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(Evolution vs. Creationist Pseudoscience: No Contest--continued, Part C)

SECTION 6: Evolutionary principles such as "survival of the fittest" are supposedly only tautologies--things that are true by definition in such a way that it makes them meaningless and untestable.

See the Talk.Origins link "Evolution and Philosophy: A Good Tautology is Hard to Find" for a good refutation of this idea. While it is true that scientists themselves do sometimes mistakenly fall into the trap of using the "survival of the fittest" criterion as a simplistic tautological statement, the strict interpretation of the statement does not depend on a tautological equation.

Strictly speaking, fitness is the degree of match or "fit" between a physical trait and how well that function performs in the environment the organism lives in. Fitness is therefore tied to traits and physical functions and how well they "do the job" they are designed to do in terms of their design--especially in comparison to other variations of that trait. Fitness is thus a question of "good design," and how well that design survives is a result (i.e. survival itself is not the entire definition).

Fitness, however, can also be expressed as a relative mathematical probability indicating the tendency of a certain trait to survive--i.e., it is probabilistic, not deterministic. The point in this is that tautologies are always totally deterministic, such as in saying that the most fit are always the ones who survive. (That way of stating the equation IS a tautology.) However, expressing fitness in terms of relative probabilities of one trait (gene variant) vs. another in a statistical equation recognizes that survival is not a certain nor determined thing--it depends on contingencies--yet there are still very strong tendencies for survival that make the most fit (with the best functional design given the environmental niche) usually the ones who survive.

The reality of the situation is that instead of deterministic results (which is what creates the idea of a tautology) there are tendencies to survival of various traits which can be expressed statistically as mathematical probabilities for survival against other variations of the trait. These are not tautological since any given result does not always give the outcome of survival, as a tautological definition would. It is in the statistical aggregate that the fitness of any particular trait can be assessed mathematically. The fittest ought to end up being the ones who survive most often, and to say otherwise is to deny that survival is a legitimate criterion for fitness that can be measured, and that make the fittest (those with the best functional design given the environmental niche) the ones who survive on average. (Otherwise no one would be saying "survival of the fittest" in the first place.)

As John Wilkins puts it on the above web link:

"Fitness" to Darwin meant not those that survive, but those that could be EXPECTED [emphasis not in original] to survive because of their adaptations and functional efficiency, when compared to others in the population. This is not a tautology, or, if it is, then so is the Newtonian equation F=ma [Sober 1984, chapter 2], which is the basis for a lot of ordinary physical explanation.

This definition of fitness can be used to make predictions about which organisms will survive (as it was used in the Anolis lizard experiments in the Caribbean mentioned above in Section #2 here on macroevolution), thus meeting the scientific criterion of testability.

Finally, what creationists rarely bother to mention is that the father of the idea that evolutionary arguments like "survival of the fittest" were tautologies--Karl Popper--later recanted his views. Again, as John Wilkins notes in his series on "Evolution and Philosophy" at the Talk.Origins site:

Note 1. The article by Stamos [1996] is by far the best review of Popper's views on evolution, and I recommend finding it if you have access to an academic library. Popper later "recanted" his claim that Darwinism was unfalsifiable and a tautology (which were related arguments in Popper's view), in "Natural Selection and the Emergence of Mind", Dialectica 32(1978), pp. 339-355, but it was rather weakly done. This recantation is rarely cited by those who interminably argue about the tautology argument.

Lastly we come to Phillip Johnson's biggest beef with science:

SECTION 7: The "rules" of science are supposedly philosophically biased by their "materialistic naturalism" and rigged so as to rule out any other explanation than evolution.

As I mentioned in my initial criticism of Fruitarian XYZ's earlier essay on evolution [another Raw-Food posting of theirs that appeared previous to the one debunked here] the most telling and damning argument against creationists is the last one we'll examine here: They have absolutely no serious, testable scientific explanation to offer for the fossil record. None. They never have had (other than the old propositions based on a literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation account, or "'Noah's Ark' Flood theory," and so forth, that haven't long since been falsified). At best, they carp at the details of evolution itself. But do they have an alternative themselves? Nope--none that can be fairly tested in any way. For the same 140 years that Fruitarian XYZ alleges evolutionists have not been able to point to transitional fossils (which we have seen is wholly false), the creationists have been stymied in even PROPOSING a serious explanation, other than Noah's Ark and similar biblically-based "young-earth" scenarios long since shown false, that could stand up to the test of science.

