why the logical model doesn't explain why it's not okay to care about killing someone else's infant. I even made a little side note so that you could see it wasn't justifying that. Here it is again:

The premises mean you can kill a thing that is not aware of itself, it's surroundings, etc. You can commit any act against something unaware. A mother is aware, and murdering her child is an act against her. Therefore, not all acts against a 27 day old are permissible according to this model, since many of those acts are against not only the infant, but against its mother. That's why the argument that is being discussed does not permit such an act.

"What does the mother being aware and objecting have to do with the logical argument you made? Absolutely nothing. So, the argument you made justifies the killing of any 27 day old baby you like, regardless of who the mother is."

As I point out, "absolutely nothing" is the incorrect answer to the question you posed in the previous sentence. It is very clearly not permissible according to the model. I won't bother responding to anything else you mention that starts with the assertion that this model allows killing a baby when the mother objects, since it's very obviously a misunderstanding of the ethical model being presented. Try again.

As you have done before, you make the argument that the world doesn't work according to cold hard logic, therefore any arguments I make using logic aren't all that valuable. THAT is one of the self-invalidating arguments like "there are no universal truths except this statement". Whatever, the world can be as illogical as you want, but when people are DISCUSSING something they make ARGUMENTS for those things. That means they have to be rational and logical. You can have all the warm fuzzy feelings you want, but those aren't exactly strong arguments to use for a position you are advocating.

In adult discussion, only logic and reason apply.

If you want to argue that all discussions are pointless because your gut feeling is more important than any logical argument that could be made, I guess you can, but why discuss how pointless discussions are?

Bryan said...

I simply and flatly reject his definition of personhood. For the sake of argument, I will define personhood as simply a living member of the human species existing outside the womb.

There, done... I took umbrage with his premise and addressed his argument with words instead of my gut like you've asked of me. I require some evidence or argumentation that his definition of personhood is better than mine. I require an explanation as to why we should not error on the side of caution when it comes to specifying when it is alright to terminate human life.

Now that he's got a premise that has been identified as bad and not sufficiently and obviously true, the fact that the conclusion flows from it matters not.

And this notion that the ethical model does not allow the killing of a 27 day old baby if the mother objects is more than ridiculous. You've still not explained to me what on earth the mother's objection would have to do with the child's right to not be killed.

But, even if I grant you that is legitimate, it would seem to me that the argument then provides a way to defeat itself because I can simply claim that I object to the intentional killing of any 27 day old infant anywhere ever, and according to the ethical model as you describe it, my objection is enough to make the act wrong.

Wow... don't we all feel gratified... because I've used the beautiful system of logic to clearly lay out why killing a 27 day old is not OK. Good thing we can safely ignore that gut feeling.

Rod said...

I don't get it. Do you realize you're just repeating back to me what I said?

My whole point was that the problem was that his conclusion DOES follow from the premises, so in order to reject the conclusion you need to argue against the premises. In the main post, you had not done so.

If you honestly think I'm arguing that he is CORRECT, then you're thick. I've been arguing that his conclusion is LOGICAL, and therefore in order to argue against it you need to argue against his premises. I've said, at least three times, that I disagree with him. I'm just disappointed in your inability to invalidate his arguments with logic rather than your "gut".

Furthermore, you used "words" instead of your gut, but all your words did was state what your gut was feeling.

There are 10 comments on this post, and you STILL have not obliterated the guy's premises the way you could have and SHOULD have if you were going to so casually dismiss his conclusion.

Here, I'll do it for you:

Singer's premise, as stated, is "For an act to be morally wrong, the agent it is performed against must be cognitively aware of the act."

Now, I will assume for sake of argument that everyone here agrees with the following statement:

Barring some kind of 'greater good' type scenario, it is always unequivocally morally wrong to rape a 30 year old woman.

We'll call that Premise 1. We'll call Singer's premise Premise 2. If we can show that these contradict each other, then we have proven they cannot coexist as logically sound premises.

3) If you were to locate a 30 year old women with no living relatives, you could sneak up behind her, chloroform her, rape her, and then kill her. She would never be aware of the rape.
4) If she is never aware of the rape, then according to premise 2 this is a morally justified act.
5) This being a morally justified act contradicts premise 1, which states that it cannot be.
C) !

