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A Fine Tuned Universe? 5 (RJS)

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A fine tuned Universe ds.JPG

Can These Bones Live? This is the question posed in Chapters 10 and 11 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology where he gives a brief overview of the chemical requirements for the origin of life. 

There are two facets to this discussion. 

The first is really a continuation of the general observation of fine-tuning in the universe. Life as we know it requires (1) the intrinsically flexible chemistry of Carbon, with Oxygen, Nitrogen, and Phosphorous also thrown into the mix and (2) the unique properties of liquid water (H2O).  The presence of these elements and the presence of a water layer on earth arise from the fine-tuning of the primitive universe to produce the right chemical elements and the right environments.

But these building blocks – the chemical elements – are not the biggest
mystery. The more profound questions involve the emergence of life –
the origin of self-replicating molecules that lead to the formation of
humans capable of abstract reasoning, creative thought, and love. The second facet to McGrath’s discussion of fine-tuning is the complex question of the development of life
from the primordial soup of chemical precursors. This is an enormous
puzzle and McGrath only sketches the tip of the iceberg. 

 Ah, … but before we ponder this we must consider, with McGrath,

What is life? When can an ensemble of molecules, comprised of atoms, themselves composed of elementary particles, be said to be “alive”?

On the most elementary level life consists of an enclosed system capable of metabolism and reproduction – although the later needs some nuance.  So a discussion of the origin of life must consider these elements.

McGrath suggests that “life could be defined as a “self-sustaining chemical system,” able to transform resources into its own building blocks, that is “capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”

Once a self-replicating cell is produced evolution by natural selection provides a mechanism to introduce variation and complexity, but
evolution provides no mechanism for formation of the first cells.  There are several complex questions in the formation of life, more than I can list in a simple blog post. But we can consider three as examples of the kinds of questions faced.

1. The synthesis of the fundamental organic building blocks, the molecules of life. But cosmic organic chemistry is relatively common  – spectroscopic measurements have identified many of organic molecules in space, meteorites and comets have provided more evidence. The evidence includes the formation of many simple compound, but also more complex and fundamental molecules, including amino acids – the building blocks of proteins.

The evidence of this comes from … and the detailed chemical analysis of meteorites that have fallen to Earth, such as the famous Murchison meteorite of 1969. … The Murchison meteorite, for example, was found to contain certain common amino acids such as alanine, glycine, and glutamic acid, in addition to more unusual ones such as isovaline and psuedoleucine. These could not be due to terrestrial contamination as a result of the impact of the meteorite. (pp. 134-135)

The Wikipedia article appears to give a balanced account of this meteorite. There is some evidence for terrestrial contamination but there also seems to be clear evidence for extraterrestrial formation of amino acids. The famous Miller-Urey experiment also demonstrated the formation of complex organic molecules under conditions potentially similar to those of the early earth.  All these experiments or discoveries demonstrate is that organic chemistry is robust and that amino acids are stable and kinetically favored under a range of conditions.

2. The synthesis of an information carrying molecule.  It is widely believed that RNA (ribonucleic acid) filled this function initially.  RNA is capable of a multitude of functions – it can carry information, it can self-assemble and self-replicate, it can act as a catalyst – a ribozyme, it can synthesize proteins (which are even better catalysts – enzymes), and eventually it can modify to produce DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).  But there is no consensus on how the synthesis of nucleotides from prebiotic presursors came about – no known reactions appear capable of this synthesis. Research is ongoing.

Lipid_vesicles.jpg

3. Develpment of contained organisms. The transition from “chemical soup” to life requires more than nucleic acids and amino acids however.  It requires the formation of a protoorganism. “This “protoorganism” can be thought of as a single cooperative aggregate consisting of a protocontainer, a protometabolism, and protogenes.” (p. 137)  Here we really get into the importance of the unique properties of water as the biological solvent. Water enables complex acid-base equilibria, it dissolves polar molecules and excludes non-polar (think of the separation of oil and water). Lipids have nonpolar tails and polar headgroups combined in one molecule. In water these spontaneously form vesicles – rudimentary “cell membranes.” Water supports complex chemistry and the formation of complex structures.  It is speculated that a protoorganism could form from lipid vesicles in water encapsulating RNA and other simple molecules.

Can we see the hand of God in this process?

It must be admitted that we have no firm ground for speculating on the mechanism for the initial formation of life at the present time. Science continues to progress however, and perhaps we will have a viable explanation, sooner rather than later.  On the other hand,  a natural explanation doesn’t negate the presence of fine-tuning in the universe, or eliminate the hand of God in the process.  And here we (and McGrath) return to Augustine.

It will also be clear that Augustine’s notion of rationales seminales plays an important heuristic role in engaging with the complex chemical phenomena that have briefly been described in this chapter. The emergence of chemical complexity precedes that of biological complexity and is generally ignored in accounts of biological evolution. Yet the importance of this point is clear: without an inherent capacity for chemical complexification, the foundations for biological development would not have been in place. These chemical properties must be regarded as emergent. Augustine’s image of the dormant seed, awaiting the right conditions for germination, is a helpful analogue for understanding how certain chemical properties emerge under appropriate circumstances.

… On the basis of known biochemical systems, biological evolution remains dependent upon chemical properties which were ultimately determined in the primitive state of the universe. (p. 142)

What do you think – What constitutes life? What role do you think that God played in the formation of life? Did he embed a seed in the big bang or did he play a more personal role guiding and directing the process?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.