Now the creationists will say that that's just because the scientists won't let them propose their (untestable-in-principle) metaphysically supernatural explanations, and that that makes science "biased." (Yes, Mabel, that really is what they call "philosophical bias"! ;-) ) But the requirement that things be rigorously explainable AT ALL (i.e., testable) can't HELP but rule out supernatural explanations--as it should. Why? Because at root, supernatural explanations are not explanations at all--they are FAITH. Faith in something that you can't test or demonstrate is not an explanation, it is the lack of one! To be an explanation at all requires that a proposal have some details that can be examined, tested, and demonstrated in some kind of concrete fashion.

What this means where agreeing to do science is concerned is that you agree that you are going to abide by a few rules as your basis for investigation: (1) That physical things can be explained by physical causes. (2) That to qualify as a scientific hypothesis, an explanation has to be testable or verifiable. (Supernatural explanations are by their very nature not--since they invoke non-physical causes that can't be tested.) (3) That you are willing to abide by the evidence, or acknowledge the need to change your theory to better explain the evidence that is observed or that results from tests.

Phillip Johnson quite rightly points out that these are philosophical assumptions. But they are certainly not "bias" in the sense of unfairness. And he has some quite philosophical assumptions of his own. Given Johnson's absolute silence in proposing any kind of testable alternative, he is apparently embarrassed to acknowledge that his only alternative is one based on philosophical irrationality: whenever any "gaps" appear in explanation, why, let's invoke supernaturalism as the cause! And then he is indignant and wants to fault scientists for ruling that out in principle as a NON-explanation because there is nothing in it that can be verified?! I marvel at his naivete. Which is more reasonable: to assume physical things can be explained by physical causes, or to assume instead that if certain things haven't been explained just yet, they in principle CAN'T be, and never will be?

A scientific theory does not rise or fall depending on the existence of a few as-yet-unexplained details or facets--it has to work sufficiently as a wide-ranging logical theory of explanation for many different phenomena; or it has to fail in explaining a range of important phenomena before it will be given up as lacking. Science does not proceed by throwing out entire theories just because one or a few details remain out of place or unexplained at any point in time; it does not just "give up" at any given point, throw up its hands in despair, and start resorting to supernatural explanations. More work proceeds attempting to explain the anomalies with logical, physical explanations.

Science is historical and needs time to proceed--theories do not rise whole and complete all at once. They are hammered out over decades and sometimes centuries. But creationists want their certainty and salvation NOW, and are not willing to wait for logical explanation of things. There are always going to be things on the horizon of science that may remain unexplained for some time, simply because you can't discover some things until others have been discovered first, which of course takes time. Creationism springs from a psychological impulse that feels insecure without absolute emotional certainty (this is not so different, incidentally, from the search for "the perfect diet"). And emotional certainty of this sort can only come by a-priori faith.

Science, on the other hand, works with "bulk of evidence," in the midst of whatever amount of remaining uncertainty, as its criterion for giving credence to hypothesis and theories--some amount of which (uncertainty) may always remain no matter how massive the evidence, but which is not cause for rejecting explanations that can adequately account for all but a few still-being-worked-on details. (If everything were totally explained all at once, there would be nothing for science to do, and it would not exist in the first place.)

Science and creationism part ways in their preferences and methodology at the very beginning--not somewhere along the way among the details. When details still remain to be explained, the creationist preference is--as it is at the beginning of their program--to fill in the gaps with supernatural speculation to satisfy longings for emotional security at any cost. The scientific preference is to assume that a physical explanation will eventually be found, even if it is not yet known.

Both are based on underlying philosophical assumptions. But this does not mean the assumptions underneath science are irrational ones. On the contrary, the assumption that physical events have physical explanations is the rational assumption. The assumption that physical events are explained by supernatural mechanisms whenever physical ones aren't yet known is the irrational one. Despite the fact there is no other logical, testable explanation for how the sequence of fossils in the record could be the way it is other than through earlier ones giving rise to later ones through common ancestry--despite gaps in the fossil record that may be currently unexplained--the creationist impulse is to prefer a supernatural explanation for those gaps. Is that logical? Is it reasonable? Is the belief even testable? Do the creationists even have an explanation resulting from their belief that could conceivably be tested? No.

