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May 13, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-9: The resurgence of natural selection and the resurgence of religion

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

I am going to conclude this series by arguing that it was more-or-less a coincidence that led to the deep-seated animosity towards evolutionary theory in America.

The early 20th century was the time when religious people in America became alarmed that they had perhaps gone too far in separating church and state in the public schools and decided to try and reverse the trend, and this movement coincided in time with the rise in acceptance of natural selection as the mechanism evolution. This theory, with its explicit rejection of a special divine plan for the human race, became seen as a potent symbol of an anti-religious way of thinking that had to be combated. Hence it was natural to use opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution as a vanguard action that would lead to the restoration of religious instruction in schools.

It is plausible that this was a significant reason for the seemingly belated rise of religious opposition to the theory of evolution that culminated in the Tennessee legislation of 1925 seeking to ban the teaching of evolution and which led to the famous Scopes trial. And ever since then, these the two issues have become inextricably linked in everybody's mind.

I suspect that if the attempts to restore religion in American schools had coincided with the rise of another materialistic theory that seemed to dethrone god (say Newtonian physics that introduced the idea of a mechanical universe), then religious people in America might have directed the same level of hostility to that theory that they now direct towards evolution. We might have seen battles to remove 'godless Newtonianism' from the school curriculum.

But because natural selection was the materialistic scientific theory that was gaining ground in the 1920s, religious people have invested a lot of emotional energy in fighting the theory of evolution and have even constructed an entire revisionist historical narrative to justify their opposition. This view is supported by the so-called 'Wedge Strategy', in the document put out by the Discovery Institute for getting religion (in the form of so-called 'intelligent design') back in the schools.

In a nutshell, the religious argument against Darwin put out by the intelligent design people is as follows:

1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God's image.
2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
5. If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

So the fight against Darwin is seen as the fight to restore morality.

When I ask supporters of intelligent design creationism why they focus their opposition on Darwin alone, the answer they give invokes the morality skyhook. Moral values are believed to come from god. If god has no role in the creation and lives of humans, then there is no reason to be moral. These religious people look around and see a country that they think has lost its moral compass and they blame the godless theory of evolution.

It becomes clear that the reason is that the word "morality" as used almost exclusively in relation to popular culture. Those who see us as currently living in a moral swamp use sex and nudity and profanity as the yardsticks for measurement. The do not see the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws and other forms of oppression and discrimination, improved protections for children, better working hours and safety measures, greater rights of women and gays, as signs that society is far more moral now than it has ever been.

But even taking their narrow view of morality, it is not clear that America is any less moral now than it was, say, fifty or more years ago. On the one hand, there is clearly a lot of public discussion now of sex-related issues and more nudity and sex in films and on television. But all that this might indicate is that things that were done and spoken in private in the past are now more in the open. In other words, we don't have more sex. We simply have less secrecy and hypocrisy.

The curious ambivalence in the US towards sexuality can be seen in many ways. I don't need to give the full list of all the politicians and religious figures who condemn sex and profanity while indulging in private in the very same things. One can see it in the way Fox News operates. It rails against sexuality while wallowing in gratuitous displays of it. Austin Cline has a good analysis of this phenomenon.

But even people who do not subscribe to this narrow view of morality worry that we need a god if people are to be persuaded to be moral. Some people think that if there were no god, there would be no reason for people to not commit murder, rape, and other heinous crimes. Sometimes I think that what religious people really want is not the god they say they pray to, but some kind of cosmic policeman and judge. It is not unlike the image of god that goes back to the ancient days of the Greek gods.

It seems like for some people there is a deep-seated psychological need for people to believe in a deus ex machina that is looking out for them.

POST SCRIPT: Avoiding the need to learn how to parallel park

In developing countries where cars are too valuable to junk, you find incredibly talented auto mechanics who can work seeming miracles. In addition to repairing cars, they can also make modifications that would never be considered here.

glumbert - How To Get Out Of A Tight Parking Spot

May 12, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-8: Alternatives to natural selection

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In the half century after Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, the idea of evolution gained considerable ground but the theory of natural selection was just one of several mechanisms that drove the process, and hence the anti-religious implications of the theory were somewhat muted.

Some of these alternative theories were modified forms of Lamarckism, the idea that characteristics that an organism acquired during its lifetime that enabled it to survive better were somehow transmitted to the entities in the body that carried inherited traits to their progeny, so that children inherited that acquired trait. These changes could either come about because of animals needing or desiring a change (the famous Lamarckian example of giraffes getting longer and longer necks as a result of having to strain to reach high leaves) or the 'use-disuse' theory, that body features that people used a lot would grow and become more common while those that they did not need or use would atrophy and disappear (the example here being the building of certain muscles in the body or the disappearance of fish-like features once they became land animals).