Thus we have logically deduced these two arguments to a contradiction. Since we agreed on the moral absolute in the beginning, it is the second premise that must be incorrect.

Therefore, not all acts committed against agents that are unaware are morally just.

Done. See how easy that was? I could prove his premise wrong a hundred different ways. So could you (I hope).

Instead of obliterating the guy's argument, you admitted that it was logically sound, rejected it anyway, then refused to argue against its premises. I proceeded to tell you that, in order to make a rational argument, you needed to argue against his premise, and you told me that the world isn't a logical place so no you didn't.

Here's a handy rule of thumb. If someone makes a statement that is OBVIOUSLY wrong to you (in your gut), then that means it should be EASY to obliterate with pure logic and reason. If you have difficulty obliterating the argument, it's a good indicator that it is not, in fact, obviously wrong.

Rod said...

Also, since you once again had difficulty with the mother in the infant-killing scenario, I'm going to try to lay it out yet again (for the third time).

You have a 27 day old infant, Agent A. You also have it's mother, Agent B.

The point under discussion is:

"For an act to be morally wrong, the agent it is performed against must be cognitively aware of the act."

We are trying to determine if this is a good premise or a bad premise.

Let's assume for a moment that it is a good premise and see where it takes us.

Logically, it would allow you to kill your own 27 day old infant, assuming that the 27-day-old infant is not cognitively aware.

However, would it allow you to kill someone else's 27-day-old infant?

NO. Because the act of killing the infant is an act against Agent A, and it is also an act against Agent B.

In order to satisfy the premise, neither agent A nor agent B can be aware of the act if it has a chance to be morally justifiable.

Therefore, if the mother (Agent B) is aware, the act of killing her infant is morally wrong. The moral wrongness has nothing to do with Agent A. The thing that makes it wrong, according to this model, is that the act is against Agent B, and Agent B is aware.

It would, clearly, allow for killing a 27-day-old orphan, or even a 20 year old mentally handicapped person that is developmentally < 27 days old. But the model Singer proposes would NOT allow you to kill someone else's infant (unless they approved or were unaware).

Get it? Sheesh.

Bryan said...

I feel like we're talking past each other.

First premise from below:

For an act to be morally wrong, the agent it is performed against must be cognitively aware of the act.

My claim is simply this. In the scenario where a stranger kills a 27 day old, you say that this is an act against the mother (because why exactly? because she makes the point to care? I actually reject this notion, but I'll agree on the terms for the sake of argument) because she is aware of it.

If that holds true, then the opposite holds true as well. A mother who doesn't care about the life of her child (she's aware, but doesn't object) decides to kill it. I, a stranger, am aware that such things go on (even in the abstract, even though I don't know the child personally) and object, so the act is an act against my objection, an act against me.

I am following his own logical argument here, but simply placing myself in the position of the aware objector. In this case, the argument simply defeats itself.

You also say:

"Here's a handy rule of thumb. If someone makes a statement that is OBVIOUSLY wrong to you (in your gut), then that means it should be EASY to obliterate with pure logic and reason. If you have difficulty obliterating the argument, it's a good indicator that it is not, in fact, obviously wrong."

This is bogus. There are plenty of human beings who share as a common denominator an innate, ingrained and undeniable moral sense who may not have the logistic training and acumen to dissect and destroy an argument like you desire. This may make them stupid simpletons in your mind, but makes them no less correct. In fact, I would assert the opposite. No matter how good the logical argument a person like Singer can put together, people know the difference between right and wrong. This is why you could ask my 4 year old daughter the question... "Is it right or wrong to kill a really little baby?" and she'd give you the objectively correct answer sooner than a highly educated 'wacko' like Singer would.

Rod said...

(Sorry for the late response, but I was on vacation)

Congratulations! You've actually provided something resembling a logical argument against Singer's premise. Your explanation that, because you care, the act of killing any 28 day old is an act against you, can be reformulated into an actual counterproof to Singer's thesis.

It is, in fact, a weaker argument than the example I provided, because it leaves a hole that any 28 day old can be killed as long as NOBODY was aware of it (excluding your 'abstract' sense which is just silly and you know it), but nonetheless it is a powerful argument against Singer's ethical framework.