Now Johnson likes to throw up a red flag at this point and contend that just because one doesn't have a better explanation doesn't mean we shouldn't accept a bad one (he thinks evolution is a "bad" explanation), and we ought to recognize the possibility there could be other ones and seriously search them out--but this is just a lawyer's trick. Why? Because--again--he doesn't have ANY explanation at all--other than supernatural ones, which he won't even divulge in the first place. (Indeed, when biologist Kenneth Miller challenged him to do so in their online debate sponsored by PBS's Nova program, Johnson could not do so, and merely evasively skated away from the question.) Because evolution is the only physical explanation--given the evidence that we have--that makes any sense of it. It's not the "rules of science," as Johnson maintains, that rule out any other explanation than evolution. It's the evidence that does! And Johnson doesn't like that evidence, so he decides he doesn't like the "rules of science" and blames them for eliminating his option of invoking supernatural cause where none is needed to explain what we see.

The situation we have with evolution is not that the explanations are not good ones or are not supported by the evidence, but instead that no matter how fine-grained the explanation gets (in terms of the steps from one connecting point in the explanation to the next logical step), the creationists prefer to keep their eyes focused on the ever-finer interstices between the "grains" in the explanation, so they can invoke their "God of the gaps," as it is called. Since the gaps keep getting smaller and smaller, this of course makes a mockery of not only their idea of God as omni-potent "cause," but also of their refusal to be reasonable. At some point you either assent to the logic of the explanation or paint yourself as someone who is in principle predisposed to reject reasonable explanations in preference to your a-priori beliefs in supernaturalism.

Fruitarian XYZ for instance, even makes the facetious claim at one point that "they don't know how" the fossil evidence can be accounted for--in a supposed show of open-mindedness (but that they do somehow "know" Darwinism can't). But what that really is, is pure denial of the evidence in favor of what is nothing more than an untestable hope, a last-straw bet.

This first and final divide between evolutionists and anti-evolutionists is really the root of the whole conflict, and if one doesn't "get" this difference, then no additional explanation will be likely to make any further difference to someone predisposed to deny physical explanations for physical evidence in favor of ones that by their very nature are forced to be supernatural ones, since they deny the logical physical explanations. This can be observed in the fact that one can go through the evidence like we have above, and yet creationists still won't assent to an evolutionary explanation no matter how convincing it may be. For creationists, no amount of evidence will ever--can ever--banish their belief that some supernatural force or entity is the real direct cause of changing forms in the fossil record instead--exactly BECAUSE supernatural causes require NO evidence for belief. (In fact, the less the better.) You can believe whatever you want.

This is at root the difference between scientists and creationists: the former require evidence to convince them of a theory--the latter do not feel constrained by it. And when you are unconstrained by evidence or reasonableness, or can conveniently explain it away by suggesting any number of untestable assertions (hey--Elvis could still be alive and flying around in a helicopter on the dark side of the third planet from Alpha Centauri--and you can't tell me for sure he ISN'T! :-) ) you can argue for anything you want, no matter what.

Notice with this strategy that the creationists' program of debate is driven by a negative reaction against evolution rather than defined positively by a physical research program of their own--which you have to have if you are going to be scientific. They have no positive program of their own other than untestable supernatural suggestions. Yet where scientists are busy attempting to formulate and test theories to explain areas of unknown, the creationists do just the opposite: they do everything in their power to convince the listener they can't be explained, despite the ever-increasing number of things that evolution does explain.

The creationists, however, then try to turn the question of evidence around to avoid the uncomfortable spotlight it casts on them, and say that evolutionists are so prejudiced by having jumped on Darwin's bandwagon early on, that no amount of evidence can ever convince them to believe contrary to their theory. But there is in fact one scenario (the only conceivable scenario) that certainly could or would: If the fossil evidence had shown that as far back in time as you care to go, the existence of animal and plant life matched just the kind we have today with no changes in form over the eons--from the earliest beginnings of life on earth until now--that would convince people; that would be the evidence needed. And of course that's not what the evidence shows at all.