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Scot McKnight

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:03 am


RJS,
I had this very set of questions when we were in the “cave” at The Cradle of Humanity. Mrs (or Mr) Ples was discovered there and what went through my mind was this:
Let’s say these anthropologists and archaeologists got this right. Let’s say this is one of our ancestors.
Let’s then say that we are here as humans wondering about origins of life.
Our explanation of the process that God set forth the potentialities in the original shapings of life and that they led to who we are and where we are now leads me to two things:
1. This is our explanation and it works and it fits and it is reasonable and it is better than random chaos.
2. Why is it that humans have a need for explanation? This question is what leads me beyond the “iffy” theory status of the explanation to a profound awe at the vastness and majesty of time, development, complexity, and self-consciousness. And the orderliness of the explanation, the tidiness (with all the unknowns), and the beauty of how things work … these draw my admiration and lead from the “iffy” to worship of the One who brought this all into being.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:31 am


The problem with phrases like “the anthropic principle” or “fine-tuned constants” or “finely-tuned universe” is that they contain words that allow assumptions that can lead to conclusions that are not justified by the data. Yes, the nature of this universe allows life similar to ours to arise. No, we cannot draw any conclusions about causes from that. We cannot say that the universe was designed or fine-tuned for life. We certainly cannot say, other than as a statement of faith, that God had anything to do with it.
Religious opponents of scientific discoveries about the history of life on earth have repeatedly drawn lines about what we will be able to discover. Each of them was shown to be wrong, starting with the synthesis of urea. Most religious people have been very happy to abandon the egocentric view that God personally, directly started humanity when the physical evidence showed that it was not consistent with the evidence. Most believers are content to believe that God somehow watches over them and see no reason to start a fight with science or posit some sort of God-of-the-gaps theory of origins.
Most religions tend to discourage asking questions, particularly about doctrine. Religious doctrines don’t help us understand life on earth, its causes or history. Scientific research has done so. People have discovered that asking questions allows them to have a better life in some ways. The inventions of language, writing and the scientific method allow us to store and expand knowledge so we can build on the shoulders of giants in our quest to understand.



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Rick

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:51 am


RJS-
Thanks for this series on McGrath’s book.
I keep thinking about the theological aspects of God’s method/view, especially His use of the small (Augustine’s dormant seed) to expand to the large. Scripture is full of God using small starting points (people, nations, groups, the Incarnation) to eventually impact the world/universe. McGrath’s view would fit that pattern. It is almost “missional”.



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Rick Presley

posted July 7, 2009 at 8:59 am


RJS,
Why go this far back? I can start with not only all the chemicals, but I can have an organism completely constructed with cells, tissues, organs, all in the right place just ready and waiting to be brought to life. All I need is a dead cat or mouse or even lizard or jellyfish. If the emergence of life is so simple and easy, why can we not just raise organisms from the dead? Why go to all the elaborate trouble of trying to assemble things from scratch? Even more importantly, why are scientists not asking this question and working on the answer? I would think it would be a lot simpler and easier to reanimate freshly dead organisms that we know could function if only they were alive rather than trying to assemble a living organism from parts that have never lived.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 9:45 am


If the emergence of life is so simple and easy, why can we not just raise organisms from the dead?
I wasn’t aware that anyone has ever said that the emergence of life was simple or easy. I don’t see how your question has anything to do with your erroneous assumption in the first part.
Even more importantly, why are scientists not asking this question and working on the answer?
Again, your question assumes a fact that is not in evidence. Scientists are doing a great deal of research on the origins of life, but they have a large challenge. We have only a few clues about what the earth was like before life arose since life has transformed the world so much.



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Travis Greene

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:19 am


“Religious doctrines don’t help us understand life on earth, its causes or history. Scientific research has done so.”
That’s a faith statement. Scientific advances have improved living conditions for many, but that doesn’t mean science tells us anything in particular about life. It may tell us a lot about circulation, respiration, reproduction, and so on. And that’s handy, and useful, and an honorable pursuit. But those are questions of how, and can never answer questions of why. You are perfectly free to believe there is no why, that philosophy and religion and metaphysics are all so much hokum, but that again is a statement of belief and not science.



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Peter

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:36 am


A question (not rhetorical): What about the whole isomer issue? Is that a valid question/concern? What I mean is that amino acids found in almost all life forms are l-amino acids and carbohydrates are almost all d-carbohydrates, but in the primordial soup they would have all been mixed (d- and l-). The process of separating them for formation of all l-proteins or all d-complex carbohydrates would need to be explained with any theory of spontaneous generation, wouldn’t it?



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:41 am


That’s a faith statement.
No, it is not. Even you admit that, indirectly in the following:
Scientific advances have improved living conditions for many, but that doesn’t mean science tells us anything in particular about life. It may tell us a lot about circulation, respiration, reproduction, and so on. And that’s handy, and useful, and an honorable pursuit. But those are questions of how, and can never answer questions of why.
So, scientific research has helped us to understand how life works today and how it has changed over time on earth. Religions have done neither. Rather than acknowledge that, you decide to go to a question that doesn’t really have a meaning. I agree that science does not answer purpose, but then religions merely assert purpose without either useful explanation or supporting evidence.
You are perfectly free to believe there is no why, that philosophy and religion and metaphysics are all so much hokum, but that again is a statement of belief and not science.
I didn’t make those claims. I don’t see any point in arguing against anyone’s beliefs unless they make a belief claim that is contrary to evidence. Young Earth Creationists make such false claims, theistic evolutionists do not. It doesn’t matter to me that religions rely almost completely on claims that are completely without evidence. It only bothers me when they either insist that their claims are somehow as valid as a scientific claim based on evidence or when they claim that their belief is true despite evidence that shows that their belief is false.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:53 am


Peter asked The process of separating them for formation of all l-proteins or all d-complex carbohydrates would need to be explained with any theory of spontaneous generation, wouldn’t it?
Probably not. There’s a remote chance that a there is a minor advantage to one over the other and a good chance that there is an advantage to having them all the same. If you’ve ever played the card game “war” you know that initial conditions will determine the final result and that only a minor change can cause differing results. Unless we find a chemical advantage that we have not yet identified for chirality, the best estimate is that it didn’t matter. You can read more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chirality_(chemistry)



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:06 am


freelunch,
Ultimately I think that questions of purpose, meaning, and mission are in many ways the most important questions. And science does not and cannot answer these questions.
I also think that the real faith statement that Travis identifies and you may or may not intend (I can’t tell from your various comments) is that because science cannot prove purpose, meaning, or mission in the history of the universe that there is not purpose, meaning, or mission; that humans are accidental results of a natural process.
The assertion of an absence of meaning and tuning is as much a faith statement as the assertion of meaning and tuning. I see the wonder of God in the design of the universe – but I cannot prove it “scientifically.”



