June 6, 2013

The Medved Heresy

Hatched by Dafydd

Last post of mine, I promised an essay on heresy; now I -- unlike Barack "Skeets" Obama -- am pathologically honest; so here she blows.

(Yes, I know the title sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel.)

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that Michael Medved and his posse, minions, and groupies have linked hearts and hands with the Discovery Institute [DI]... a pseudoscientific organization whose one and only function is to "prove" that evolution is hooey, and that all species currently extant were specially created by God.

Medved seems convinced that the DI is a "scientific" body; at least, he keeps saying so. And the connection between the talk-show host and the snow-job hoax is no secret; Medved himself announces it proudly on his radio show with great fanfare and frequent repetition.

Needless to say, Medved is yet another former radical liberal Progressivist who was converted to the opposing team by the election of Ronald Reagan. As Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco said (in an interview in World Press Review, don't recollect the number), "A fanatic can never be convinced but only converted."

Now the DI's mainstay is one Michael Behe, a biochemist and Creationist, though he prefers the term "Intelligent Design." I don't mind; for similar reasons, liberals prefer to be called Progressivists: The euphemism always sounds more scientific and intelligent, if somewhat vague and ill-defined. (As C.S. Lewis might ask, "Progressing towards what?" As I might ask, "Designed by whom?")

Behe pins his entire belief system upon one solitary argument: That he can find occasional "irreducible" complexity in biological systems. That is, Behe hunts through the scientific literature until he finds one tiny element of evolutionary biology that is not yet explained by theory. Then he announces that that element is irreducible; that is, he issues a pronunciamento that since it cannot be explained today, it will never, ever be explained. It's inexplicable!

In that miniscule module that is unexplainable (by Behe), that is where Behe concludes we will find the Intelligent Designer, i.e., God. The thesis is simple:

  1. Michael Behe cannot fathom how some aspect of evolution could have occurred.
  2. Thus, nobody can fathom it.
  3. Thus it's impossible within the scientific framework.
  4. Therefore, God must have stuck in His thumb and pulled out a miracle... there no other possible explanation.

Then a few months pass, and lo! That very eensy element is thoroughly explicated in some peer-reviewed biology journal. Its complexity is no longer irreducible, since it has just been reduced to a collection of simpler functions and proceeses, and its evolutionary track is described in detail.

At that point, Behe drops his previous counter-argument; and it's off to the races again, discovering yet another, even tinier element that he can claim is irreducible.

By definition, science is always tentative; that is, a scientist should never say, "This is reality," but rather, "This fits the current facts but is subject to change as new data arrives." In every scientific theory, no matter how well founded, there are always tiny areas that cannot be explained today. If that weren't true, it would mean we literally know everything. Therefore, there will always be some aspect of evolutionary theory that Behe can point to and scream, "Irreducible!" It's like unto the fact that in between any two rational numbers -- say, 1.50 and 1.75 -- there is always an infinity of other rational numbers.

But from a theological point of view, this line of argument is fraught with peril. Every time Behe thinks he has found a miniscule irreducible complexity, he has to push the totality of God into that microscopic pinhole. Then when the march of science fills even that in, God is pushed into an even teensier crack.

You see the problem, of course: With each such cycle, God Himself is diminished. Eventually, God becomes so Lilliputian that He vanishes entirely. Therefore, and somewhat perversely, the very act of trying to disprove evolutionary biology itself drives observers to atheism!

But there is an even stronger theological objection to Creationism in general, Beheian, Medvedian, or Steinian: Its central tenet -- that evolution cannot have occurred -- is itself utter heresy. (In fact, it's Gnosticism, as far as I'm concerned.)

How do I mean? The brutal truth is that nobody with even a high-school level of scientific understanding seriously questions the science behind contemporary evolutionary biology. Even Michael Behe accepts the basic premise, that organisms change due to mutations and variations, acted upon by survival of progeny. (He spends all his time trying to find a tiny corner where biologists cannot yet explain the evolutionary changes, so he can point out God, hiding in a microscopic dot somewhere.)

As science, evolutionary biology is settled; so the only potentially valid argument against it is theological, not scientific; indeed, all such arguments reduce to the same Ur-argument: Evolution by variation and natural selection mustn't be true, because it would be so dreadful were it true!

But why would it be dreadful if the creation of our physical bodies could be well explained by non-supernatural processes that are still occurring on the Earth today? Because somebody has convinced the Creationists that either they could believe in evolution, or they could believe in God -- but not both, because they are completely contradictory.

And who told them that whopper? Shocking but true: the atheists themselves!

It's true that many scientists and science popularizers are atheists, and they are very comfortable believing that evolution and God are mortal enemies. These political scientists write books making that very claim, like Richard Dawkins, the God Delusion, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Hawking, and Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great.