That being the case, Johnson in the end can only continue banging his gavel at evolutionary biologists to give equal time to his impossible program. Which is that they should industriously try to investigate something else besides the only logical explanation for the evidence (evolution through common ancestry), which he never bothers to define or make any suggestions about. Because of course, if he did, he would be put in the scientifically and academically untenable position of having to suggest that some supernatural force could have arbitrarily engineered the change we see over time in the fossil record. Now just how seriously does he expect scientists to take this proposal? There is no way to do what he is asking. Find an explanation for a supernatural cause that can be confirmed physically and empirically? It's a contradiction in terms. He is such a sophist on this he even has himself faked out thinking it is possible. (This seems to be what happens when we start leaving explanations to lawyers unconstrained by evidence or academic integrity.)

SECTION 8: Does all of this make religion and God obsolete?

In Darwin on Trial, Johnson engages in the sophistry (slick but fallacious reasoning) of trying to convince us that something that is really an a-priori FAITH (in something behind the physical realm that we can't examine with scientific techniques) is an EXPLANATION for the changes seen in the fossil record. But faith is the very epitome of the lack of an explanation. Which is not to say that there may not be some kind of meaningful, "existential" sense in taking a view of the universe as exhibiting a kind of metaphysical unity that calls forth an emotional response, or sense of communion or oneness with the universe, that we human beings call "God," "the ground of being," etc.

But for Johnson to call the only physical explanation that meets the test of the physical evidence "philosophical materialism" is a gross mischaracterization. Or--it may be fair enough to say evolution is a material explanation, but for Johnson to then want to complain that his supernatural faith cannot be allowed as science (because it is in principle scientifically untestable) is to want to have it both ways. If you want a testable (verifiable) explanation that can actually be researched and examined at all, it is going to have to be one that has some mechanisms that can be examined in the physical world where we can see the consequences so that it is available for testing in the first place.

But--for the sake of discussion--let's go ahead and take Johnson up on his proposal here for just a moment anyway. Suppose we imagine a universe that operates in just the way the creationists imagine: that God is behind the engineering of every single event and mechanism that happens. Even if that's true, even if God is somehow behind every single minute step in the mechanisms behind every single thing that happens in the entire universe, does that mean the material mechanisms aren't explainable? Given all that science has discovered so far, it certainly doesn't seem to mean that the material mechanisms don't exist anyway (God or not) and that we can't explain them, or that they have any less predictive power than we know they do from utilizing them all the time in science.

Even if we imagine this kind of universe, the mechanisms still remain the routes through which everything we can see in this world actually occurs. That is, God may be the source, but without the mechanisms, God's "intent" would have no way to express itself in the visible ("material") world.

And why should it make any difference to creationists, anyway, if the only way that things can ultimately reach their visible manifestation in the physical world is through such mechanisms? So what? Does that take anything away from God's power or omnipotence if he/she/it is seen as being behind those mechanisms in some way? On the contrary, it would just show how all-present such a God is. But the fact that God may be behind the mechanisms is still faith. The explanations or mechanisms themselves that we can be scientific about are still in the material world where we can see them, and test them.

The idea (even if we were to grant the fact) of God--or any supernatural element--behind it all still remains an act of faith in such existence, because it is not something that can be substantiated by anything we can truly call an explanation (something verifiable by testing or examination of evidence). So again, even if God IS behind it all does not invalidate the physical explanations that the evidence leads us to regardless. It just means we can't "get at" God it/him/herself through physical explanations. No matter what, it doesn't invalidate the material mechanisms and the physical laws governing them or the theories explaining them. What it says is that even if we assume there must be some "existential" (spiritual, metaphysical, religious, whatever) reason that the mechanisms exist at all, for instance, it will ultimately still remain a metaphysical interpretation or view, and not something we can ever know by science. And in and through all this, material explanations continue to remain valid as the delineation of exactly how the physical mechanisms themselves work.

The question that I think is interesting in all of this is Johnson seems to overlook that what "materialism" is--as he defines it, that is--is completely a relative thing. He already accepts materialistic explanations for almost everything else that scientists do (physics, chemistry, electromagnetism, and most of biology and medicine except for evolution). For what arbitrary reason does he decide to draw the line at macroevolutionary processes? If he is willing to accept physical explanations for all these other things, why does that make macroevolution materialistic if it is similarly explainable through physical (microevolutionary) processes?