Imagine how much more powerful your original post would have been if it had taken the form of:

"Singer's argument is {argument}, but it fails completely because of {counter argument>}"

rather than

"Singer's argument is {argument}, but it fails completely because it makes me sad and it should make you sad too {frowny face}."

You speak as if logical thought is somehow this evil thing that justifies Singer's position. In fact, it is PRECISELY the opposite. Logic and reason allow us to completely oblierate flawed ethical models with a SINGLE counterproof.

You can spit and yell and stomp your feet about how upset an ethical framework proposal makes you, but that doesn't even come close to destroying an ethical framework's legitimacy with logic. There's a reason that the primary purpose of philosophy is developing ethical models and its primary tool is logic, rather than, say, crying. Appeals to emotion don't carry much weight with people who are capable of using their brains.

Your 4-year-old example is a nice anecdote, but the fact of the matter is that the 'easy' ethical judgements that everyone innately understands aren't really the focus of ethical philosophy.

Singer's argument came from an attempt to determine the rightness or wrongness of abortion. You can't tell me that this is something that everyone innately understands, as the moral views of abortion vary widely (probably not within your church community, but in the world at large). Singer attempted to develop an ethical framework that would provide an answer to this difficult question, but then noticed that his ethical framework also allowed killing a 28 day old infant. Some may use this to conclude that the ethical model is flawed, and as I illustrated it is easy to prove that. Singer went the other way, deciding his ethical model was still valid, and therefore killing a 28 day old WAS in fact ethically acceptable.

In fact, the typical way that an ethical model is proven wrong within philosophical circles is to take that 1% of ethical judgements that everyone can agree on (raping a 25 year old woman is wrong) and showing how an ethical model, given specific parameters, allows it. This is why the 1% is useful, but it certainly isn't enough on its own.

"Killing is wrong" - sure. How about killing someone for the greater good? How about a justified war? How about killing in self defense? What if a crazed terrorist forces you to choose between killing a group of 25 people and a group of 100? What if the 25 includes your family - does knowing them clear you of a responsibility to the greater good? What if the 100 are criminals - is their cultural value a critical factor in determining their life worth? If killing is wrong, is killing an animal wrong? Is killing a chimp wrong? Is doing so in cold blood, simply for the satisfaction of killing a chimp wrong? Is killing a bundle of cells of human skin wrong? If not, is killing a bundle of cells of a fertilized egg wrong? If so, what makes it wrong - is an eggs worth determined by its actual worth or its potential worth? What if the mother was raped? What if giving birth will kill the mother?

I'm sure you have some knee-jerk responses to many of these questions, but the fact is that these questions all belong in the 99% HARD category of ethical questions: they are difficult to answer. And you can be irritated at any you want, but if you want to have any kind of chance for your opinion to be useful to another human being (such as, when determining laws), you need to be able to back it up with logic.

You don't see a lot of courts make their decision based on how loudly the defense yells. You need logic in order to interpret laws in any meaningful way.

Every one of the above questions can be resolved by hundreds of various ethical models - but the question philosophers are trying to answer is: which of these ethical models is right? How do they determine this? Though logic and reason, the most powerful tools the human mind has for critical analysis.

Reason is not the devil and reason is not it's pitchfork. These are valuable, important tools for adult discussions.

And I stand by my original statement, if a statement is completely resistant to any kind of logical justification, it is most likely wrong.

Bryan said...

That's a fair assessment. I agree with most of what you're saying here. I'd thought to myself that I should probably go come back and clarify my position a touch.

I was not proposing that logic should be abandoned when something goes against your gut. I was simply saying that the gut can serve as a very reliable indicator that something doesn't add up immediately.

Something like this for example. You use a calculator to perform an operation like (500 + 500) but you accidentally hit the * key instead of the + key. The calculator tells you the answer is 250,000 - but you can immediately see that is incorrect, so you assume the method you used to get to the answer of a quarter million was just wrong.

Where you and I will surely part ways is the explanation for where this innate burned in sense of objective right and wrong that we all recognize that we have inside of us comes from. We're aware of this Moral Law innately, we know about it... but where did it come from and why is it there?

There are decent arguments for it being an evolutionary thing I guess, but those are not without problems. The biggest one I see is the ingrained notion humans seem to have in terms of a willingness to sacrifice life at times when said sacrifice extends an advantage to someone you're not related to (genetically linked with) at all.