The difference between use-disuse theory and natural selection is subtle but important. In use-disuse theory, if an organism does not use some property, that property gets diminished in its offspring. So a parent who does not exercise is more likely to have children who are not athletic, because the parent did not exercise. In natural selection, on the other hand, it is the variations in genes that result in variations in the properties of organisms and those organisms that have features that provide a selection advantage are more likely to survive to adulthood and to parent offspring. Hence those genes tend to increase in the population. So whether a child has good eyesight or not depends (at least to some extent) on the parents' genes and not on the parents' lifestyle, except insofar as the parents' lifestyle influences the child's lifestyle.

Another alternative to natural selection was the theory of orthogenesis, that suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. This made it possible to think that the laws of evolution contained within them forces that guaranteed the eventual emergence of the human species.

The alternative theories such as use-disuse and orthogenesis had the reassuring feature that there was some sort of deliberate and directed progression in evolution, enabling their believers to still think of human beings as special and as the pre-ordained end point of the process. The idea that human beings were special in the eyes of god could thus be retained, giving religious believers the comfort that their lives had the external meaning that they sought.

The theory of evolution by natural selection offered no such assurances. But in the second half of the 19th century, even after the publication of Darwin's famous book On the Origin of Species in 1859, this disturbing idea was in the background. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, the theory of natural selection (though not evolution as a whole) seemed to be in full retreat.

The year 1900 saw the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's 1865 work on genetics. We now realize that this discovery removed one of the major objections to the acceptance of the theory of natural selection, which was the idea that children were thought to have the average properties of their two parents, so that even if one organism developed a favorable feature, that feature would become diluted in the next generation because that organism would most likely mate with another organism that did not have the favorable feature. There did not seem to be a good way for a positive feature to steadily increase from generation to generation in small incremental steps, the way that natural selection postulated. Mendel's theory allowed changes to remain in the population without getting diluted by mating.

But the implications of Mendel's work were initially misunderstood and theory was thought to work against Darwinian natural selection, further hastening its decline in importance. As a result of all these factors, the idea of natural selection as the fundamental mechanism for the evolutionary process went into an even greater period of decline that continued into the early years of the 20th century, even as the fact of evolution was increasingly accepted. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983)

But beginning around 1910, the emergence of the new field of population genetics that correctly coupled Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics, created what is now called the neo-Darwinian synthesis. The mathematical analyses of scientists such as J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and R. A. Fisher put natural selection on a solid theoretical footing and led to the resurgence of that idea as the prime mechanism for evolution. By around 1920, the reversal was complete. Darwin's theory of natural selection was ascendant and has remained so ever since, growing even stronger with time. (William B. Provine, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, 2001).

But one consequence of this dominance was that the idea that human beings were somehow designed by god, and that the process of evolution was somehow guided to eventually produce them, was seen as incompatible with science. The idea that humans had a special purpose was no longer seen as credible.

Meanwhile, we saw that up through the end of the 19th century, there had been a consensus that it was good to keep religion and the state separate, and the use of religious teaching and prayers and the Bible in public schools had been steadily declining. But around the turn of the century, there were increased rumblings that perhaps this had been carried too far and efforts were made to restore the balance. And the start of the 20th century saw the beginnings of a push to bring back the Bible and religion into public schools.

This renewed interest in putting religion back in schools happened to coincide with the resurgence of natural selection and is, I believe, the reason that the US has had this seemingly unique obsession with, and hostility towards, the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Next: The resurgence of natural selection and the resurgence of religion.

POST SCRIPT: Faulkner

Some time ago, I expressed my sense of frustration with the literary output of writers like James Joyce and William Faulkner for seemingly going out of their way to make their works difficult. The comic strip Pearls Before Swine seems to take a similarly dim view.

May 11, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-7: Early American reactions to evolution

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The original question that started this series was why there is such deep-seated and long-standing hostility to Darwin's theory of evolution, especially in America. It is one that I am often asked and is not a question that can be answered briefly.

As I have suggested, part of the reason could be that the fact that even the human mind and consciousness may not be anything special but are the products of the working of the mindless natural selection algorithm and following the same natural laws is disturbing to some. Evolution, properly understood, rules out any non-material cause for the properties of living things, and this can be disturbing to religious and non-religious people alike who want to cling on to the romantic idea that humans are somehow special or that there is something transcendent that cannot be explained in terms of natural laws.

