Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Jesus loves hip-hop

Go and check out my buddy Mike Hojenski's brand new Christian rap myspace page. He's got a real zeal for sharing Jesus through music.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

G.K. Chesterton on the reasoning behind belief and unbelief

If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, "For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity." I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion. Now, the non-Christianity of the average educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.
- Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 2001), 150-151
Comments? Thoughts? I'm with him in saying that Christianity accounts for the totality of the evidence better than anything else. Too much of modern discussion is spent ruling certain evidence inadmissible, i.e. if it's not the result of some experiment. I suggest that, when faced with the atheist's "why are you a Christian and not a Zeus-worshipper" line, the Chestertonian response is a good one: Zeus simply doesn't do the explanatory work that Jesus does. And, of course, Zeus doesn't have the historical evidence that Jesus does. And finally, Zeus simply isn't like Jesus, indeed no-one is! And then you can do evangelism proper.

I wonder if the psychological insight is valid as well: is this the way people form or decide upon their worldview, in general? It seems reasonable, in that anyone's own motives for deciding anything are very often vastly more complex, or even confused, than they tell us. I speak from experience.

Monday, 23 July 2007

...billions and billions...

Many people are awed by large numbers like billions and trillions. Yet the same laws of mathematics that govern tens and units govern these numbers too. Since it is difficult to conceptualize very large numbers, people just tend to accept whatever they are being told about them.

This is true in evolution, where there have been billions of years for it to happen, and billions - or more - of individuals available for it to act on.

But we cannot just blindly accept something because big numbers are involved. We need to do the math, and use the best accounting principles we can, to figure out what the probabilities of outcomes really are in mutation scenarios. Once we have a good grasp of the probabilities, we can compare them to the actual outcomes we see in nature. If there is a big difference, we should be suspicious.

So says the creator of the Richard Dawkins Mutation Challenge, which is supposed to give some idea of how utterly improbable beneficial mutation actually is. Don't expect to beat Mr. "Methinks it is like a weasel", though - he's not playing by anthing like the same rules. Several new genetic algorithms are set to emerge over the next few years, and it will be interesting to see what they reveal as to the question of whether rv+ns can bear anything like the burden of creativity which has been placed upon it.

UPDATE: Try the Richard Dawkins Human Evolution Revolution too, and try to evolve the 'gene for philsophy' over a 200-million-year period.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Book review: Darwinian Fairytales by David Stove

Stove, David, Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution (New York: Encounter, 2004)

I believe that neo-Darwinism, though a very good approximation to truth and completeness for many of the simplest organisms, is an extremely poor approximation in the case of our own species. Or rather, to tell the truth, I think that it is, at least in the hands of its most confident and influential advocates, a ridiculous slander on human beings.

This is how late Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-1994), having already made the all-too-necessary clarification “I am of no religion”, explains his reasons for writing Darwinian Fairytales, a collection of 11 essays in which he attacks the views of such evolutionary luminaries as Darwin himself, Thomas Malthus, T.H. Huxley, Alfred Wallace, R.A. Fischer, E.O. Wilson, R.D. Alexander and Richard Dawkins, to name just the ones I remember. In the above quotation, I have already given away what grates with Stove more than anything else on this topic: that Darwinists transfer their theories from “pines and cod” to people and then, when the theory wildly fails to predict the facts, blame the facts. He accepts descent by modification from a common ancestor, but denies that random variation + natural selection can account for that modification. His main complaint is that natural selection has been grossly overstated in the higher animals.1

Firstly, he asks, where is natural selection going among human populations now? We do not observe “a continual free fight” (Huxley, Essay 1), nor is it true that “The primary or fundamental check to the continued increase of man is the difficulty of gaining subsistence” (Malthus, 2 and 3); and to think that “of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive” (Darwin, 4 and 5) is so obviously false in the case of humans as to be embarrassing to read. Stove is not “quote-farming”. When Darwin says “any species” not only does he mean it, but also he has to – otherwise his is not the universal principle so desired by his disciples.

