Archive for the ‘Science and Philosophy’ category

Unsurprisingly, the DI gets philosophy all wrong

October 2, 2008

Well, if the Discovery Institute (DI) could get philosophy right, chances are that they would be able to do science. Considering their near-total contempt for evidence, it would be a shock if they could portray philosophy intelligently.

Logan Gage comments on the DI blog regarding Steven Weinberg’s essay “Without God,” then attempts to fault atheistic philosophers such as Nietzsche with all of the ignorance that we have come to expect of the IDists’ science statements.  Here is the main portion of his incomprehension of Nietzsche:

As a young man, I was enamored with Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialists. When I got to college, I found that Nietzsche was greater than them all. Even though by this time I had come do disagree with their metaphysics, I admired their courage to live intellectually honest, consistent, and honorable lives. 

But one day it dawned on me—as I believe it will one day dawn on Dr. Weinberg—that speaking of honesty, courage, and honor as though they were actually objectively honest, courageous, and honorable was inconsistent with naturalistic metaphysics. If you asked Nietzsche why one should forge his own way rather than follow herd morality, I believe he would have answered: “Are you kidding? Think about it. Which one would you prefer? Wouldn’t you prefer this noble enterprise of making your own way? Oh, well maybe you wouldn’t, Gage, you wretched sheep! Baaaahhhhhh!”

Or at least that’s how I imagine him speaking. But, this is simply not convincing. The whole notion of an honorable and noble existence is a residue of Christendom that Nietzsche should have recognized and rejected.  Logan Gage writing for the DI

Sartre might well be tarred with the metaphysical brush (though he, with Heidegger, would deny it), but Nietzsche was no metaphysician.  Least of all did he adhere to “naturalistic metaphysics,” for the truth is that he doubted the very meaning of “nature,” as it was used by physicists of his day:


Forgive me as an old philologist who cannot desist from the malice of putting his finger on bad modes of interpretation: but “nature’s conformity to law,” of which you physicists talk so proudly as though— —why, it exists only owing to your interpretation and bad “philology”—it is no matter of fact, no “text,” but rather only a naively humanitarian emendation and perversion of meaning, with which you make abundant concessions to the democratic instincts of the modern soul! “Everywhere equality before the law; nature is no different in that respect, no better off than we are”: a fine instance of ulterior motivation, in which the plebeian antagonism to everything privileged and autocratic as well as a second and more refined atheism are disguised once more. “Ni Dieu, ni maitre[“Neither God nor master”]—that is what you, too, want; and therefore “cheers for the law of nature”!—is it not so? But as said above, that is interpretation, not text; and somebody might come along who, with opposite intentions and modes of interpretation, could read out of the same “nature” and with regard to the same phenomena rather the tyrannically inconsiderate and relentless enforcement of claims of power—an interpreter who would picture the unexceptional and unconditional aspects of all “will to power” so vividly that almost every word, even the word “tyranny” itself, would eventually sound unsuitable, or a weakening and attenuating metaphor—being too human—but he might, nevertheless, end by asserting the same about this world as you do, namely, that it has a “necessary” and “calculable” course, not because laws obtain in it, but because they are absolutely lacking, and every power draws its ultimate consequences at every moment. Supposing that this also is only interpretation—and you will be eager enough to make this objection?—well then, so much the better. —  Beyond Good and Evil

As I understand this, Nietzsche was faulting the notion of “law” as metaphysics in the above passage, not like science generally understands “laws” to be today, as mere statements of empirically-known (and thus always to be understood according to implicit philosophical and scientific caveats) regularities.  And for anybody who understands what metaphysics is about, the above quote is recognizable as a profoundly anti-metaphysical statement, for he uses his philological skepticism to question the sense that we even experience nature as “law-like.”