Does he seriously believe that just because something is sufficiently explained by physical causes it makes it a form of "philosophical materialism" to believe so? Are the physical explanations behind why a telephone works the way it does, or for how babies are produced through physical sex derided by creationists and labeled as "philosophical materialism" just because material mechanisms are accepted and no one sees a need to posit supernatural forces or beings as causative in their operation? Are the explanations we have arrived at behind hydraulics that have enabled us to set up waterworks and plumbing so that we can have running water in our houses--are those explanations hopelessly tainted by "philosophical materialism" too?

And what would happen if macroevolution becomes completely and fully explainable in the next decade or two by obvious mechanisms (as it looks as if it is on its way to being explained, based on what we have already seen here)? Where will Phillip Johnson be then? Will he then say, "Okay, I give up, and now commit myself to being a philosophical materialist because macroevolution has now been explained"? Of course he won't do that; he will just push the supernatural "event horizon" another step back and say that behind the mechanisms that now explain macroevolution are still more mysterious forces. In fact, the whole of the history of the brouhaha between religion and science has been driven by this process of pushing God back further behind the material phenomena that science keeps progressively explaining. To be fair, of course, not all theists resort to this kind of infinite regress, and instead do genuinely rethink their ideas of God at a higher level.

And basically, this is how many people who are scientific can still remain religious, or how those who are religiously inclined can still accept the evolutionary evidence. Johnson himself says on p. 14 of Darwin on Trial: "I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead." One can't help but ask: What, then, is your problem with evolution, Phillip!? He has just said he can conceive of a God who might possibly work through such processes. And he admits throughout the book that he is willing to accept microevolutionary processes (random mutation and natural selection pressures) are valid for microevolutionary events. The main thing he is balking at philosophically is any potential physical explanations for macroevolutionary events.

Yet there are numerous other theists and Christians who have long since made peace with the fact of evolution, and don't see any necessary conflict between its explanations for physical life on earth with an ultimately religious view of the origin of the universe that puts God on another, transcendent level of creation. If they have been able to refine or reframe their idea of God differently in response, so as to be more in tune with what is actually known about the universe (which one would think they ought to welcome the opportunity to do)--why does Johnson have such a big problem with macroevolution?

Ultimately I think it probably comes down to the problem most fundamentalist-creationists have: They simply don't like the idea humans could have come from the same ancestor that also gave rise to our cousins the chimp or the gorilla. They see chimps dressed up in clothes as caricatured humans at circuses or on television and experience visceral distaste because it goes against their idea of man as made in their image of God. Well, they may just have to change or refine their idea of what God is all about, is what I would say.

Now of course, frankly, I have to wonder if Fruitarian XYZ is the type of person who truly believes in creationism, or is just using its arguments as a front for their dislike of evolution for showing that their idea that pure fruitarianism and vegetarianism constitute the "original" diet for humans is just plain wrong. (Again, this is not to say that there might not be other reasons for a vegetarian diet, but that it is humanity's original, "natural" diet is emphatically not supported by the evolutionary evidence.) For example, in the introduction to their post, Fruitarian XYZ says, "Both the theory of evolution and creationism are forms of pseudo-science"--yet they have to side with the creationists anyway to make their points. Whatever the case, the deception and dishonesty in this line of thinking are plain to see.

And that brings us to perhaps the most telling philosophical difference between evolutionists and creationists or their supporters such as Fruitarian XYZ, which doesn't really have anything to do with any of the specific arguments that we've seen above that Johnson and XYZ have tried to focus attention on. It is instead the issue of making one's arguments under false pretenses. And for that, I'll conclude this section with this quote from "Plagiarized Errors and Molecular Genetics: A Response to David Plaisted," by Edward Max, from the Talk.Origins site (about halfway down the page):

No one should be forced to value the scientific method over religious faith. However,...those who hold a view of creation based on religious faith should not try to pretend that their belief is based on unbiased scientific judgment. ...When creationists invoke the unfathomable workings of God as an alternative explanation for any evidence that contradicts their position, they may satisfy themselves that they can cling to their beliefs without facing a stark challenge to their faith; but when they do so, I believe they relinquish the right to be taken seriously as participants in unbiased scientific discourse.

Additional Web Links on Evolution vs. Creationism

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