But what really begs for an explanation is why the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction from the religious community to Darwin's theory. After all, other theories of science such as the Copernican heliocentric model of the Solar system and the Big Bang theory of the universe also directly contradict the Bible and yet there is not the same level of antipathy towards them. Furthermore, all of science, not just the theory of evolution, has a materialist basis and demands methodological naturalism, so if one is opposed to evolution because one rejects those preconditions, then why not oppose all of science as well? Why is it that it is the theory of evolution that gets religious people's goat?

The answer has both general philosophical features that transcend nations and religions and cultures, and specific historical, political, and legal features that apply just to the US.

One general reason is that Darwin's theory deals with life and people think that life is especially close to god. Thus any theory like Darwin's theory of natural selection that makes god redundant in life's creation hits closer to home than one that makes god redundant in (say) the creation of stars and galaxies. Religious people seem to find it easier to think of the non-living world as obeying natural laws than to think of living things doing the same.

Another reason is that the other laws of science that suggested that we live in a law-driven mechanical universe in which we are not central arose much earlier, with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, and religious people and institutions have had time to overcome their initial abhorrence and come to terms with it. Maybe with the passage of another hundred years or so, people will similarly accept Darwin's theory.

Those religious reasons for opposition of the theory are general and apply across the globe. But there is no doubt that the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction to the theory of evolution and this has puzzled many people. It is tempting to put this down to features that are peculiar to the US, that it has perhaps a greater number of vocal religious fundamentalists or that people here think that the US is somehow closer to god than other nations and thus special in his sight, and thus the implications of the theory of evolution are more disturbing.

As I argue in my forthcoming book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, I don't think there is anything particularly different in the American psyche that is the cause. I think that the reason for the excess hostility is due to a confluence of historical factors. The most important one is the recognition by the founders of the US constitution of the dangers of too much religious influence in the affairs of the state. They had seen only too well in the countries of Europe that they had left behind the religious persecutions that can arise when any one religion gains dominance in government. This led them to incorporate the Establishment Clause in the US constitution and to encourage the creation of a "wall of separation" (in Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase) between church and state.

Even though the early American colonists were religious and shared a largely unified Protestant doctrine, there were other groups (Jew, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists) who belonged to religious traditions that differed significantly, and the need to prevent dominance by any one led even religious people to see the benefits of keeping religion out of public affairs, especially the schools. The steady elimination of religious practices (such as Bible readings and prayer) in public schools had started in America long before Darwin's theory had gained notoriety.

Furthermore, is important to realize that the idea of evolution itself, that species can change, was not a fundamental threat to the idea of god. They could live in harmony by introducing various auxiliary hypotheses, such as the idea that god was guiding the process of evolution with the goal of eventually producing humans and all the other species. It was the mechanism of natural selection, with its crane-like unguided nature, that completely ruled out any skyhook-like role for god. This important element of Darwin's theory is the one that is particularly upsetting to religious believers and was not easily accepted even by the scientific community of his time.

But in the early days of Darwin's theory, the deeply anti-religious implications of natural selection were not fully appreciated. Many scientists (in addition to lay people) did not accept this lack of direction or purpose and proposed alternative mechanisms for evolution that retained them. Even Darwin initially thought that other mechanisms were also at play in evolution and as a result, although evolutionary ideas were gaining greater acceptance, natural selection did not rise to dominance along with them.

Next: Alternative mechanisms for evolution

POST SCRIPT: Did you remember to pray last Thursday?

Stephen Colbert is outraged at Obama for not publicly and ostentatiously celebrating the National Day of Prayer, so he puts on a much grander show.

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May 08, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-6: Why some atheist scientists support the morality skyhook

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

One can understand why the Pope and religious scientists want to promote the unsustainable idea that the world of morality and ethics lies in a separate domain outside the reach of scientific investigation and accessible only by religion. But what is puzzling is why so many nonbelievers, including scientists, also seem willing to give credence to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics

Stephen Jay Gould, who was not religious, was a strong advocate of this notion of separate domains for the physical and moral worlds and even gave this ridiculous idea the pompous title of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) and wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages (1999) to promote it.

Biologist Lewis Wolpert in his book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief (2006) says quite emphatically at the beginning (twice on the same page) that he is a reductionist materialist atheist (p. x). And yet, towards the very end of the book, after saying (rightly) that however much science advances there will always be unanswered questions and that we "must have the intellectual courage to live with such unanswered questions rather than invent answers that have no basis other than in mystical experience", he proceeds in the very next sentence to make the extraordinary assertion that "we must also accept that science can tell us nothing about ethics or morality." (p. 215, my italics).

