Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Irreducible complexity

One of the favorite arguments that many creationists love to spout against evolution is the concept of "irreducible complexity." The argument is that living organisms have many organs that consist of many complex parts, and if you take any single part out, the organ becomes completely non-functional. Therefore it could not have formed on its own, because it would have required for all the hundreds of parts to have come together just in the right way at the same time.

This argument makes the same crucial (and rather stupid) mistake as those who argue against "half wings" and "half beaks." It assumes that organs formed fully developed, from its constituent parts.

There's a good analogy to demonstrate why this kind of thinking is nonsensical: A stone arc bridge. If you have an arc made of stones, if you take even one single stone away, the entire arc collapses. Therefore the arc is "irreducibly complex" by definition: You cannot take any single part of it away without the entire structure collapsing. What the fallacious argument would want us to believe is that, therefore, the arc was constructed by magic. (After all, it's impossible for all the stones to have been put all at the same time at their proper places; that's a physical impossibility.)

The mistake here is, of course, thinking that the stone arc was built by putting all the stones at their proper places, and that's it. It does not take into account that, in fact, it was built by using auxiliary support structures that were later removed.

This same phenomenon can perfectly well work in biology as well: Oftentimes some "supporting structures" (either literal, or functionally so) can become obsolete over time because the elements they are "supporting" become independent and can work on their own. Changes over time and natural selection can slowly make the obsolete part less and less important, until it completely disappears.

However, that's not the only mistake that the argument makes. An even larger mistake is to think that the constituent parts of an organ "come together" somehow ready-made. That's not how biology works. Organs change all the time over generations, in shape, size and functionality, even if so little. It's perfectly possible for a complex organ to form by transforming from one shape and function to another. It's not a case of ready-made parts coming together; it's a case of a structure changing into a different, more efficient form.

The eye is a perfect example of this, both because it's typically used as an example of "irreducible complexity," and because we know pretty well how the eye evolved during millions of generations. (The short version is: At first some skin cells were able to perceive light. It was then more advantageous if such cells were grouped close together. Then it was more advantageous if that area became concave because it allows perceiving light directionality better. Then it became basically a pinhole camera. And then the hole became covered by transparent tissue because it helped protect the whole. And then different shapes of the transparent tissue made vision better or worse, naturally selecting certain shapes over others. And so on.) And we actually have all of these stages in existing species, so it's not pure hypothesis. (It demonstrates that all these stages are, in fact, completely functional.)

This is a good example that it's not a case of "ready-made parts coming together" but rather an organ transforming over time. The end result may in some way be "irreducibly complex" technically speaking, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't have formed by slow transformation from one shape to another.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why not a flawed god?

Many of the philosophical objections to the concept of "God" stems from the claims (that mostly the abrahamic religions make) that God is absolutely perfect, absolutely all-powerful, absolutely all-knowing, infinite, omnipresent, absolutely good, completely without any kind of flaw or evil, and so on. The requirement of being absolute at all possible positive things and capabilities presents a multitude of logical contradictions.

This got me thinking: Why exactly are the abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, so completely obsessed with God being absolutely perfect and having the maximum possible amount of everything? What exactly would be the problem in the notion of a god that does not have absolute and infinite properties? This god might be unbelievably powerful and so on, but not infinitely so. This god might not be absolutely everywhere at all times, know absolutely everything, and have limits. This god might have flaws. (One could argue that even with these flaws this god is unbelievably close to perfection; but still even slightly flawed.)

It seems that many Christians consider God being anything less than absolutely perfect and infinite to be akin to blasphemy. It's unthinkable.

(Of course there's exactly as much evidence for this kind of limited god as there is for the god of Christianity, that's to say zero, but at least a limited god would address most of the philosophical objections that an absolute god raises.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Banana man's" actual mistake

Ray Comfort is often called the "banana man" because of an infamous video in the Way of the Master series where he presents "the atheist's nightmare", the banana, which he claims has been perfectly designed for humans and therefore is a perfect example of an intelligent creator. This is actually not the first time he has presented that exact claim, as there are earlier videos of him doing that (as well as other things, such as claiming the same from apples.)