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:17 am


Peter,
I think that freelunch is right (#9). There is probably no reason to prefer d vs l or vice versa but there is a strong reason to select for one rather than both. After all – a right-handed golf club or can opener does not work well for a left-handed person (as my dad and husband constantly point out). The same is true on a molecular level – right-handed and left-handed molecules are not interchangeable in assembly, function, or fit.
As an aside, a great deal of effort these days is directed to the synthesis of enantomerically pure drugs as it is often the case in a racemic mixture that the other enantiomers have only negative side effects – not therapeutic function.



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Randy

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:21 am


I would like to thank RJS for her work on these posts and then say that I am not able to follow this thread as closely as I would like. For anyone interested in these issues though, I suggest a look at James Skillen’s presentation of Uko Zylstra’s essay in Zygon. http://www.cpjustice.org/stories/storyReader$1350
I appreciate the way that Zylsrtra’s essay seeks to “open up” ways of understanding what we observe in new directions that much of ID seems to reduce to either/or issues.
Peace,
Randy Gabrielse



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Your Name

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:29 am


Ultimately I think that questions of purpose, meaning, and mission are in many ways the most important questions.
Why? They may be useful questions, but if there is no verifiable way to get an answer nothing is accomplished. What’s the point of saying that a question that cannot be answered is more important than a question that can be answered? Maybe it will take a better understanding of what and how to even get to the point of asking meaningful, informed questions about why. Is the apex more important than the foundation?
I also think that the real faith statement that Travis identifies and you may or may not intend (I can’t tell from your various comments) is that because science cannot prove purpose, meaning, or mission in the history of the universe that there is not purpose, meaning, or mission; that humans are accidental results of a natural process.
There’s no evidence to show us that there is an externally caused purpose, meaning or mission, but I would be foolish to claim that this lack of evidence is proof that they do not exist. I will state clearly that science doesn’t have any way to answer that question today and makes no claims about it. Clearly human beings have been giving themselves purpose, meaning and mission for generations, whether or not there is an external cause.
The assertion of an absence of meaning and tuning is as much a faith statement as the assertion of meaning and tuning. I see the wonder of God in the design of the universe – but I cannot prove it “scientifically.”
My assertion is that there is an absense of evidence to support these claims. You are free to apply parsimony as appropriate.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:40 am


[I was 11:29 am]
Randy, I’m not sure that essay is very helpful. The proposed examples by Behe and others of irreducible complexity have been shown to be erroneous. So far, there is nothing in our study of life that shows that we need anything other than natural processes for life to arise or to evolve. That doesn’t prove that there is not a designer, only that there is no scientific reason to claim that one exists.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 11:50 am


peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
To me, the interesting question is the probability that we can get from chemicals like amino acids to the simplest form of life that can reproduce with variation with no design intervention. I think we know enough about the complexity of the simplest life to know that this is highly improbable.
“Research is ongoing.” Yes, it is. But sometimes this is a euphemism for “we don’t have any solid knowledge about this.” Is the research bearing truly meaningful results? If we go from square 1 to square 2, how important is it when there are a million squares to go? What if square 500 is very unlike square 2?
Should research continue? Absolutely. But let’s also not lose sight of how far we have come through past research. Not very far, as far as I can tell.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 12:10 pm


peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
Freelunch (#14)
You said, “The proposed examples by Behe and others of irreducible complexity have been shown to be erroneous.”
Where has this been done? By whom? How has this been documented?



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 12:29 pm


pds –
We don’t have any probability assessments about how life began because we don’t have any specific mechanisms to assess. We know there is life, trying to argue probability is not very useful here.
Behe’s example of the bacterial flagella was shown, in great detail, not to be irreducible and a likely precursor was identified during the Kitzmiller trial. His example of eyes is undercut by the great variety of eyes and light patches that are available for study today that can be used as possible precursors. Russell Doolittle, who Behe referenced in his claims, rebutted Behe’s claims about clotting. There is a lot more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreducible_complexity for review.
The problem for anyone claiming that there is irreducible complexity is that they have created an impossible task for themselves. They are making the assertion that there is no possible evolutionary pathway to get to X. Science has wisely given up on making such categorical claims because there are so many possible pathways to review. Not only is one example is enough to disprove the claim but the claim isn’t considered verified until a comprehensive review of the possible pathways has been done. As the advocate of the position, Behe hadn’t fully understood the examples he provided that were subsequently shown to be wrong and he doesn’t appear to be interested in trying to offer new examples. No one else who is arguing for irreducible complexity is competent to make a meaningful assertion about the question.



