Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, August 31, 2007

In which Drek employs a rather weak moth-based metaphor to little effect.

Recently, believe it or not, I attended a church potluck with my Sainted Fiancee. Before any of you gasp in surprise, you should keep in mind that I am referring to my Sainted Fiancee's church and that she is a Unitarian Universalist. For those who aren't familiar, UUism is a religion so vague and nebulous that not even its own members know what its doctrines are. Well, with the exception of basics like "everyone is welcome" and "there are many paths to god." So, for all intents and purposes, it's about the only church that I might be able to participate in as a materialist atheist.*

In any case at this potluck the subject of atheism came up and one of the attendees began interrogating me about my beliefs. I was rather surprised by this since UUs generally don't have the same "staring at you like a sideshow attraction" response that most folks give me on learning I am an atheist. Nevertheless, this individual was very interested in how I could possibly not believe in god and, eventually, asked me a real humdinger of a question: "Why is it important to you to be an atheist?"

Seriously? This is a question? The short answer could legitimately be that it's important to me for the same reasons that it's important for other people to be Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist. Humans seem to like to have a way of understanding their world and situating themselves within it. For me, atheism provides that way. To avoid anomie, a sense of normlessness, I must define my world in some way. This is a very sociological response, however, and I suspected that it would not satisfy my inquisitor. So, I answered by asking a question in return: "Do you value truth?" While this could doubtless form the core of many hours of fruitless discussion by philosophy students in coffee houses where their intellectual acumen would impress no one except themselves,** I have a fairly straightforward point. If you value things that are true, if truth is important to you, then atheism or theism becomes nearly inevitable. If you believe down in your bones that there is a loving all powerful god, if you believe that to be true, and you value truth, then you must be a theist. If you believe deep down, as I do, that there is no god, that angels and demons and souls do not exist, then you must be an atheist. To do otherwise, to believe that god does not exist and yet live your life as though he does, is to engage perpetually in a lie. For me, it is a love of truth that impels me to atheism.

This is not, of course, to say that I believe that I have a monopoly on truth. I do not and don't pretend to. Perhaps atheism is true, perhaps not, but I can only pursue the path that I believe to be correct. This is one of the obvious flaws in Pascal's Wager: one cannot simply pretend to believe something and stand a chance of fooling an omnipotent deity. Because I recognize that I cannot claim to have a lock on all truth, it is necessary that I be willing to live with those who disagree with me. My belief that atheism is true does not in any way give me the right to impose that on others, much as they have no right to impose their faith on me. This is why I readily concede that atheism is a sort of religion based in a faith position- I believe, I have faith, that there is no god, but I cannot prove it. Thus, atheism is for me a truth but not necessarily a fact.*** That said, I don't think that my faith position is exactly on a par with a theistic faith position. I have faith that something that has never been observed in an objective way does not exist. Along the same lines, I have faith that leprechauns, fairies and the boogey man also do not exist. Like most people, I generally assume that something does not exist until I am shown evidence that it does exist. To use the other default assumption would be truly confusing since, really, the variety of things that the human mind can imagine is truly staggering. Creationists even agree with this position, criticizing biologists for "assuming" that transitional fossils exist without evidence.**** Thus, in virtually all cases, the burden of proof is with those who claim that fossils, or fairies, or leprechauns do exist and not with those who claim that they do not. Yet, somehow, when it comes to god, this typical situation reverses and many seek to lay the burden of proof on the shoulders of atheists. Somehow, in this one instance, it seems reasonable to demand that we falsify the unfalsifiable.***** In perfeact honesty, I have better things to do with my time, but I digress.

My concern with what is true or real probably explains why I so dislike intelligent design. I don't mean that in the sense that because I believe ID is incorrect I must dislike it strongly. There are a lot of perspectives that I personally believe are incorrect but do not feel moved to oppose. No, I dislike ID because it is so given over to lies and deception. Take, for example, the new movie Expelled that obtained an as-yet unknown number of its interviews through outright deceit. Seriously: the film makers interviewed subjects claiming to be making a balanced documentary when, in fact, it was part of an ID propaganda film. Then there are the quote mines, churning through scientists' published statements to find fragments that seem to support ID perspectives. Given this sort of behavior, as a side note, I am forced to wonder just how heavily edited "Expelled's" interviews will turn out to be.