Bryan said...

The morality branch in the road that this conversation has taken reminds me. You asked a tough and fair question a good while back in one of your comments.

I intend to devote a post to answering it the best I can when I get around to it. It's a very good and fair question that shouldn't be dodged, one I can imagine my kids asking someday if they have any compassion at all for other people.

Rod said...

I agree that often the 'gut' is a good indicator. Emotions are essentially ingrained shortcuts for truth.

Take fear for example. If you see a bear in the woods, you CAN sit and think logically about if you have the tools/weapons you need to take the bear, if you would benefit from killing the bear and using it for meat, and so forth. But taking the time to think through these things may lead to your death. Instead, we've evolved an emotional shortcut to handle this kind of situation: fear.

Emotions are decent shortcuts for handling day to day things, but they are simply not appropriate for intellectual discussion and conversation. Human beings are separate from other animals primarily because we can reason and think logically. We can come up with conclusions and solutions that are nonobvious and counter-intuitive.

The gut is an alright shortcut. It's advantage is that it is fast, but it's disadvantage is that it is inaccurate. If you had two people make a series of decisions, one based on their gut and the other based on reasoning, the reasoning person would tend to have made better decisions, but the gut guy would be done first.

And just fyi, many animals (particularly mammals) do show indicators of altruistic, moral behavior to animals of the same species, outside of families. Dogs actually frequently 'adopt' cats, squirrels, and ducks whose families are killed by predators. Many monkeys will call out to warn other monkeys of predators, even though it draws attention to themselves. My favorite example is a recent experiment with rhesus monkeys, in which some monkeys can only get food by pulling a chain that releases food but also shocks another monkey. When placed in this situation, many rhesus monkeys would starve themselves for days:

Rhesus monkey and human DNA differ by less than 8%, by the way.

Bryan said...

8% - Interesting, although I'm not sure what I'm supposed to make of that given that "We also share about 50% of our DNA with bananas..."

Bryan said...

And as for rhesus monkeys displaying the kind of behavior you mention, I'm not sure what to make of that either.

How exactly are you defining evolution? Anything that animals do? It would seem that evolution defined in the sense of genes being selfish, wanting to compete, adapt, and reproduce themselves (as in, having no care whatsoever about the propagation of unrelated genes) would now have counter evidence in the form of this rhesus monkeys thing.

The fact that the monkeys are doing what they're doing seems like it could easily be used as evidence against macro evolution as I understand it.

Rod said...


That 50% means that we have 50% counterparts to banana dna. Meaning, we have a chunk of DNA that codes for cell growth, and so to bananas. We have a chunk of DNA that goes for a certain aspect of reproduction, and so does a banana. Aging. Resource consumption. 50% of the things that DNA code for in a human, those things are also coded for in a banana. Considering that bananas and humans both have cells, grow, age, have seeds, etc, this is not really surprising.

Having 99% in common with a monkey, however, is a much bigger deal. It means that 99% of the things our DNA codes for traits that make us human, certain species of monkey share 99% of. That's a huge jump.

If you don't really see why it's fundamentally different to share 99% of traits with a living thing than to share 50%, I think it's possible you might just have what we in the industry refer to as "Really Really Really Fucking Dumb Syndrome" (RRRFDS).

Read a science book. ;)

And no "Why Science Is Wrong And Evil And The Bible Is The Best Thing Ever" by Dr. Got-A-Degree-From-A-Christian-Academy doesn't count as a science book. ;)

Bryan said...

While I enjoy good ad hominem as much as the next guy, it's only effective and noteworthy if you follow it up with some actual arguments. You effectively said nothing with your last comment.

At what percentage does it turn from uninteresting to a much bigger deal? The 70s somewhere, 86 maybe, or perhaps 93.7? One of your arbitrary choosing?

And by the way, when you do the ad hominem thing, it'll be more worthwhile if you're actually correct about something.

For instance, the guy who wrote the article that I referenced is formally qualified in medicine and surgery, being educated at Adelaide University in South Australia which is a member of Australia's Group of Eight.

It would've actually been biting and funny if he had gained all his credentials from somewhere like the Dallas Theological Seminary or something.