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Unapologetic Catholic

posted July 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm


PDS asks a question out of turn:
“Where has this been done? By whom? How has this been documented?”
For one, at the Kitzmiller trial whre Behe was cross examined and admitted under pelantly of perjury that his definition of irreeducible complexity was defective beacuse it did not adress exaptation.
Here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreducible_complexity
The opinion itself quotes Behe’s testimony:
“Professor Behe admitted in “Reply to My Critics” that there was a defect in his view of irreducible complexity because, while it purports to be a challenge to natural selection, it does not actually address “the task facing natural selection.” Professor Behe specifically explained that “[t]he current definition puts the focus on removing a part from an already- functioning system,” but “[t]he difficult task facing Darwinian evolution, however, would not be to remove parts from sophisticated pre-existing systems; it would be to bring together components to make a new system in the first place.” In that article, Professor Behe wrote that he hoped to “repair this defect in future work;” however, he has failed to do so even four years after elucidating his defect.”
Behe admitted the defect in his definition of Irreducible compelxity in 2001. He had not offered a refinement of his definition by 2005 at the Kitzmiller trial. It’s now 2009. He still hasn’t offered a working definition.
The answers to your questions are easily discovered by an impartial review of the literature. You consistently show an inablility or unwillignness to engage in such an impartial review of the literature.
You have some questions put to you on earlier threads that you have consistently dodged. Why do you refuse to answer questions yourself?
For those interested in the status of Intelligent Design research you can check out its peer reviewed journal here:
http://www.iscid.org/pcid.php
The date of the most recent publication is a good indicator of the robust state of ID research.
Google Scholar is also a good online resource to locate the vast scope of Intelligent Design research publications. Simply Google Scholar “Intelligent Design” and then Google Scholar “Evolution” “Evolution of bacterial flagellum” “human evolution” “evolution of sight” and compare the results to Intelligent Design research.
Google Scholar is your friends.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:02 pm


peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
Freelunch (#17)
You said, “We don’t have any probability assessments about how life began because we don’t have any specific mechanisms to assess. We know there is life, trying to argue probability is not very useful here.”
Your philosophical presuppositions are screaming in that comment. Are you aware of that?
If Ken Miller’s testimony at Dover is the best you have got, you are a long way from showing that IC is “erroneous.” Miller’s critique has serious and obvious logical flaws. See my comment #55 here:
http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/2009/05/friday-is-for-friends-logan-pa_comments.html



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:13 pm


pds,
Unapologetic Catholic’s comment on the difference between taking a piece out of a mature “irreducibly complex” construct versus building one up from the beginning is more to the point here. The path to build a construct need not be linear and pieces can serve multiple functions at various times with old functions disappearing as an organism evolves. There are traces of these “old functions” in the genomic record.
The blood clotting cascade is a good case in point. I intend to put together a post on this – but need time to get everything together.



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Peter

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:31 pm


Sorry if I’m a bit dull, but if we assume that the primordial soup was a mix of d- and l- amino acids anc carbohydrates, but now we observe that essentially all proteins are made up of l-amino acids and all carbohydrates are d-, I’m not asking about advantage, I’m asking what possible mechanism could have caused this. Certainly whether we understand advantage or disadvantage, this did not happen by chance did it? How could it have happened?



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:35 pm


RJS (#20),
I don’t think the “problem” has much logical force. A system that does not work if you remove one part is also not going to work building it up from the beginning- a fortiori. In other words, starting with no parts is even harder than starting with all parts minus one.
As I said in my earlier comment:
Showing independent functionality of a component does not defeat IC. Miller still has to show that the assembly of the rotary propulsion machine could have been accomplished by Darwinian mechanisms: step by step assembly with each step providing a survival advantage. He also has to show that each step does not involve too much survival disadvantage in the loss of the previous functionality of the components.



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:49 pm


Peter,
Perhaps I am the one who is dense and don’t really understand your question.
Isn’t it a bit like flipping a coin? Either heads or tails could result – but one must result.
So the original proteins may have been constructed from a mix of d and l. But there is an advantage to using only one, and there may be an advantage to synthesizing only one. (Enzymatic synthesis is often constrained to produce only one enantiomer.) As organisms began to make themselves, the advantage of using only d or l and synthesizing only d or l resulted in the distribution that we now see.



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:56 pm


pds,
You are assuming that (1) the blocks (proteins) don’t change (the genes coding them don’t evolve), (2) that each protein is produced by only one gene, and (3) that proteins only serve one function at a time. But none of these are true.
There is no survival disadvantage in the loss of the previous functionality of the components – because there is no loss of previous functionality proposed.
Viable mechanisms for step by step evolution are being proposed, but it won’t come instantly. But the whole premise of irreducible complexity is flawed because it underestimated the range of pathways available in evolution.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:05 pm


pds – Your philosophical presuppositions are screaming in that comment. Are you aware of that?
Please explain your assertion. If you want to start talking about probability, it is up to you to show us how it applies.
You didn’t really show us how Miller was flawed, nor are his statements the only ones related to this, either in the case or in more recent literature. If someone claims that there is irreducible complexity, it is their responsibility to back it up. The Discovery Institute has been totally unsuccessful in getting anyone else to buy into their program.
No science supports irreducible complexity. No science supports intelligent design.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:09 pm


pds – “A system that does not work if you remove one part is also not going to work building it up from the beginning- a fortiori.”
You have just proven to your satisfaction that natural bridges could never exist. Given that natural bridges do exist, the problem may be with the assumptions you have made.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:09 pm


RJS (#24)
You said,
“You are assuming that (1) the blocks (proteins) don’t change (evolve), (2) that each protein is produced by only one gene, and (3) that proteins only serve one function at a time. But none of these are true.”
I am not assuming any of those things.



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:19 pm


pds,
How are these assumptions not inherent in your statements about survival disadvantage and the idea that starting with no parts is even harder than starting with all parts minus one?
The comment in #26 about a natural bridge is a good one – in fact the evolution of complex structures involve multiple biological equivalents of “natural bridges” where a past support or function has disappeared leaving a construct where taking one piece out destroys the whole. But the fact fact that removing one destroys the whole is irrelevant to the mechanism for the original formation of the construct.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:20 pm


freelunch (#25)
Probability is all we have, unless one chooses to adopt a position based on a philosophical presupposition or a faith commitment. The later seemed to be what you were doing.