Even the august National Academy of Sciences weighs in with support for this dubious proposition. In a 2008 publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism in response to the question "Does science disprove religion?" it says:

Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings. (my italics)

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator…. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith. (p. 54)

The NAS is flat-out wrong. The study of science does (or at least should) lessen and compromise faith because the two are fundamentally incompatible. What exactly are the 'entities or ideas' that are presumed to be outside the domain of science? One can only assume that the phrase was thrown in as a sop to soothe the delicate feelings of religious people, who desperately want to find a role for skyhooks.

The reason for this effort comes down again to the goals and ends political issue. Those scientists who seek to advance some secular goal for which they think they need the support of religious people need to find something to offer them in return, since there seems to be the feeling that the public will turn away from science and may oppose the teaching of evolution (or, even worse, stop funding science) if they feel that it is basically an atheistic enterprise.

So scientists may have seized upon the morals/ethics realm as the crumb to give religion, since that area is currently the farthest away from direct scientific investigation. This also allows them to keep in the fold those scientists who are still religious. In a way, the moral issue plays the role of Miss Congeniality in beauty contests, the consolation prize that is meant to pacify religious people and make them allies, by making them think that religion is not totally useless. Since scientists want to keep religion out of their research areas, they may think that giving them the vaguely defined moral sphere to ponder will keep them occupied.

I think this is short-sighted. Far from having nothing to say about morality and ethics and altruism, this is a very interesting area of research. The pioneering work on kinship altruism by W. D Hamilton and reciprocal altruism by Robert Trivers laid the foundations for understanding why natural selection can result in people evolving to have cooperative instincts even though a simplistic understanding of natural selection might suggest that we should always be looking out for ourselves.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57), and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27,1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a readable summary of the research on how evolution explains the origins or altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

In fact, what is becoming increasingly clear is that far from being born as blank slates on which god imprints moral laws on our minds, much of what we call human nature has evolutionary origins. It would not be wrong to suggest that understanding the biological basis of human nature, how evolution has shaped the things we believe and value, will be one of the frontier areas of research, bringing psychology within the ambit of biology.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on bogus issues

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May 06, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-5: Darwin and morality

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

The final skyhook that is invoked is the one of morality. It is argued by some religious apologists that we cannot explain the universality of some ideas of right or wrong or the existence of altruism, without invoking something transcendent, some cosmic conscience. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health and author of the book The Language of God, elevates this idea to something he calls the Law of Human Nature and is a strong exponent of this skyhook. To do so, he has to make the self-serving and unsubstantiated assumption that human nature is not only unexplained, it is fundamentally mysterious and inexplicable, thus requiring a skyhook and thereby foreshadowing his conclusion.

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse suspicions?" (p. 45, 46)
. . .
In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. (p. 189-190)

I have discussed earlier the flaw in Lewis's (and Collins's) reasoning.

Collins claims that everyone around the world seems to have the same intuitive sense of what is right and wrong (what Immanuel Kant called the Moral Law) and that they all seem to yearn to believe in god and that this is evidence that these things must have come externally from god. He arrives at this conclusion by simply dismissing the possibility (as he did for the origin of the universe) that our sense of right or wrong or the ubiquitous belief in god may have perfectly natural causes, despite much research (which I will explore in future posts) that point to just such a possibility.

Note carefully his argument. He says that god is "outside the universe" and therefore we should not expect to find evidence for him "as one of the facts inside the universe." Collins says that the evidence for god must be what we find "inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." Since we have such a thing in the Moral Law and also our yearning for god, we have the necessary evidence for god.

The logical flaw in this argument is obvious. If some thing is inside us, and we are inside the universe, then the basic logic rule of syllogism implies that this thing must also be inside the universe. So how can Collins claim that this thing that is inside us is outside the universe? The only way to do that is to invoke magical Cartesian dualism and assume that our mind (and consciousness) is also outside the universe, although it can somehow communicate with us enough to make our bodies do things.

In invoking the existence of a moral sense as a sign of god's existence, people like Collins are merely reintroducing in a different guise the idea that the mind is more than the working of the brain. The means for doing this is to promote the curious and logically contradictory idea that we can split the world into two non-overlapping parts, where science deals with the physical sphere while religion deals with the moral and ethical sphere.

Collins, being an evangelical Christian scientist, of course supports this:

In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.

Pope Benedict XVI chimes in with his support for it in a Reuters report on Monday, January 28, 2008:

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by "research into anthropology, philosophy and theology" to give insight into "man's own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going", the Pope said.

The Pope's statement that "no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going" is one of those sweeping statements favored by religious people that have no empirical content whatsoever, with each of the three components in it being purely metaphysical. After all, if interpreted empirically, science has no difficulty at all in saying who man is (he is a biological system), where he comes from (he has evolved from other organisms in a fairly well-understood pathway), and where he is going (he will continue to evolve though we cannot predict what the changes will be since natural selection has an element of contingency).