The problem with this argument is that he assumes that the modern banana has existed from the beginning of time. He probably had a kindergarten-level understanding of the banana tree, and imagined apes eating (modern) bananas even thousands of years ago in tropical islands. In actuality the modern banana did not exist a few hundreds of years ago. It's the product of selective cultivation (which started, ironically enough, with a random mutation in a wild banana tree species that suddenly produced an edible, sweet banana type very similar to what it has been refined to be today) that happened a couple of hundred years ago or so. Its ancestor is a wild banana tree whose fruit is very different from the modern banana in shape and color, stock-full of seeds and almost inedible without cooking. Moreover, the modern banana tree cannot reproduce on its own and wouldn't survive without human intervention.

Quite unusually, Ray Comfort actually retracted is argument and admitted his mistake.

However, he didn't actually learn anything because that was not the most fundamental mistake in this whole debacle, and he did not understand that. The core point was not that he just had a bad argument. His worst mistake, which he clearly showed with this argument, is that he presented it after doing exactly zero research on the subject. And that's the problem and the core point that he did not understand, nor doesn't understand to this day (because he keeps doing that exact thing over and over.)

A simple internet search with something like "history of the banana" would have quickly revealed this critical information. Even if the internet was not as readily available back in the day when he first presented this argument, libraries have existed. Schools, professors and experts have existed. A few phonecalls would have sufficed to clear up any misunderstandings. But no, that's not his style, nor is it the style of so many other Christian apologists. He just comes up with an idea, does no research whatsoever to corroborate its accuracy, and then proudly presents it.

And he keeps doing that very mistake over and over, to this day. Very recent videos show him presenting arguments which he has clearly done zero research to verify, and which are as bad as his banana argument.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The platypus

One of the most hilarious misunderstandings about evolution that creationists have is that if evolution were true, we should find animals that are mid-way between two completely unrelated species(*) such as for example something that's in-between crocodiles and ducks, or elephants and octopuses. Yet when dealing with the platypus, suddenly these exact same people make no mention of this concept, and on the contrary reverse their entire position and claim that here we have an animal that's (seemingly) impossible from an evolutionary perspective because it has features of completely unrelated species. (They like to say that "God created the platypus to laugh at evolutionists.") Talk about being two-faced... This so typical of creationist parlance; always take the position more favorable to your own views and which puts your opponent's views in bad light.

(* Of course I'm using "completely unrelated" in a more colloquial sense here. All living organisms are related to each other, meaning that every single pair of living individuals can be linked to a common parent, if we go through their lineage back enough. "Completely unrelated" would mean in this case species whose common ancestor is so old and they have diversified so much that they have extremely little in common. In other words, in taxonomic terms they belong to different orders or even classes.)

The first misconception is so stupid that it doesn't even need to be addressed. (These creationists never, ever describe the reason, the exact mechanism, that would cause such chimeric species to exist, according to evolution. They just make the claim, and that's it. No need to go to specifics.)

The second misconception is based simply on outwards appearances, with no knowledge whatsoever about the actual biology and morphology of platypuses. Just because two species might share a body part that looks similar doesn't mean that they are the same. For example many mammals and marsupials have spikes (such as the hedgehog and the echidna) that make them look similar, but that doesn't mean that they are somehow related or "in-between" the two species. Two completely unrelated species developing similar features is not even uncommon.

The snout of the platypus might have a superficial resemblance to the beak of a duck, but that's where the similarities end. It's made of completely different type of tissue, and its morphology and function is completely different (for example the duck's beak consists of two parts, the upper and the lower, which open to reveal the mouth, while the platypus' snout is one single part that doesn't open, the mouth being below it.) Saying that the platypus has a duck's beak is like saying that an elephant has a snake on its face (and therefore elephants are closely related to snakes.)

The platypus is certainly very interesting and unusual, even from an evolutionary point of view, but it's not unexpected or mysterious. In fact, the theory of evolution predicts that when species get isolated for very long periods of time, and especially if there's strong selective pressure in their environment, they will diverge significantly from their distant relative species. (It might even be more surprising that there aren't more oddities like the platypus out there.)