As far as “honesty” goes, Nietzsche questions the “will to truth” in the same book, asking why not the will to untruth.  To be sure, Nietzsche generally praises “honesty” in a way that he would not praise “truth,” and it is unquestionable that he also has a sense of what is “true” in the non-holy, non-metaphysical sense of that word.  Nonetheless, he is questioning what “truth is,” which no doubt undermines what Gage thinks of as “honesty”.  Yet even more so he does not praise, nor really write with, consistency.  If there are constants in his writings–and there are–he does not write consistently, and probably did not live “constantly” either.  The idea of a “single self” is anathema to his teachings.

Nietzsche did, of course, praise and strive for a kind of “nobility”–which I presume he achieved to a degree–as well as an honesty of which the DI types seemingly have never conceived.  However, Nietzsche does not ascribe his sense of nobility and honesty to any kind of metaphysics, and he was quite good at explaining how these differed from the Christian sense of nobility and honesty, let alone its belief in consistency which he considered to be so unlike what we actually know and experience (never mind some fiction like “nature”).

To the degree that he did come up with a basis for the values in his teachings, these were largely psychology and pre-Socratic (consequently pre-Christian) conceptions of nobility and honesty.  A crucial fact of which Gage seems to be utterly ignorant is that Nietzsche was essentially a German Romantic, heavily influenced by Kant and Hegel (though Nietzsche reacts particularly against Hegel, and against Kant in a way that seems odd, considering how much his thought owes to Kant).  As such, he was an extreme empiricist, taking his cues from what is observed and not what is theoretical, while being ever-mindful that he himself comes to conclusions that are interpretation, and not veritable fact.  That, however, is no barrier to understanding life psychologically, and indeed, (which often looked to pre-Socratic Greek though, as did Nietzsche) in his way of viewing the world psychology becomes the primary empirical basis for thought.

So that is primarily where consistency and “truth” come in for Nietzsche, via psychology and looking to how ancient people viewed things, before Socrates and Christianity reacted against “natural morality” (he does use that term, without subscribing to “nature” as a thing in itself, however).  This is why his “nobility” and sense of “honesty” are based more on how Aristotle and people like Heraclitus understood these to be, and of course Heraclitus (one of Nietzsche’s favorites, while he does not give Aristotle much credit for his rip-off of Aristotelian “nobility”) was the philosopher who denied constancy.

I can only give the gist of what Nietzsche is about here, and I hope that it is sufficient for people to understand how Logan Gage is nearly 100% wrong about Nietzsche.  Nietzsche is about as non-Christian as a man of his time and place could be, without, that is, either rejecting science or merely reacting against Christianity. 

Heidegger does claim that Nietzsche is the last philosopher, for Nietzsche does not reject Western philosophy and science in the way that he and many of his followers (like Sartre and Derrida–I should note, however, that Derrida makes an ill-defined truce with empirical practitioners) did.  Heidegger faults Nietzsche for being the last thinker of metaphysics, since that is about all that Heidegger characterizes Western philosophy as being. 

To the contrary, I do not know anyone who is more metaphysical, if in a reasonably novel manner, than Heidegger, who mostly remodels neo-Platonic thought (see Plotinus) to make the world “knowable” in a way that Kant and Nietzsche had indeed rationally shown it not to be fundamentally knowable (while both continued to accept science as honest interpretation).  Nietzsche does remain constant as an empiricist, then, and does not throw out the considerable accomplishments of philosophers and scientists.  He more questions the “truth” that many claim to be behind science (in a philosophical sense, truth in science would definitely be a holdover from metaphysics, and, to a considerable degree, religion).  He does reject metaphysics, only he need not, and does not, reject an understanding of the world that is consistent with observation.

Nietzsche did, however, reject Darwinian evolution, which would throw a wrench into the thought of Logan, if it ever achieved a consistent and knowledgeable status.