While this appeal to the existence of morality and altruism as indicators of the need for skyhooks strikes me as hopeless grasping at straws, what gives this argument some durability is the curious fact that many people seem willing, even eager, to concede to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics, even though there is no reason to do so.

One can understand why religious people, scientists and non-scientists alike, find this argument appealing, despite all its logical flaws. It is an attempt to find a niche for religion that cannot be encroached upon by science. What is curious is why so many non-religious people, even scientists, also support it, though they must know that it makes no sense.

This will be examined in the next post in the series.

POST SCRIPT: Harman hypocrisy

Congresswoman Jane Harman is absolutely outraged that she was wiretapped, even though there was a warrant for it. She was the person who enthusiastically supported wiretaps when it was done without warrants to ordinary people, and even tried to prevent newspapers from breaking that story.

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May 04, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-4: Understanding the mind

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Currently people seem to be pinning their hopes for a skyhook on the workings of the human mind. This is not because the case here is stronger. In fact, there is no reason whatsoever to think that science cannot explain how the mind works because, unlike with origins of the universe, there are no extraordinary circumstances involved. There is every reason to think that the laws of science that apply outside the brain, and which we can study carefully under controlled conditions, also apply within the brain. There is no reason to suspect that there is anything more to the mind than brain activity.

The reason that skyhooks have a foothold here is because advocates can draw upon a strong human prejudice to want to think of the human mind as something mysterious and ineffable. We humans tend to be impressed by our ability to think and reason and be self-aware, and assume that there must be something very deep and mysterious going on.

But there is no reason to think that the normal laws of science do not apply to the mind although the sheer complexity of the system being studied and the restrictions on this type of research makes progress hard. But again, I think that with the new non-invasive techniques that are being developed for studying the brain, we have shifted the problem of consciousness from a mystery to a puzzle, and that is the first major step towards solving it.

But not everyone is happy with that development. People seem to want to avoid the conclusion that the mind is just the product of the physical brain, which in turn is purely the product of the evolutionary process. They seem to desperately want there to be something transcendent about the mind that cannot be reduced to material causes.

This desire for skyhooks for the mind is quite powerful and one sees even distinguished scientists falling victim to its siren song. Biologist Francis Collins, physicist Roger Penrose in his book The Emperor's New Mind, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky, and cognitive scientist John Searle, are among those who are skeptical that evolution can do all the work to create the mind by itself, and either implicitly or explicitly have looked to find some form of skyhook, even if it is not a religious one.

So if you are determined to believe that the mind could not have come about by the plodding mechanism of natural selection, how would you insert a skyhook to create the mind? In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett suggests some possibilities.

One way would be to espouse outright Cartesian dualism: the mind can't just be the brain, but, rather, some other place, in which great and mysterious alchemical processes occur, transforming the raw materials they are fed – the cultural items we are calling memes – into new items that transcend their sources in ways that are simply beyond the ken of science.

A slightly less radical way of supporting the same defensive view is to concede that the mind is, after all, just the brain, which is a physical entity bound by all the laws of physics and chemistry, but insist that it nevertheless does its chores in ways that defy scientific analysis. This view has often been suggested by the linguist Noam Chomsky and enthusiastically defended by his former colleague the philosopher/psychologist Jerry Fodor, and more recently by another philosopher Colin McGinn. We can see that this is a saltational view of the mind, positing great leaps in Design Space that get "explained" as acts of sheer genius or intrinsic creativity or something else science-defying. It insists that somehow the brain itself is a skyhook, and refuses to settle for what the wily Darwinian offers: the brain, thanks to all the cranes that have formed it in the first place, and all the cranes that have entered it in the second place, is itself a prodigious, but not mysterious, lifter in design space. (Dennett, p. 368)

This reluctance to accept the idea that there is nothing essentially mysterious or not understandable about the mind and soul is deep seated. As this article by Rich Barlow in the October 18, 2008 issue of the Boston Globe says:

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who researches why people are religious…has written that humans are "natural dualists," seeing our physical bodies as separate from our supposedly nonphysical minds and souls. It's a legacy in part of the great French philosopher René Descartes, a religious man who believed our thoughts survived the death of our brains, says Bloom.

The problem, Bloom believes, is that this dualism is inaccurate. Brain science increasingly shows that "the qualities of mental life that we associate with souls" - memory, self-control, decision-making - "are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain."

"I don't believe dualism is true, because there's a scientific consensus that hard-core dualism, which says that people can think without using their brain or that memories will survive the death of your body, is just flat mistaken. Your mental life is a product of your brain."