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dopderbeck

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:27 pm


In response to RJS’ original question, I like McGrath’s way of drawing on Augustine’s notion of the “seed principle” here. However, I wonder about a couple of things: (1) is McGrath really fairly representing Augustine here? I just am not enough of an Augustine buff to know. More importantly, (2), does this adequately represent divine action if we assert more than the deist’s God? What I’m not sure I like in the “seed” metaphor is the notion that the seed can kind of grow up on its own. I think we can conceive of ordinary divine action in creation as active but hidden.
This gets to the article Randy G. (#12) posted. Freelunch (#17), I think you misread that article. The author’s point seems to be that there is an active property in what we call “life” that can’t be reduced to biology. That is not Behe’s irreducible complexity argument, which the author critiques. This seems to be essentially an Aristotelian-Thomistic approach. But I dunno, this seems to put too much weight on a dualistic Greek idea about a “life force” (psuche) translated into the “soul.” Yet it does resonate somewhat with the idea of nephesh in the Hebrew scriptures.
Re: the discussion of Behe and irreducible complexity — to me, that discussion got tiresome long ago. Who cares? At best, you have some bumps on the evolutionary road that require a nudge from a “designer.” I just don’t see how that helps with the big question being addressed (the nature of divine action). A god who plants a seed and sits back while it grows, or a god who turns the seed over once every couple of years — what’s the difference, neither would be the Biblical logos “in whom all things are held together” (Col. 1:17).



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:31 pm


Probability is all we have, unless one chooses to adopt a position based on a philosophical presupposition or a faith commitment. The later seemed to be what you were doing.
No, that’s not right. We already know that life exists. We already know that there are no chemical or biochemical hurdles that cannot be jumped by possible pathways that might have been used at life’s beginnings even though we don’t know how life began. How do you invent a probability analysis when you don’t have any idea what happened? If you assert that there is a probability analysis worth investigating, you need to have specific probabilities that apply in specific instances.
The only ‘faith commitment’ I have is that reality exists and can be studied.
[Aside related to reality: As a matter of personal prejudice I heartily, cheerfully and mockingly reject solipsism and epistemological nihilism as completely silly and unworthy of discussion. Given that nothing supports either solipsism or epistemological nihilism, I see no reason to get suckered into discussions about it with others.]



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:35 pm


RJS (#28)
I don’t know how to answer you, because I don’t know why you think they are inherent in my statements.
If one thinks that natural bridges led to the complex biological machinery, then one should articulate the step by step pathway of natural bridges that led to the complex machinery. This has not been done.
I think this is possible. But it has not been shown to be plausible or probable, given what we know about the assembly of complex machinery.
This is especially the case with the origin of life question.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:46 pm


If one thinks that natural bridges led to the complex biological machinery, then one should articulate the step by step pathway of natural bridges that led to the complex machinery. This has not been done.
But, of course, that is not what he said nor is it the problem you had with your claim. You made a claim that, if true, would prove that natural bridges do not exist. We know that natural bridges do exist so your claim as formulated was erroneous. Scaffolding is a counter example that shows that your claim “A system that does not work if you remove one part is also not going to work building it up from the beginning- a fortiori” is incorrect.
Cells are not machinery. Sometimes we can make effective analogies between cell functions and machines, but that is not always the case. Analogies should always be treated very carefully and no analogy should be considered an irrefutable argument.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 2:50 pm


dop (#30)
Why Behe and IC matters? Because it is scientific evidence that provides a clue pointing to the biblical God. (I know you don’t agree.) And because it undermines the naturalistic worldview that is put forth as an answer to everything. And many people have been fooled into thinking naturalism answers everything.
And because it forces scientists to keep doing real science instead of just assuming Darwinian mechanisms can produce anything, which has not been shown.



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pds

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:09 pm


freelunch (#33)
Ok, I see your point. This statement was incomplete:
“A system that does not work if you remove one part is also not going to work building it up from the beginning- a fortiori.”
I should have said, “A system that does not work if you remove one part is also not going to work building it up from the beginning, unless each step is functional and has a survival advantage.”
If it was built up step by step from the beginning, you should be able to work backward and have functionality at each step. You remove one component, and there is still a valuable function.
As to your scaffolding analogy- scaffolding is designed by intelligent beings. Also, scaffolding is not useful until multiple parts have been assembled.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm


“A system that does not work if you remove one part is also not going to work building it up from the beginning, unless each step is functional and has a survival advantage.”
And there are no biological systems that can be shown to violate the need for each step to be functional.
I agree completely with you that if there were an irreducibly complex system that evolution would not be able to account for it. No such systems have been identified and every claim about such systems has been made without subjecting it to formal review and has been shown to be mistaken by those who then did review it after it had been claimed.
The rock that erodes as a natural bridge is formed is scaffolding by function.



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Steve A

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:01 pm


Thanks for this post and the interesting discussion. RJS–I’m confused, isn’t the view now that the Miller-Urey experiment showed that some organic molecules could be formed fairly easily, but that our current best understanding of the primordial earth atmosphere is dramatically different than they assumed and in fact their experiment would not create organic molecules at all in that context?



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:14 pm


pds (#34)
Behe posed a question – a reasonable question to think about, but it doesn’t hold up. I know you don’t agree about the “hold up” part. I will come back to this – but as I said above, when I have time to construct a good post on it.
We both agree on the issue of naturalism – the idea that science proves ontological naturalism is a real problem. But we make no headway here by holding tenaciously to a sinking ship (which is how I would classify the concept of irreducible complexity).
I’m with dopderbeck on this one. And I said it back in my post on miracles. I think God is intimately involved in everything, but the only time this involvement is empirically discernible is in the miraculous involvement of relationship with people. I see no theological reason to think that creation requires miraculous intervention. From the evidence I see every reason to think that God’s involvement in creation is not “miraculous” or supernatural.



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RJS

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:20 pm


Steve A (#37),
I am not up on the theory of ancient atmosphere, although I think that this experiment is still somewhat relevant. What I find most interesting here though is the fact that amino acids seem to be relatively easily formed. And there is abundant evidence for various small organic molecules in the universe. I don’t think that the big question is the formation of precursors (except perhaps RNA nucleotides), rather the big question is how to get from chemicals to life.