Science is about evidence of occurrence, not mere possibility

September 9, 2008

Behe’s lack of scientific acumen is most glaring when he demands evidence of “possibility” of an evolution for which its actuality has hordes of evidence, and also when he treats “design” as the default because presumably just about anything could be designed–especially if it were designed to appear undesigned by some intelligence far beyond our own.  The trouble is that in science we have to produce evidence that something happened, not simply that it could have happened, for it really is the case that most phenomena could occur according to several different causal pathways–notably, by design, if one adopts Behe’s “design can do anything” nonsense.

Crucially, even though Behe makes stringent demands upon evolution to show that this or that biochemical pathway could evolve, actually showing that it could evolve would do nothing to show that it actually did evolve.  The actual evidence that a particular pathway evolved is dismissed by Behe, based on his hackneyed understandings of the issues of evidence, evolution, and what science is about.  Here is an example of his position, taken from an interview:

I claim, for example, that the bacterial flagellum could not be produced by natural selection; it needed to be deliberately intelligently designed. Well, all a scientist has to do to prove me wrong is to take a bacterium without a flagellum, or knock out the genes for the flagellum in a bacterium, go into his lab and grow that bug for a long time and see if it produces anything resembling a flagellum. If that happened, intelligent design, as I understand it, would be knocked out of the water. I certainly don’t expect it to happen, but it’s easily falsified by a series of such experiments.

Now let’s turn that around and ask, How do we falsify the contention that natural selection produced the bacterial flagellum? If that same scientist went into the lab and knocked out the bacterial flagellum genes, grew the bacterium for a long time, and nothing much happened, well, he’d say maybe we didn’t start with the right bacterium, maybe we didn’t wait long enough, maybe we need a bigger population, and it would be very much more difficult to falsify the Darwinian hypothesis.

More Behe on falsification

First off, on the relatively trivial matter of what would “falsify the Darwinian hypothesis,” sufficient evidence of rational design in non-engineered life would.  Apparently he doesn’t even think to turn his false dichotomy of “either evolution or design” around, because he has no conception of what actual evidence for design would entail.  Then, a lack of nested hierarchies–measured morphologically, via DNA, and through proteins (each is a fairly independent set evidence in certain aspects)–in the taxa which do not readily exchange genetic material is another possibility for falsification.  Many models can accommodate nested hierarchies, while only unguided evolutionary processes in our context actually predict the nested hierarchies we see.  Another test of “Darwinian evolution” which does not involve design is if life utilizes “physical precursors” and is devoid of “conceptual precursors,” a test for evolution that Behe himself brought up in DBB (and then fails to apply, for the obvious reason–it passes that test, along with the others).

Another fairly trivial issue that Behe gets laughably wrong is that any of this would constitute a test of design.  There are three reasons, one being that he knows very well that bacterial flagella are not in the least considered to easily evolve at all–and it is in fact possible that it is essentially impossible today due to bacterial specialization, when it was not impossible to do in the past.  He chose his “test” in order prevent any real testing, and perhaps to mislead the gullible.  A second, philosophical, problem is that this “test” would not show that the bacterial flagellum evolved at all, merely that it could evolve, as previously mentioned.  The third reason, another philosophical problem, is that it relies upon the false dilemma that if it did not evolve it was designed.

The more important matter is that falsification simply is not everything, regardless of what Popper said.  Suppose that a man is charged with shooting another man.  The judge is not going to be impressed with evidence that it is possible for men to shoot men.  Nor will the judge care that evolution cannot shoot men.  What is more, the court is going to demand evidence that the man actually was shot, and also that the accused was the one who shot him.

Let us suppose that the projectile that killed the victim turns out to be a piece of meteoric iron.  Behe, as the prosecuting attorney, will drone on and on about how it is possible for humans to hurl meteoric at lethal speeds, whether with compressed gases or, conceivably, with an electromagnetic impulse.  Another line he uses is that “anything might have been designed,” (DBB 193) including this death.  It really does not take very long for the judge to tell him to either deal with some actual evidence, or to sit down and be quiet.  Why?  Because saying that anything could be design, or that it is possible for a human to launch meteoric iron at great speeds, means nothing to the claim that anyone, let alone a particular person, actually was responsible.   Behe would have to demonstrate design behind the meteorite which struck the man even to “prove” that a murder was committed at all.