I too used to think that the mind was somehow special and distinct from the brain but that was because I had not really thought about it and simply accepted the conventional wisdom. I still recall the moment when, after thinking about it for a while, I came to the sudden conclusion that, of course, the mind had to be simply the product of the workings of the brain and nothing more. How could it possibly be otherwise? Anything else would require belief in an extraordinary mind-brain dualism, a non-material entity that we call the mind mysteriously existing separate from the material brain inside our skull and yet able to interact with it. That was patently absurd.

It was one of those realizations where the conclusion, once you have arrived at it, is so obvious that you wonder how you could ever have believed anything else. But accepting this has huge repercussions, which is why we tend to not want to go there, to resist pushing our reasoning to its logical conclusion.

A major consequence of accepting this conclusion is that all beliefs in god and the afterlife have to be also jettisoned and this is what happened to me. If there is no transcendent mind, if the material brain is all there is, then there is no god. Period.

Initially there was something disconcerting about this realization. I too shared the view that humans were somehow special and was reluctant to let go of that grand conceit. But now it seems the most natural thing in the world that we are just one branch in the grand evolutionary tree of life. While all species differ in many ways and in some ways are unique, there is nothing magical or especially mysterious about the human mind anymore than there is about the elephant's trunk.

POST SCRIPT: Daniel Everett's challenge to universal grammar

Daniel Everett is an interesting character. Working with his family as a missionary to the small Piraha tribe in the Amazon, he claimed that their language defied Noam Chomsky's widely accepted theory of universal grammar based on recursion. He also became an unbeliever and estranged from his still-religious family. Patrick Barkham profiles him in The Guardian of Monday 10 November 2008.

(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

May 01, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-3: The last four skyhooks

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Some people simply cannot get over their childhood infatuation with magical thinking. They want and need to believe in skyhooks. They do not want science to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. They want there to be some gap that they can only plug god into. Or as the TV character House says, "You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!"

In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett adds,

For over a century, skeptics have been trying to find a proof that Darwin's ideas just can't work, at least not all the way. They have been hoping for, praying for skyhooks, as exceptions to what they see as the bleak vision of Darwin's algorithmic churning away. And time and again, they have come up with truly interesting challenges – leaps and gaps and other marvels that do seem, at first, to need skyhooks. But then along have come the cranes, discovered in many cases by the very skeptics who were hoping to find skyhooks. (Dennett, p. 75)

But what initially seemed to be promising candidates for creation by skyhooks (the eye and the wing for example) all turned out to be the products of cranes. With all the old macroscopic standbys falling by the wayside, the intelligent design people started pinning their hopes on microscopic things like the bacterial flagellum as needing a skyhook, but even those are increasingly seen to be the work of cranes.

There now remain only four candidates for the need for skyhooks: the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the human mind or consciousness, and the sense of morality.

There has been a lot of scientific progress on understanding the origin of life. While we do not yet know the exact sequence that led to the emergence of life, the problem has clearly shifted from the category of a 'mystery' (i.e. something about which we don't even know how to frame the research question) to that of a 'puzzle', where clear lines of research inquiry have been developed and progress is slowly being made. The book Genesis: The scientific quest for life's origins by Robert M. Hazen (2005) discusses the progress that has been made. Although important unanswered questions remain, there can be no doubt that this puzzle will be solved. It is only a matter of time.

It is significant that even Francis Collins, the biologist who recently retired as head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and is an evangelical Christian, in his book The Language of God argues against trying to use the origin of life as evidence of the need for a skyhook in the form of god.

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction. . . [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

So people who pin their hopes on the origin of life as a candidate for a skyhook are likely betting on a losing proposition.

The origin of the universe is a more difficult problem. Part of the difficulty is that the tools we have for scientific discovery are the laws of science that we have obtained by studying the world that is immediately available to us. We have no choice but to assume that these laws are universal and timeless or change in some regular manner but when it comes to studying the very origins of the universe, the density of matter is so large that the very nature of space and time become vastly different from what we have now. Hence the laws of science we are familiar with may not apply and extrapolating them into that region may not make sense. This makes research more difficult, though not impossible, and we have plausible explanations of how the universe evolved starting after the first few milliseconds of its creation. For a very readable account of what we know about how the universe began, it is still hard to beat The First Three Minutes (1988) by Steven Weinberg.

So any skyhook that is invoked for the origin of the universe has a very small window of time in which to act before it becomes unnecessary. This allows the option of deist beliefs in a god who set the universe in motion but did nothing thereafter. This might turn out to be the most durable of religious beliefs but is hardly satisfying to those who yearn for a god who still does things.