Not that any of it matters, which you should know. I'm the pupil in this realm, I know I don't have to remind you that Appeals to Authority are meaningless anyway.

If you can't explain the significance to me, that's fine, just say so.

Rod said...

There's no line between interesting and uninteresting. The 50% with banana is very interesting. The 60% with another animal is moreso. And so on, until 98.5% similarity with chimpanzees.

You're trying to discredit the fact that monkeys and humans share so much dna by saying we share it with bananas too. Yeah, we do. Not as much. Bananas have gene counterparts to humans. Whales have more. Monkeys have a whole ton.

What's so hard about this stuff?

Rod said...

The reason the rhesus monkey thing is interesting is because of what it indicates about morality.

Now, you come from a perspective that evolution is still unproven and suspect, so you're evaluating this interesting fact from that perspective. That prevents it from being interesting for the reason I was suggesting.

I, along with 99% of the scientific community, take evolution for the fact of nature that it is. As a result, the rhesus monkey thing is interesting not because it 'proves evolution' or anything like that, it's interesting because it indicates that our concepts of morality/altruism are not uniquely human, but evolved traits.

Of course, if evolution isn't accepted as fact, then the rhesus monkey thing isn't interesting for that reason. *shrug*

Bryan said...

I find evolution uninteresting because it seems far more capable of identifying something that has already occurred as 'consistent with evolution by natural selection' in an ad hoc manner than having the ability to predict anything whatsoever as a real science would - physics or chemistry for example.

Furthermore, I find it a bit amusing because the fundies in evolutionary camps require at least as much faith as the blindest-faithers in my camp when it comes to the most extraordinary claims of macroevolution by natural selection. If a person is satisfied with the available hard evidence that 'demonstrates' from goo to you via the zoo evolution as fact (to be clear, I'm not talking about the obvious kind of evolution, the micro variety, finches with different sized beaks, pomeranians <-> bullmastiffs, etc. - the kind that we can observe), then said person ought to have no problem at all accepting Christianity as true based on evidence as well - given the amount of positive evidence for macroevolution (I mean real evidence, scientific or testimonial, not just conjecture, assumptions and hypotheses) compared to the amount of positive evidence for Christianity.

I was recently reading another blog where I thought someone made a fair point in this regard. I'll paraphrase here.

I am still waiting for someone to provide the argument based on even one single piece of evidence that shows that evolution must be true. The argument must be valid, the premises true, and the conclusion must be “therefore [macro] evolution must be true.” I have been asking for this since I was 13, which means for 20 years. Haven’t seen the attempt yet. All I have seen is speculation and assumption.

The commenter's example of what he's looking for using Newton's 2nd law of Motion.

Major Premise — If for any and all objects A, A’s current mass (current velocity - initial velocity)/time - current velocity (current mass - initial mass)/time equals the force being applied to it, then Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion is true.

Minor Premise — For any and all objects A, A’s current mass (current velocity - initial velocity)/time - current velocity (current mass - initial mass)/time equals the force being applied to it.

Conclusion — Therefore, Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion is true.

What he was asking the macroevolution camp to provide:

If _____________________ is true, then macroevolution is true.

___________________________ is true.

Therefore macroevolution is true.


He got nothing but crickets on the post I was reading. I'd never thought of it from this strict and mechanical logical approach. I'm interested in your thoughts though.

Rod said...

If what you're looking for is "one single piece of evidence that proves evolution is true" then I suspect you'd be looking for a long time. Science doesn't work that way.

In particular, historical sciences do not work that way.

Each piece of evidence strengthens a theory by some percentage. You can never get to a probability of "1" with science. You can't scientifically prove a theory to be probably true at a level of 100%.

You have a theory, and then that theory explains some observed model of how the world works. Then the theory is stronger. You observe more, the theory explains it, and it is strengthened. You observe more, and it contradicts the theory, so you revise the theory and ensure that it still explains everything else it used to plus this new thing (for example, the switch from Lamarckian evolution to Darwinian evolution).

Each observed piece of reality that is explained by the theory strengthens the theory, because it makes it more probably true. The probability of the theory being objectively true increases with each observable model that is explained by it. It approaches, but never reaches, 1.0. Meaning, it gets to 90%, eventually 99%, eventually 99.9%, eventually 99.99%.