This raises an interesting point with respect to creationists. They are not interested in finding out what evolutionary scientists actually say about the platypus (or any other species they might conjure up as "counter-examples" of evolution.) In other words, they are not actually interested in what the theory of evolution says. They are only interested in building up a strawmanned version of evolution, which they can then easily attack and laugh at, and will ignore any counter-arguments.

Whenever you hear a creationist say "if evolution were true, then..." you just know that they are not talking about the theory of evolution, but about their straw man.

Monday, February 18, 2013

"Scientific creationism" is a joke

Well, the title seems to be just a self-evident fact that requires no further explanation. And that it is, of course. However, I'd like to write a few thoughts about why it's a joke.

One of the major problems with so-called "scientific creationism" (which in itself is quite an oxymoron) is that its proponents and "researchers" are complete hypocrites. They are hypocrites because they engage precisely in what they accuse actual scientists to engage in.

You see, these creationists accuse scientists of being completely biased, having preconceived notions of what kind of results they want, and then ignore results that go contrary to them, ignore evidence, interpret data and results in a biased manner to distort it, and even manipulate and outright falsify data, while ignoring and avoiding objections and contrary views and results made by other people.

This is precisely what "creationism scientists" do, and precisely what science goes to extreme lengths to avoid. In other words, this is a complete reversal of the situation.

Science does not start with any preconceived notion that "God does not exist, the universe was not created by any intelligent being, life formed on its own" and then try their hardest to prove this by manipulating evidence and biased interpretation of data. This is exactly what "creation science" does. They start with the notion that God does exist and he created everything, and they try their hardest to manipulate evidence and data to show that. Most of them even outright admit that no matter what the evidence might show, they will never stop believing in creationism. (At least those are being honest in this regard. There are probably some of them who aren't, ie. who claim that they would accept evidence of the contrary if they find it, but deep inside they know they would not.)

Science works like "how does this work? Let's find out. And once we have a working hypothesis, let's put it to the test to see if it's correct." If such tests show that the hypothesis is incorrect or lacking, it's discarded or refined. It doesn't matter which direction the research goes. Science doesn't try to get any preconceived "preferred" result. Science is only interested in knowing how it works and why, regardless of what the answer might be. And more importantly, science is interested in verifying that the answer is actually correct, and a lot of effort and work is put into making as sure as possible of this.

Of course "creation scientists" claim they do to. They might even believe that themselves, at some level.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Radiometric dating

Radiometric dating really irks young Earth creationists. They go to ridiculous lengths to try to prove that it's unreliable (by no less than about six orders of magnitude, which would be an astonishingly large error margin.) They do this by distorting the subject and outright lying about it.

One very common thing they do, especially when talking to other believers, is that they imply that there exists just one single form of radiometric dating, and that all datings are based solely on this single phenomenon. (Most often they do not mention any specific one, but sometimes they actually mention one of the element pairs that's used for this, potassium-argon being a popular one.)

They basically never acknowledge that there are, in fact, numerous different methods for radiometric dating, using different radioactive elements which have different half-lives.

It is often the case that a volcanic rock can, in fact, be dated using several different methods because they contain more than one radioactive material. This is a really wonderful thing with respect to dating such rocks because the more different methods can be used, the more accurate the estimation becomes. More importantly, if the different dating methods gave wildly different answers (such as one giving an age of 1 million years and another an age of 500 million years) it would be a good indication that there's something wrong.

Well, take a guess how well this works. It works wonderfully. When a volcanic rock containing several different radioactive elements are dated like this, all of them tend to give the same age for the rock, with very little variance (which is completely accounted for by the error margin, which is usually about 1%.)

Young Earth creationists cannot satisfactorily explain how the different dating methods could give the same age for such a rock. The arguments they present always deal with just one of such elements, not several.

For example, if material that's the result of the radioactive decay (such as argon or lead) were to somehow enter the rock (by an unknown mechanism) and make it look older than it really is, it would throw off one of the dating mechanisms but not the others, in which case they would give wildly different results. This doesn't happen. In order for this to happen all by-products would need to enter the rock in the right amounts for all the dating methods to coincide (since the half-lives of the elements are wildly different, the amount of by-product needed to make them coincide when dating would also be wildly different, and quite precise.) What exactly are the chances of this happening, every single time, everywhere?