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Travis Greene

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:49 pm


freelunch,
Science can tell us a lot about life. But not much about living. I’m not opposed to science, but it doesn’t have all the answers to deeper questions of life. That’s not an insult; it isn’t intended or expected to.
But I think to relegate questions of purpose, meaning, hope, forgiveness, peace, justice, wisdom, suffering, courage, sin, and love to the junk-heap of history just because we’ve built some marginally clever machinery and split the atom is incredibly short-sighted, and misses out on so much of what it means to be human. And I recognize there’s no “evidence” of any of that, according to the limits science very properly places on itself.
But I’ll take my chances with it.



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dopderbeck

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:50 pm


Freelunch (#31) said: The only ‘faith commitment’ I have is that reality exists and can be studied.
I respond: I think you’re overly minimizing the scope of what you’re taking on “faith.” When you say “reality exists,” that’s a whopper of a statement — what do you mean by “reality?” What comprises “reality?”
When you say “and can be studied” that’s another whopper of a statement. Is there nothing in “reality” that is beyond the ability of humans to study? If it’s possible that some things in “reality” are beyond human ability to study — a possibility that I think has to be granted by an empiricist, because by definition we can’t know empirically if such things exist — to what extent can reality be studied? And if you can’t be certain about the extent to which reality can be studied, how do you know whether anything you might think about reality is reliable — the stuff you don’t and can’t know might overturn everything you think you know.
In short: your empiricism and pragmatism are built on a HUGE edifice of “faith” claims. I don’t suggest that’s a bad thing, unless you want to minimize it in order to sharply juxtapose “reason / science” and “religion.”



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dopderbeck

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:56 pm


pds — I don’t think Behe’s irriducible complexity leads to the Christian God. I think it at best leads to a god who winds things up and tinkers with them now and again. And given that every claim for an IC system is at least highly debatable as a matter of natural history, I don’t really see the apologetic value in any event. It always ends up with one group quoting a bunch of papers cited by Ken Miller and another group citing a bunch of other papers, none of which anyone is likely to read or understand. It’s also problematic, IMHO, that some of Behe’s examples relate to parasitical organisms that cause human suffering — you exchange some tentative apologetic for direct divine action for theodicy problem.



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freelunch

posted July 7, 2009 at 5:00 pm


dopderbeck –
What is there in reality other than the physical universe? I don’t claim that something beyond the universe might not exist, only that we have no method of learning about them today. How do we determine the truth of claims about unicorns?
In short: your empiricism and pragmatism are built on a HUGE edifice of “faith” claims. I don’t suggest that’s a bad thing, unless you want to minimize it in order to sharply juxtapose “reason / science” and “religion.”
So, what do you propose as an alternative that works better?



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Peter

posted July 7, 2009 at 7:45 pm


RJS (#23): But if the primordial soup is a mix (let’s stick w/AA’s), then the first polypeptides would be “mongrel” as well, causing significant distortion (I think) in the three dimensional structure of simple polypeptides long before there were any enzymes with the sort of integrity that follows from a determined three-dimensional structure, making them more inert than when they were free-floating AA’s. This is something that was presented to me >20 years ago, made sense at the time (Please do not look up my Organic Chemistry grades!) and yet it seems no one else finds it challenging, but it seems like a significant obstacle to overcome to me before I can really give any consideration to spontaneous generation. Certainly nothing in the Miller experiments is convincing for me. Thanks for your patience with me – organic chemistry has not been a part of my life for a very long time.



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RJS

posted July 8, 2009 at 7:50 am


Peter,
I think that the big unknowns involve the move from chemical mix and racemic mixtures to life. I don’t know if anyone has a plausible mechanism. But self-segregation in chemistry is not uncommon, and I expect that some such process amplified a random choice of one enantiomer. I don’t think that we should use our ignorance here as a gap – and insert God (some people try to use it in this fashion). God’s involvement is in and through all. But I think that the only time we should expect this involvement to be empirically discernible is in his relationship with people created in the image of God.



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dopderbeck

posted July 8, 2009 at 10:09 am


Freelunch (#43) said: What is there in reality other than the physical universe?
I respond: God — who is the ground and source of all reality. I’d also add “angels” or what scripture refers to as “heavenly hosts” — created beings that apparently aren’t “physical.”
So you might respond, “I can’t observe God, so I can’t consider ‘God’ part of the reality.” Well, if so, that makes my point about whopping faith presuppositions that underlie your understanding of “reality.” If you’re willing to dismiss the possibility of God because his being would exist outside the space your little terrestrial primate’s perceptive apparatus is capable of taking in, you have more “faith” in your abilities than me.
Freelunch said (in reference to pragmatism): So, what do you propose as an alternative that works better?
I respond: First, I’d observe that “works better” is the sort of value judgment that seems to me to be ruled out by your epistemic framework. What do you mean by “better?” Why is “that which produces the most good for the most people” (a common utilitarian / consequentialist / pragmatist approach) “better?” Why ought I as an autonomous agent to surrender any of the autonomy I might wish to exercise in pursuit of utility for myself in favor of the utility of others? It seems clear to me that the only answers to this kind of question are metaphysical and transcendent, and therefore outside the capacity of pragmatism as an ovearching ethic.
From my own perspective, “works better” should not ultimately be defined in terms of “utility,” but rather should be defined in terms of human flourishing. Human flourishing matters because human beings are endowed with unique capacities, responsibilities, and dignity. I believe these endowments are part of the Christian notion of the “image of God.” Others might see these endowments as resulting from transcendent (perhaps “emergent”) properties not resulting from divine endowment (I think that sort of effort ultimately fails without theism, but that’s another matter). Human beings flourish when they order their lives and societies to engage in practices that cultivate “virtues” such as courage, other-regard, prudence, justice, and fortitude. In short, I think virtue ethics ultimately grounded in Christian theism “work better” than anything else on offer.