This means that you will never have even an infinitely long list of evidence for a theory that ends with "Therefore, evolution is true". The best you can hope for is "evolution is almost certainly true". There's always a chance of discovering something that contradicts the theory in a way that means the theory cannot be modified while still explaining all it explained before.

That .0000001% also still allows anyone that wants to disbelieve a theory to be able to do so, because it's never 100% certainly true.

The idea of a SINGLE piece of evidence proving a theory true is laughable, and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. You can't get anywhere from a SINGLE piece of evidence. You need a mountain of it.


On a related note, you have to try to understand that the historical sciences of notably different from the natural sciences. Archeology doesn't work the same way as chemistry. They both are fundamentally based on the same idea of making observations, coming up with theories to explain them, then strengthening (or weakening) those theories with additional observations.

The most notable difference is how observations can be made. With many sciences, such as chemistry of physics, observations can be made by repeating experiments in a controlled setting. Observations can be, essentially, manufactured at will with those types of sciences. This allows progress in those sciences to move very quickly.

You seem to have this notion that the definition of "science" includes experimentation. This is false. Science includes observation. Experimentation is a very easy way of creating situations in which observations can be made.

Sometimes, experimentation is not available. This is true of all historical sciences such as archeology, and to an extent is is also true in all of the sciences, depending on what branch is being studied. It is difficult to do experiments with humans for example (which is why we use monkeys so often).

Evolutionary Biology is such a field. Unfortunately, because the theory of evolution describes models that take place over hundreds of thousands of years, we cannot perform experimentation. Archeology is another field where experimentation simply does not apply.

Instead, historical sciences strengthen (or weaken and eventually destroy) theories by using prediction. So you might say something like "if evolution is true, then monkeys and humans would have extremely similar DNA". You would say this, of course, before much of anything was known about DNA. It is a prediction.

Then later, you gain the ability to analyze DNA at a fine-grained level. Did Darwin's prediction hold? Sure enough, it did!

A darwinian biologist might predict "if evolution is true, then we should be able to find fossils of transition organisms - species that do not exist today but share traits with two different known species, indicating a common ancestor". This would be, again, before actually discovering such fossils. Shock of shocks, later on such fossils were indeed discovered!

You can also provide falsifying evidence predictions. For example, "if a transition fossil was ever found between 2 types of organisms that do not share lineage were ever found, evolution would be proven false". No mermaid or centaur fossils have yet been found.

You could say "if fossils of a horse were to be found in the precambrian period, evolution would be proven false" as well. So far, no uncovered fossils have indicated a sudden jump in the slow process of evolution.

As falsifying evidence is not uncovered whereas supporting evidence is uncovered, a theory gets stronger and stronger. We are lucky to live in such a modern age, when there are mountains of evidence in support of Darwinian evolution and natural selection, with more evidence being found frequently.

If you want to read about this mountain of evidence, I recommend "Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution" by Douglas J. Futuyma.

If you want a single thing that proves, irrefutably, evolution is fact, then instead of a book I recommend rethinking your view of how science operates.

Bryan said...

You say: If what you're looking for is "one single piece of evidence that proves evolution is true" then I suspect you'd be looking for a long time. Science doesn't work that way.

Well, it actually did work that way in the example I gave for Newton's 2nd Law of Motion.

I suspect the difference is though that it is a historical science. That being said, I suspect I'm a bit too knee jerk and not as informed as I need to be in this area - discussing Darwinian evolution.

That being said, I have another question for you. (An actual question, I'm not trying to expose anything, I'm just curious what the Darwinian evolutionary camp has to say here.)

The example before (Newton's 2nd Law of Motion) is now a Law. That means it had to first be a Hypothesis, then graduate to a Theory, then finally become a Law. Does Darwinian evolution have any such goal? Is this paradigm even possible in historical sciences? What is it's current status?

Rod said...

"Well, it actually did work that way in the example I gave for Newton's 2nd Law of Motion."

Well, it actually did NOT work that way, since you worded your premise in a way that is inconsistent with science.

"Major Premise — If for any and all objects A, A’s current mass (current velocity - initial velocity)/time - current velocity (current mass - initial mass)/time equals the force being applied to it, then Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion is true."