Next: Does the human mind need a skyhook?

POST SCRIPT: How the eye evolved

One of the earliest candidates for skyhooks, but no longer viable, as demonstrated by a younger Richard Dawkins. These kinds of examples formed the basis for his book Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), where he systematically demolished the need for skyhooks for a whole lot of candidates.


April 29, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-2: Replacing skyhooks with cranes

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Darwin's big idea of natural selection essentially removed the necessity for skyhooks. According to natural selection, complex things could and did emerge from simpler things and hence we no longer need to invoke skyhooks to explain how they came about. Instead we now have 'cranes' that can do all the lifting we need.

Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) uses the metaphor of the cranes used in building construction to contrast with skyhooks. Cranes are devices that can lift things, just like skyhooks can, but they are not magical devices that suddenly appear out of the sky. They are real, we know how they are built and where they come from, and they are planted on solid ground. Furthermore, small cranes can be used to build bigger cranes that can in turn be used to build yet bigger cranes and so on, until we end up with some really powerful cranes that can do amazing and, to the untrained and unobservant eye, may appear to be skyhooks and do seemingly magical things. But the wonderful thing is that they come about naturally.

Dennett argues that in the evolution context, cranes are natural processes that speed up the process. Starting with the simple and basic process of natural selection, increasingly sophisticated organisms have appeared over time that act like cranes, enabling even more complex life forms to be created even more quickly. In other words, we have evolutionary cranes creating even bigger, more efficient evolutionary cranes.

For example, the evolution of DNA likely started with point mutations at single locations. But once that produced organisms that were capable of reproducing sexually, the process of gene swapping that occurs during the process of meiosis (by which the sex cells that contribute to reproduction are created in the testes and ovaries) has led to much faster genetic changes and more rapid evolution than could be obtained using point mutations alone. So sexual reproduction is a powerful evolutionary crane.

Natural selection favors those systems that can evolve faster because they are more adaptable to changes in the environment, so that the rate of change of systems increases with time. In other words, evolution speeds up. Massimo Pagliucci suggests that "natural selection may favor the evolution of particular molecules (called "capacitors" of evolution), or arrangements of gene networks, that make it easier for a population to evolve in response to new environmental changes."

All these processes eventually resulted in the emergence of human beings who have language and science and technology and thus can be considered as yet more powerful cranes because we are now able, through our ability to significantly control our environment and with genetic engineering technology, to create new organisms that would have taken a long time to come about by themselves without our presence.

Thus we humans are not only the product of work done by other cranes, we ourselves serve as cranes for future development. As Dennett says:

Vast distances have been traversed since the dawn of life with the earliest, simplest self-replicating entities, spreading outward (diversity) and upward (excellence). Darwin has offered us an account of the crudest, most rudimentary, stupidest imaginable lifting process – the wedge of natural selection. By taking tiny – the tiniest possible – steps, this process can gradually, over eons, traverse these huge distances. Or so he claims. At no point would anything miraculous – from on high – be needed. Each step has been accomplished by brute, mechanical, algorithmic climbing, from the base already built by the efforts of earlier climbing. (p. 75)

To me this is an amazing and exciting thing to conceive, that we have the power to explain life without invoking skyhooks, if not in all its details now, at least in principle. But not everyone shares this sense of excitement at the ever-increasing explanatory power of science. In particular, many people (and not all of them are religious) are uneasy about the idea that we humans, with all our sophistication, are also simply the end products of this mechanical algorithmic process. They simply can't wrap their minds around the idea that there is nothing at all, no vital essence or soul, that is unique and makes us human, not even our minds or our consciousness or our sense of morality. While we have some qualities (like language) that distinguish us (at least partially) from other species, there is not a single thing that we humans possess that could not have come about through the same algorithmic processes that also produced slugs or worms or a leaf.

This can be hard to take for those who have a sense of superiority about the human species. Darwin's theory so completely undercuts the basis for believing that humans are possessed of some quality that is not the product of the Darwinian algorithm that it distresses people and many have tried to find ways to suggest that it is incomplete. As Steven Pinker says, "People desperately want Darwin to be wrong . . . because natural selection implies there is no plan to the universe, including human nature." (Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (1997), p. 165)

Next: The intelligent design skyhook

POST SCRIPT: From bacteria to humans in four minutes

In the space of four minutes, Richard Dawkins gives an overview of the sweep of evolution from bacteria to our common ancestors with apes.