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freelunch

posted July 8, 2009 at 11:30 am


dopderbeck –
I respond: God — who is the ground and source of all reality.
So you say, but you offer neither evidence nor a valid argument to support your claim. I don’t claim that God does not exist. I do claim that there is no evidence about God and that there is no evidence that God is involved in the universe in any way. The evidence shows us that God is as real as unicorns and leprechauns.
Human beings flourish when they order their lives and societies to engage in practices that cultivate “virtues” such as courage, other-regard, prudence, justice, and fortitude. In short, I think virtue ethics ultimately grounded in Christian theism “work better” than anything else on offer.
But those are all real behaviors that can be studied (and they are not grounded specifically in Christian theism). Nothing about it requires an appeal to an unevidenced God or some other mystical claim.



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dopderbeck

posted July 8, 2009 at 1:41 pm


freelunch (#47) said: So you say, but you offer neither evidence nor a valid argument to support your claim.
I respond: Well, I haven’t tried to make any affirmative arguments yet. We’ve only been talking about your faith presuppositions, which you’ve mistakenly claimed are minimal. Again — what constitutes “evidence” or a “valid argument”? You can’t just circle back to empiricism here, because that just begs the question.
freelunch said: The evidence shows us that God is as real as unicorns and leprechauns.
I respond: Again, you’re just begging the question of what comprises “the evidence,” what sorts of “evidence” constitutes warrant or justification for a knowledge claim, and what human beings are capable of knowing empirically. And even at the level of empiricism, you’re dismissing the evidence about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the growth of the early Christian church, and, more broadly, the phenomena of religious faith and experience across human cultures. Whatever explanation you offer for the widespread phenomenon of religious experience, it is far more interesting and complex than silly examples such as unicorns and leprechauns.
You said: But those are all real behaviors that can be studied
I respond: First, I’d note that you dodged my questions about the ground for preferring pragmatism. But beyond that — yes, these “behaviors” can be studied — so what? Once again, it seems you have limitless faith in human perceptual and rational abilities — as though the possibility that something can be “studied” implies that it can be exhaustively understood and explained. This kind of reductionism always quickly collapses under its own weight.
You’re correct that the virtues I mentioned aren’t uniquely grounded in Christian theism. I believe they reflect universal truths about human nature and natural law, for which Christian theism IMHO offers the most coherent explanation.



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Ken

posted July 8, 2009 at 2:04 pm


To #18. “For those interested in the status of Intelligent Design research you can check out its peer reviewed journal here: http://www.iscid.org/pcid.php
It seems to me that these are opinion pieces or review articles, not original, peer-reviewed scientific articles.



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freelunch

posted July 8, 2009 at 2:49 pm


dopderbeck –
You haven’t made any attempts to defend anything you have said. I don’t see where you are leading with this other than a path that seems remarkably similar to that of epistemological nihilism. If you have specific ideas in mind, I’m sure we’ll be running into each other again and we can discuss them at that point.
Ken –
There are no original, peer-reviewed scientific articles related to intelligent design by ID advocates. The Templeton Foundation and the Discovery Institute, the leading proponent of ID, are pretty much not talking to each other because the DI refused to take Templeton up on their offer to pay for research of ID and the DI fellows who got money for specific projects have never delivered those projects.



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Unapologetic Catholic

posted July 8, 2009 at 2:57 pm


@ #49
Yes, you’re right of course. my “peer reviewed” was somewhat tongue in cheek. Nevertheless, the ISCID is an intelligent design organization with its own journal that could, if it desired, publish any current developments in Intellegent Design science. There can be no claim of discrimiation, ostracism or censorship. If you have any scrap of intelligent design research, there is a journal very willing to publish it.
However, as any visitor to the website will observe, the last date of publication was 2005. The Journal published sporadically for only 3 years and appears to have been abandoned.
That is the state of intelligent design “science.”
Moribund.



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dopderbeck

posted July 8, 2009 at 5:33 pm


Freelunch (#50) — I’m honestly baffled by this one! We’ve been talking about the basis for your views, which you haven’t defended! What am I supposed to be defending?
As to “epistemological nihilism” — my epistemological views fall along the lines of critical realism informed by Reformed Epistemology. Pretty much as far from nihilism as you can get.



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pds

posted July 8, 2009 at 6:23 pm


So much misinformation about ID in these comments! So little time to correct!
Readers beware.
For anyone really interested intelligent design (and not just straw man arguments attacking it) spend some time at: http://telicthoughts.com/
This post started out about the origin of life problem. The following post is on that topic and the simplistic God of the Gaps cliche:
http://telicthoughts.com/a-materialist-red-herring/
“The origin of life is a dilemma that has defied attempts at resolution since Darwin. Sure we have a hodgepodge of theories as to how it went down. We also have identified properties of cellular biochemicals thought by OOLers to justify their faith in chemical pathways to cells. Their faith is never so evident as when critiques of their beliefs are branded God in the gaps. The cliche reveals a number of things about those who use it. Lack of originality for one. It is one of the first cliches learned by critics and is subsequently mindlessly tossed about. Ever more so when a telling blow is landed on a theoretical weak spot.”



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Darren King

posted July 8, 2009 at 6:57 pm


Freelunch,
Do you honestly not understand what doperback is saying/asking? He’s calling into question your conclusion that empiricism is the only measure of “reality”.
You keep saying otherwise, but that is a FAITH CLAIM. You’re welcome to it. But stop making it out to be anything other than what it is – an assumption.
Also, if you really don’t understand the questions that doperback is asking you, then I’d suggest you are so far down the rabbit trail of one particular worldview that you’re having difficulty even seeing it with some semblance of objectivity.