This strange overestimation of human infant mortality is reflective of the “problem of altruism” (Essay 6), which of course is only a problem for Darwinists (Stove likens it the problem of evil faced by Christians), and which has dogged Darwinism from its inception. One might think that the problem has been resolved by moving the language of all-out-war from the level of the individual to that of the (“selfish”) gene, but it hasn’t, says Stove, and here’s why:

  1. This view makes individuals epiphenomenal to their genes (Essay 7). Now, Stove is by no means the first to notice the glaring self-contradiction which Dawkins commits off the back of this view, between saying
    we are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes
    (The Selfish Gene, preface)
    and saying
    we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth
    (ibid., chapter 11).
    But even without that dialectical eyesore, the view that “an organism is just DNA’s way of making more DNA” (Wilson) is still obviously false. There is such a long list of popular human behaviour detrimental to genetic fitness as to be exhausting to read. Stove likens this genetic determinism to other “puppet theories” astrology, Freudianism, Marxism and Calvinism2. For Stove, it is no surprise that someone as prone to such theories as Dawkins should discover (with a minimum of effort and zero research) another set of puppet-masters in the shape of “memes”.

  2. The inclusive fitness (kin selection) theory hereby used to solve the “problem of altruism” (Essay 8) would lead to some very strange expectations if we really took it seriously:
    a) Given that the amount of genetic material shared by parents and children is the same in all sexually reproducing species, parental altruism should be the same in all those species – but it isn’t.
    b) “There is nothing special about the parent-offspring relationship [...] the full-sibling relationship is just as close” (Hamilton): and so we would expect sibling altruism, or indeed child-to-parent altruism, to equal parent-to-child altruism – but it doesn’t.
    c) Asexually reproducing organisms should be identically concerned about the welfare of exact genetic copies of themselves as they are of themselves – but they aren’t.
    d) So should identical twins – but neither are they.
    e) Incestuous families (where they survive) ought to be more harmonious than others – but they aren’t.
    ...and so on.

  3. Dawkins and others cannot help attributing purposes, desires and intentions – in short, teleology – to genes themselves, which of course utterly defeats the purpose of the exercise (Essays 9 and 10). He may protest every so often that such language is not to be taken literally, and that it can be “translated back into respectable terms” later, but Stove would very much like to see a translation of such terms as “selfishness” (and indeed, exactly how benefiting an exact copy of oneself is to benefit oneself), “benefit”, “manipulation”, “striving” and “function”. On my view, this is the weakest part of the book, and the only point where I start to see some of the “anti-philosophy” about which William Valicella has complained. Surely the non-teleological translation of “each gene is striving to make as many copies of itself as possible” is something like “those genes which are best at making copies of themselves end up more numerous than others” (a tautology, to be sure, but no tautology was every false)? Dawkins may be guilty of sloppy or even misleading use of the English language, but that in itself doesn’t count against neo-Darwinism. The point that “‘not conscious’ does not imply ‘not purposive’” is, however, well taken.

By way of conclusion, Stove notes that human behaviour in general is one giant amalgamation of what “armour-plated neo-Darwinians” would describe as errors, that is, characteristics which count against an organism having as many descendants as possible: natural celibacy, accepting submission signals in a fight, contraception and abortion, adoption, baby-snatching and the resentment of it, homosexuality, devoting one’s life to the pursuit of truth or beauty instead of making babies, various kinds of asceticism, heroism and its admiration... It is manifestly not the case that “we are programmed to use all our effort, and in fact to use our lives, in reproduction” (Alexander). While this critique may not always hit the mark squarely, I think Stove succeeds perfectly in showing that

Darwinism was always intended to bridge the gap between man and the animals, to mortify human self-importance, and to "cut us down to size". Now isn't that just too bad? Because a vast gulf does separate us from all other animals, in point of altruism, as in point of intelligence. That is simply a fact, and a very obvious one
Related post: Some thoughts on materialism, design and intelligence

1Mutation, on the other hand, is the focus of Michael Behe’s new book: The Edge of Evolution.
2Although readers of a Reformed disposition will object to Stove’s depiction of Calvinism. All this Darwinism-bashing doesn’t make him a Christian!