April 27, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-1: Why skyhooks are appealing

I occasionally meet people who, knowing something about my interests with science and religion, say something like "I am not religious but I am skeptical of the theory of evolution." These people are often well-educated but not biologists or archeologists or paleontologists or anthropologists, so it is unlikely that they have done any kind of scholarly study of the evidence in favor of evolution and found it wanting. Their skepticism of evolution seems to spring from a different well.

When questioned, it usually turns out that the major reason for their doubts is that we live in a world that has an amazing array of diverse and complex organisms. If one doesn't closely into the science and mathematics of evolutionary theory, it can seem quite incredible that all this could have emerged by purely natural causes. So for some people, skepticism about evolution arises purely from a sense, a gut feeling if you will, that it is highly unlikely that life arose in the unguided way that evolution proposes. Just last week I had a discussion with a professor of chemistry who argued in precisely this way, that he could not imagine that all this could have come about without some kind of guiding intelligence, and what could that be but a supernatural agency of some kind?

I have argued before that evolution by natural selection, though unguided, is very far from something that happens purely by chance. While it is chance that produces the variations, the process of natural selection is highly focused. Furthermore, people's intuitions about probability are notoriously poor, and people should be wary of placing too much weight on them.

The other major source of discomfort is that people cannot properly conceive of very long timescales, especially the hundreds of millions of years that are involved in evolutionary processes. Things that are unlikely over shorter time periods can become likely, even inevitable, if you wait long enough, but people have no real feel for that. For example, we all know that the chance of winning a big lottery prize is very small. But if I were willing to play for a very, very long time, the probability of my winning becomes very high, almost inevitable. But of course, the amount I would have bet would be almost certainly be much more than my winnings and I would be long since dead anyway, so the whole exercise would be pointless. But our tendency is to take the probability over our short lifetimes, and erroneously assume it remains the same over very long time scales.

But even allowing for that, there is something strange about the theory of evolution being singled out for skepticism. After all, all manner of small probabilities and long time scales are involved in the Big Bang theory, involving the way that the primordial matter coalesced to form the stars, planetary systems, and galaxies. Why aren't people similarly skeptical about how the Earth and our Solar system came into being? Some religious fundamentalists, of course, do argue that god created everything and reject pretty much all of science, but I am not talking about them. I am talking about people who have no problem accepting scientific theories of how the entire universe came to be, but yet remain unconvinced that scientific theories can explain how all of life came into being.

There is another possible reason for this focused skepticism against evolution. The Big Bang is a spectacular thing to visualize. There is a magnificence to it that is commensurate with the importance we attach to something that happened at the very beginning of time. But the theory of evolution is the very opposite, saying that life in all its grandeur came about very slowly as a result of a vast number of tiny little plodding steps, each too small to observe. There is no arresting visual image that we can seize upon.

Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) says that the basic idea of Darwin's theory, that everything is a product of an algorithmic process, a simple set of rules mindlessly applied, is what many people find hard to accept.

Among the controversies that swirl around us, most if not all consist of different challenges to Darwin's claim that he can take us all the way to here (the wonderful world we inhabit) from there (the world of chaos or utter undesignedness) in the time available without invoking anything beyond the mindless mechanism of the algorithmic processes he proposed. (p. 74)

As a result of this skepticism, people have consistently, over time, invoked what Dennett calls skyhooks as explanations. A skyhook is defined as an "imaginary contrivance for attachment to the sky" that can be used for lifting things easily. The skyhook concept is similar to the deus ex machina ("god from a machine") literary device used by inferior Greek dramatists to suddenly swoop down and lift their characters out of a tight spot. So a skyhook is basically a mysterious and advanced mechanism that can be invoked as an explanation. The existence of skyhooks as explanatory mechanism leads naturally to an acceptance of the existence of a designer, since someone had to have created the skyhook.

The search for skyhooks has historically taken many forms. In the early days, skyhooks were used to explain the appearance of every species. This was the theory of 'special creation', popular up to Darwin's day, where god (the ultimate skyhook) created species to fit into the various ecological niches. As time went by and science explained more and more of what was previously inexplicable, the number of skyhooks needed as explanatory devices has decreased, but never gone away.

The 'God of the Gaps' that I have written about earlier is a manifestation of this desire for skyhooks.

The idea of skyhooks is seductive and is what draws many of us in to believing in a creator, especially when we are young. It is a form of magical thinking that all young children find attractive and which is what makes believing in a god easy.

But why do people continue to feel the need for skyhooks as adults when there are other good explanations?

Next: Replacing skyhooks with cranes.

POST SCRIPT: The appeal of skyhooks for children

In this interview with Jonathan Miller, Richard Dawkins says that as a boy he accepted the need for skyhooks for the creation of life, before he discovered that the theory of evolution solved the problem, and the sense of intellectual freedom and liberation that it generated.