And the Creationist fools swallow it whole, hook, line, and sinker. The atheists reel them in, knowing that they've landed their ideological opponents on an impossible no-man's land between Scylla and Charybdis, where the Ichthus-fish must either renounce evolutionary theory -- and by consistency, virtually all of Western science -- or must renounce God, and join with the atheists. Not a very satisfying set of options.

(There are also many scientists who see no conflict between Judaism or Christianity on the one hand and the scientific method on the other; for example, Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, makes a persuasive argument in the Language of God.)

But the dichotomy is entirely in the minds of the Creationists. There is no theological inconsistency between a theistic God and evolutionary theory: A God who is truly omniscient and omnipotent certainly could have, had He so chosen, created a universe that included the physical laws of our own universe, as currently understood by the scientific community. Then, following the Big Bang, the universe would unfold in such a way as to result in galaxies, stars, planets, life, and ultimately, an intelligent being with a moral sense.

No traditional theologian would dispute this as a possibility; if God is "big enough" to create any universe, it seems plausible that He can create the particular universe He wants. To argue otherwise is to say that it's beyond God's reach to initiate a universe in which evolution occurs, without God having to intervene directly every tiny fraction of a nanosecond to keep totality on track. (Another way to put it: Was God too stupid to envision the proper plans in the first place? Does He have to make never-ending course corrections, like a shakey student pilot on his first flight?)

Is that what Michael Medved and Ben Stein believe? That God simply hasn't the brains or the welly to have set up the universe correctly the first time? Because that would indeed be heresy, as I understand it!

At most, Creationists have only one logical point: Maybe God could have created a universe that would, through the workings of the laws of physics, eventually produce beings with a moral code and a conscience; but that doesn't prove that He chose to do so.

Fine, I'll grant that; but thern we must resort to the physical evidence, to see which path He chose; and Michael Behe to the contrary notwithstanding, all the scientific evidence points towards evolution of species, and of new species growing out of the old.

It's both inexplicable and disappointing that so many religious people take the word of their bitterest atheist opponents as gospel!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, June 6, 2013, at the time of 3:10 AM


The following hissed in response by: mdgiles

I find it the height of arrogance to believe that an omnipotent, omniscient, immortal being works on our time spans, as if a "day" has the same meaning to GOD as it does to us.

The above hissed in response by: mdgiles [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 6, 2013 7:18 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bob Wilson

A couple of questions for you.

1. What does the theory of evolution say about the origin of life? I mean how did it first appear not how species developed.

2. Could you give a specific example about some " eensy element is thoroughly explicated in some peer-reviewed biology journal." What is the eensy element and a reference to the peer reviewed paper?

The above hissed in response by: Bob Wilson [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2013 9:02 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Bob Wilson:

1. Evolutionary theory says nothing much about the origin of life itself; it assumes a biological entity and offers an explanation why such entities appear to change and complexify over time.

There is a related discipline, however, that some are calling abiogensis -- a term which appears from inspection to mean "creation of life from non-life" -- or biopoiesis (I won't even take a stab at the origin of that word!) You can find a wealth of information and source materials from the abiogenesis Wikipedia page.

I read one of the "Further reading" books, Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins, by Robert M. Hazen (2005), and I found it readable and understandable, so long as one is willing to read slowly and often (in my case) read the same paragraph several times until the reader comprehends it.

As you can guess from the dates of the books, abiogenesis is a nascent discipline of science, in contrast to, e.g., evolutionary theory, whose origins go back at least fifty years before Darwin sailed on the HMS Beagle.

2. An instance that must have been particularly humiliating to Michael Behe was his pronunciamento that the flagella -- the means by which microbes can engage in purposeful locomotion -- was "irreducibly complex," thus could not have evolved naturally and had to be specially created... by God, one presumes (who else?)

Shortly after he made that claim, several scientific teams investigating that very subject found several precursors to the flagella in more primitive microbes.

I haven't read the book Molecular Phylogeny of Microorganisms, edited by Aharon Oren and R. Thane Papke (2010); but it appears to have a chapter, beginning on page 123, that discusses the science of that evolutionary leap.

Michael Medved's favorite whipping boy, the evolution of the eye, was amusingly explicated in great detail by none other than Charles Darwin himself, if memory serves me right; more recently, Richard Dawkins devotes almost 60 pages to the subject in his book, Climbing Mount Improbable (1997).

But the main point of my post is that Creationists argue paralogia when they press the case that evolutionary theory cannot coexist with the concept of a theistic God; of course it can. And that argument, beyond preposterous, is really the only reason so many otherwise intelligent people (Medved, Stein) deny evolution: Because they have allowed atheists to set a trap for fools, tricking them into believing that if they once accept evolution, they must renounce God!



The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 7, 2013 11:31 PM

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