See what you did there? "If for any and all objects A". Do you mean to tell me that every single object in the universe has been tested against Newton's 2nd Law of Motion?

If you modify that to be something reasonable, you can see how ridiculous the assertion is:

"If for all future objects A, A blah blah, then blah is true". Well obviously, there's no way to get to the conclusion, since there is an infinitely large series of objects.

No, indeed, as with evolution, as well as all science, you cannot even put Newton's Second Law into this "If X then Y is true" construct. As with everything else, you simply string together a long enough series of observations that support the theory, and eventually get to a point where you don't really question the theory. Indeed, it is STILL possible to find an object that would violate this law, however it is extremely unlikely.

This law, like all other theories and laws, predict future observations. When the observations are consistent with the law, it strengthens the law.


Since your next question is likely to be "well what has evolution predicted" I'm going to go ahead and address it.

Darwin predicted, long before anything could be observed to support it, that if evolution were true, it would be likely that the closest relatives to humans would be found in Africa. Sure enough, such fossils were discovered, and to date they are fossils of the closest relative to human beings.

The theory of natural selection predicted that, if true, it would mean that organisms in more rapidly changing environments would have higher mutation rates. Once again, after the fact, this wound up being illustrated as true.

Darwin predicted that precursors to the Trilobyte would probably be found in pre-Silurian rocks. Indeed, they were many years later.

It was predicted, based on evolution, that a transitional whale must have once existed between the two different types of whales (those with teeth and those that strain food out of the water with baleen). Eventually such a fossil was found.

Evolution predicts that valuable features (such as eyes) will evolve independently in different evolutionary trees. Further, it predicts that they will most likely have differences not relevant to function. Indeed this wound up the case: the eyes of molluscs, arthropods, and vertebrates are extremely different and yet all function for sight.

One of the most interesting examples is that Darwin predicted that Precambrian fossils would be found. In fact, he once wrote that it was "inexplicable" that none had been found, and he considered it to be a critical failure in his theory. Guess what were found in 1953.

There are TONS of examples like this. However, the examples are limited, because as an historical science we cannot reproduce behavior, but simply make observations that we come across naturally. With laws of motion, you can reproduce observations through experimentation, which allows for a much higher rate of observation and, as a result, scientific progress. With evolution, we're stuck with what we can find.

Physics has advanced at a MUCH more rapid pace than evolutionary biology, as you might expect based on the fact that physics observations can be repeated in a lab. Though its worth noting that Theoretical Physics cannot be, and thus progresses as a snail's pace, like evolutionary theory.

It is also worth noting that, in fact, for extremely small masses (such as in quantum observations) and extremely fast speeds (nearly the speed of light), Newton's Laws of Motion do *NOT* hold true, and have subsequently had to be substantially revised as a result.


This discussion of what is a law vs. what is a theory is a bit strange. The reality is, many years ago people would develop explanations for models and then strengthen those explanations. When an explanation was strong enough that science generally accepted it as sufficiently proven (that is, far far far more likely to be correct than not), it was referred to as a Law.

As science improved, however, many of these laws were found to be, well, not so lawful. The example I gave earlier of the Laws of Motion is one example. There are circumstances under which the Law of Gravity does not apply. Scientists just stopped using the word 'law' and replaced it with 'theory', because it was more honest to not use an absolute.

Explanations which were originally referred to as the "Law of XXX" because scientists used the word Law at the time, simply still keep the "Law" moniker. Anything since that point has been "theory". Meaning, there is no real sense of something becoming 'more certain' until it becomes a 'law'. Nobody makes 'laws' in science anymore. Theory is as 'certain' as it gets.

So no, nobody is hoping evolution becomes a 'law'. Nothing becomes a law. The word law was replaced with theory. So you would be correct to refer to "Newton's Theories of Motion" and also correct to refer to the "Law of Evolution". This may be something of a shock since it's not considered common knowledge, but you won't find any scientific journals refer to anything as a law anymore, except for things that grandfathered in the title "Law of..." from back in the day. It's just theories.

Bryan said...

Interesting. I did not know that bit about how Theories don't progess to Laws any more.

Rod said...

Theories never did progress into laws.

Once upon a time, hypotheses progressed into laws.

Now, hypotheses progress into theories.

The concept of a theory becoming a law is a cultural misconception. It's an urban legend, really.