Others claim that the radioactive decay can be accelerated by a natural phenomenon. (Of course they never actually point out exactly which natural phenomenon could accelerate radioactive decay by six orders of magnitude.) And again, it just doesn't work: This phenomenon would need to cause a different amount of acceleration on the decay of the different radioactive elements in order to keep them coinciding with each other (again because of their different half-lives.) This is just impossible, even if such a phenomenon existed.

But of course creationists love to ignore all this, and just stick with their own limited and fallacious arguments.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

God gets absolved from creating diseases

One of the most common statements of the Christian theology is that before the so-called "original sin" there was no death nor disease, that they came after that. Many Christians are, in fact, very eager to absolve God from the responsibility of having created diseases that they will say things like diseases having been caused by our sins, not by God. (After all, no evil can come from God, so it has to come from somewhere else.)

That makes absolutely no sense. Are these people claiming that sinning is actually a creative force that can form things like viruses, bacteria and other kinds of pathogens, as well as the defects of the human biology that causes all kinds of diseases?

The viruses and other pathogens had to come from somewhere. If, according to Christian theology, God created everything, then he also created all disease. Trying to absolve God from this act, and blame humans of it, is nonsensical even from a Christian perspective.

(Even if we went through the path of partially admitting abiogenesis and claiming that disease simply formed on its own due to natural processes, and that God simply allowed it to happen "because of our sinning", that still hardly absolves God from having created the universe in such a manner that diseases could form, and allowing it to happen. Committing evil via negligence is as bad as committing it via more direct means. There's little philosophical difference.)

If, on the other hand, a Christian has the position that yes, God did create disease in order to punish us, then that only makes things worse. The entirety of humanity is punished for the sins of their ancestors. How exactly is this just and right? Why should you be punished for something that your extremely distant ancestor from thousands of years ago did?

(Note that disease can affect people of all ages. In fact, it can affect babies even before they are born. If the claim is that people get disease because they are sinful, then what they are effectively saying is that even unborn children are sinful, even before they become sentient in any way, for no cause of their own.)

Monday, February 4, 2013

The ability of the human brain to affect itself

There's one aspect of typical religious thinking that isn't talked about very much, and that's the pretty prevalent disbelief that many religious people have on the ability of the human brain to affect itself.

For example, there are many religious people who have a really sad life story. They might have been molested, bullied, gone through really difficult times, they might have contemplated suicide numerous times and even sometimes attempted it, they might have had problems with alcohol and drugs, and overall they might have been in the worst possible mental state that a human being could possibly be, psychologically completely broken, almost tortured... And then they found religion and all that went away almost miraculously. They felt like all their problems and worries disappeared, and that they were like a new person, and they felt immense happiness and joy, something they had not felt in a long, long time. They will praise the healing power of God, and will consider this a clear sign of God's existence.

If you ask how exactly they know that this was not just their own brain affecting itself, they simply won't believe it could be. They just can't believe that a person could, all by him or herself (albeit triggered by some external event) shove aside all that mental anguish and suddenly feel extreme happiness and joy.

While such a thing may be relatively rare, it happens. The brain can drastically affect itself and make big changes in the way it thinks and feels about things. It doesn't happen very often, but it certainly does happen sometimes. And that might be the reason: Since it's a rare occurrence, these people tend to think that it never happens and that it cannot happen. That if it ever happens, it must have been something else that made the change, that it's impossible for one's own brain to change suddenly so much.

Curiously, and rather contradictorily, these same people do not have any problem in believing that one's brain can suddenly make a change in the opposite direction. In other words, they don't have any problem in believing that someone who is happy and completely normal, and has been so for decades, can suddenly become traumatized and emotionally scarred for life (for example because of some traumatic event.)

If the brain can suddenly become a complete wreck because of a sudden event, and be in that state for years, why is it so hard to believe that the opposite can also happen, ie. that the brain can suddenly make itself happy again because of some event? After all, if you think about it, it doesn't even sound so implausible.

Part of the reason why these people don't want to admit this is fear. They fear that if it wasn't actually any kind of God that made them happy, that if they accept this, they will revert back to the depression and anguish. This fear is understandable, but it's still a poor argument for the existence of any gods.