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freelunch

posted July 8, 2009 at 8:49 pm


Darren King,
I understand what he is doing. I just don’t think he is doing anything that shows a serious interest in discussion. If he objects to the idea that empiricism works, then it is up to him to tell me why and to offer an alternative that works better. As long as he fails to do either, he’s no better than someone who plays games with epistemological nihilism.
Just equating every view of the world as a ‘faith claim’ ignores the proven difference in the effectiveness of the differing views. I see no reason to give any world view that refuses to test itself any sort credence. When you or dopderbeck want to start talking about a worldview that can be shown to be at least as reliable as empiricism, then there’s something worth talking about, otherwise, you’re just asking me to waste my time discussing utterly meaningless claims.



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Steve A

posted July 8, 2009 at 9:25 pm


Thanks for your response RJS (#39). I am no expert on the ancient atmosphere, and when I looked just now, the answer seems complicated (as is typical!). I think the state of play is that the experiment assumed a reducing atmosphere, and then people starting thinking it was actually mostly the opposite. Now people are arguing that volcanic activity, etc. could have provided conditions more like the experiment and so offered an avenue of production of some amino acids.
Either way, I agree with your conclusion that the (much) bigger question is how do you get from chemicals to life. I also think that there is a significant question (or at least additional explanation needed) for how you get from simple organic molecules to complicated ones, and for how those complicated ones get coded with what can only be described as information.



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Unapologetic Catholic

posted July 9, 2009 at 1:42 pm


Darren, FK and Dopderbeck,
I don’t know if anybody else is, but I am fascinated by the discussion, and as a religious perosn I am very interested in FL’s point.
I think his point is being missed, if I understand it correctly. I do not belive that it it fair to characterize a general way of looking at the physcial world as a a “faith position.” That charcaterization adds little to the discussion.
I think that you are instead suggesting that FL is pre-committed to a paricular world view and it is that pre-committment that is a “faith position.” I do not hear FL asserting any such pre-committment.
Instead he is simply saying that, by trial and error over human experience, we have come to expect things to operate in certain ways under normal circumstances. As a pragmatic matter it is fairly safe to plan your life around the assumption that such things will continue to follow observed patterns.
For example, FL assumes that gravity normally works. Therefore he expects to go down if he steps off of cliffs. I suppose there are other ways of knowing, such that you can have an expectation that maybe angels will hold you up. (Acts1:1-11) Pragmatically, however, the expectation that gravity works as we have observed from multiple human experiences is a good way to plan your life.
If things have changed, or the observations no longer hold true, then pragmatism allows an indivdual to change their mind about the validity of the patterns we have prevously observed. Pragmatism is not particualry wedded to any worldview or even religion.
FL pragmatically disregards phenomena that cannot be observed to effect his life. Those phenomena may well exist. I think he used the unicorn example. Unicorns may exist in some part of the world or even on some other planet or may exist in the same sense as fairies, pixies and lepreechauns, but FL and the rest of us live our lives pragmatically as if unicorns have no effect on our lives. Those who live as if unicorns have no effect on their lives seldom suffer ill effects as a result of that assumption. I suspect almost all of us posting here act as pragmatically as FL with respect to unicorns. I do not characterize my thoughts on unicorn existence as “faith-based.”
There is nothing faith based about any of this. There is no “faith” that pragmatism always works. Our pragmatic reliances may one day prove fatal. However, pragmatic reliance on the laws of physics operating in this world is not a bad way to respond and interact with the world. It has a track record of success–nothing more. Your mileage may vary and past results are no guarantee of future performance.
FL is apparently atheist.
As I understand him, he acts exactly the same with respect to the existence of God as he does to the existence of unicorns. To him this si still not a question of faith. God may exist but simply not manifest Himself in any way to FL or God may not exist.
It seems unproductive to claim that such a view is “faith based.” It gets you nowhere and reduces “faith to a meaningless concept.
Instead, the question to be answered is, “How does God manifest Himeslf in this world? What has happened in this world so that we should assume that God makes a differnce to us and how we plan our lives?”
The fine tuning argument attempts to answer that question by suggesting that the universe itself could not come into existence without Divine action.
Any other examples to offer FL?



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dopderbeck

posted July 9, 2009 at 2:42 pm


Freelunch (#55) and UC (#57) — the problem is that the thread as wandered. Early on in this thread, Freelunch claimed that his approach involved very few unverifiable assumptions. I challenged that claim — I think quite successfully. As far as I can tell, Freelunch hasn’t responded to any of my challenges, except to ask me for something better.
The point is this — all of us unavoidably base lots of what we known on “faith.” The empiricist is in no better position here than anyone else. When Freelunch or the new atheists suggest that their view is the only responsible one because it is based firmly on “science” or empirical observation, while other views are based on “faith,” that is hogwash. All knowledge claims rely heavily on faith, even empirical ones. Logical positivism died decades ago.
As to Freelunch’s question about why empricism doesn’t “work” — I’ve answered that a couple of times already as well.
Empirical methods work reasonably well for certain kinds of things that we can observe. Even here, empirical methods can’t produce real certainty. Human capabilities are limited. There could be enormously important things in the physical universe that we can’t observe, and that could fundamentally change how we think.
Indeed, this is exactly what happens every time new technology enables us to observe what was previously unobservable (think the telescope and the microscope). The notion that human capabilities of observation are as extensive as the universe itself is just hubris. Yes, we can have and have had progressively better knowledge of the physical universe — sometimes with astonishing speed — but this very idea of “progress” demonstrates that we never grasp all of it.
Moreover, empirical methods ultimately can’t comment one way or the other on whether a thing that is by definition un-observable — e.g., God or a “spiritual” aspect of reality. This is where Freelunch’s (and the new atheist’s) approach really falls apart. If God exists, He is the most important thing in reality to know about. Yet, Frelunch’s empirical method excludes, by definition, the possibility of knowledge of God. So how could anyone consider adequate a method that automatically excludes knowledge of the thing that, if it exsists, would be the most important thing to know about? Again, this seems to me the utmost in hubris: “I can’t see it, so therefore it must not exist, or at least it must not be very important.”



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