The truth is that the justice system demands essentially the same kind of evidence that science does, only the courts often are intent upon “proof” that an individual was responsible (science often plays a part in this endeavor, however, as in forensic science) and science often is not focused on individual actions.  Falsifiability only matters with “entailed predictions,” that is to say, evolutionary theory is falsifiable because evolutionary processes actually must produce cladistic branchings such as we see, if it is true.  Finding those cladistic branches not only means that evolutionary theory was not falsified, it means that such evidence supports evolutionary theory.  Essentially the same obtains in the courtroom, where the interventions of gods, demons, and miracles cannot be ruled out entirely, but which are not taken seriously for the lack of evidence of these occurring within our sphere of existence.

Behe’s conception of “design” is completely unfalsifiable (I consider falsification a rule of thumb for scientific propositions, not an absolute rule), and not just because even demonstrating the evolution of the flagellum is possible would not actually indicate that the flagellum had evolved.  It is because for Behe (unlike for archaeologists and SETI researchers) “design” has no identifiable characteristics, and even if we found out that a god exists that knows everything and can do everything (so far as we can discern), that would be no indication that life was designed.  Crucially, life appears far too constrained by heredity and the possibilities for mutation to believe that any mind that can deal with life’s complexity would opt for designing within those constraints.

The important evidence is that which indicates what occurred.  Even Behe’s examples which supposedly cannot evolve frequently have such evidences, and the endosymbiotic events have such evidences in abundance.  The duplications, mutations, apparently slow adaptations of endosymbiotic and duplicated information, all point to the clotting cascade and P. falciparum’s plastid as having evolved over some time.  This is the evidence required by science, evidence of occurrence, not some proof of a mere possibility such as Behe mistakes as being a scientific test.

To be fair to the actual argument, it is worth noting that if we did have actual evidence that evolution is not and was never up to the task of producing the forms of life attributed to it, that would be important evidence.  But of course neither Behe nor anyone else is close to being able to show that evolution could not produce the complexities of life, any more than our ignorance of the causes of some of the dynamics on the sun can demonstrate that physics is unable to explain such dynamics, at least in theory.  Indeed, what we see in life bears all of the marks of the difficulty in evolving complexity, especially in a short time.

So it is that, just as with unexplained complexities of magnetohydrodynamics on the sun, we take our bearings from the evidence that we have of the origination of observed phenomena, and we follow that evidence to try to discover what remains unknown.  This is why the evidence of occurrence is so very important, because just as it would be a waste of resources to try to understand the origination of evidently rationally designed machines (like UFOs) according to evolution, it is equally useless to try to explain life according to rational design, when it turns out that there are no marks of rational design in non-GMO organisms. 

Nobody’s liberty is directly at stake in this matter, unlike in the hypothetical court case, however, the fate of human knowledge does depend upon properly interpreting the evidence of what actually happened, instead of chasing after the mere possibilities upon which Behe’s “case for design” relies.  Rather than bypassing the evidence that points directly to what happened, as Behe does, science relies upon that evidence in order to find out what was not only possible but truly did happen, through the course of evolution.  For it turns out that the possibilities which correlate with the data are the ones that matter, both in science and in prosecuting a case in court.

I decided to write this post on which evidence matters, and how it does, because I have recently written several posts about the evidence of what happened to make certain systems found in life, and I intend to write some more, regarding photosynthesis and at least on one or two more about Behe’s “examples” of what “cannot evolve.”  In his books he discusses “what is possible,” while ignoring all of the evidence for what actually did occur.  Empirically, that is almost completely backward, and is another in a long string of indictments against ID for being effectively opposed to science and its methods.

This is part of a series of posts that I am combining into one long post, which may be found at Darwin’s Black Box.