And then we have the most recent example of ID's dishonesty. Michael Behe, the closest thing to a scientist ID has, has claimed that the only thing that could convince him the natural evolution of an irreducibly complex system is, in addition to a step-by-step mutational history:

... a detailed account of the selective pressures that would be operating, the difficulties such changes would cause for the organism, the expected time scale over which the changes would be expected to occur, the likely population sizes available in the relevant ancestral species at each step, other potential ways to solve the problem which might interfere, and much more.


So, in other words, a standard of evidence that is virtually impossible to achieve without a time machine. Now we learn of recent work (more details here) that manages to trace a step-by-step mutational chain for a supposedly irreducibly complex protein system and show how each subsequent change remains fit and available for selection. As the article itself says:

Supporters of intelligent design, who question evolution, have argued that mutations, occurring one by one, could not refold a protein into a new function, because the mutations would first unravel the protein into a useless, unfolded configuration.

The new study refutes that assertion, at least in this instance.


So what happens? Does Behe concede that his ludicrous conditions have been partly met, despite enormous obstacles? Hell no. Of course he doesn't:

A recent New York Times story by Kenneth Chang touted a new paper in Science by the laboratory of Joseph Thornton of the University of Oregon as refuting intelligent design. Thornton’s laboratory has been interested in the evolutionary development of differences between two proteins abbreviated GR and MR. Since the two proteins are very similar, and since they bind very similar small hormone molecules, they likely developed from an ancestral gene by gene duplication and subsequent diversification. Despite Chang’s story, none of that challenges intelligent design, which agrees that minor evolutionary changes can happen by random mutation and natural selection.


What drives me crazy about ID isn't that I think it's wrong, but rather that its proponents seem so totally unconcerned with truth. In the interests of pushing their own "ultimate truth" they are willing to engage in outright lying, not to mention sly deceptions and slimy prevarications. And this, oddly enough, makes it very diffuclt for me to take their ultimate truth seriously. Truths are hard, they're often unpleasant, but they also mesh with other truths. They form a fabric of such a tight weave that it is a wonder to behold. If your ultimate truth must be protected and advanced by a myriad of lies, then I am afraid that the fabric of your world is little more than a moth-eaten wreck.


* This is not to say that I want to- I don't. I'm just saying that it's hypothetically possible.

** Not unlike blogging, as it happens.

*** Yes, I do consider there to be a difference and, no, I don't want to talk about it right now.

**** They are, of course, incorrect on this point. We have lots of evidence of transitional forms.

***** And as we know, proving a negative of this magnitude is all but impossible. How does one prove that an all powerful all knowing immaterial being does not exist? Given the definition of the entity, there is no way for us to find it if it does not wish to be found. Thus, falsification becomes rather untenable.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Practicing Idealist said...

Reading about the movie "Expelled" on PandasThumb and watching the trailer have made me feel physically sick. And, the little respect (which was VERY small) I had for Ben Stein is completely gone.
Ugh...

Friday, August 31, 2007 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger anomie said...

Three responses:

1.I go to a UU church. Our choir director is atheist. I also have a friend who used to lead an atheism discussion group at a different UU church.

2.Avoid anomie? Nonsense! It is through the embracing of anomie that one achieves true enlightenment.

3.That 'stifling of truth' in science argument is lame. What if I went into a history class and presented the Holocaust as a 'theory'? Sure, there are people who argue it never happened, but we follow evidence--wherever it may lead, right?

Friday, August 31, 2007 7:06:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Anomie:

(1) Doesn't surprise me over much. Not my style, but I'm glad it works for some folks.

(2) I suspect my Sainted Fiancee would have a thing or two to say if I "embraced anomie."

(3) You're spot on. They argue, of course, that the evidence leads to a conclusion of god, but this is really an argument from ignorance. If we concluded "god" whenever we had a hard time explaining something, science wouldn't get very far.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007 11:19:00 AM  

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