Monday, August 26, 2013

Even a blind squirrel...

One of the most misguided and silliest notions that some creationists have about the theory of evolution is that if it's true, we should find all kinds of chimeric animals that are a mishmash of parts of unrelated species. While the "crocoduck" is by far the most infamous example, creationists have ridiculed evolution with numerous others (such as a bird with a lizard's head or a buffalo with wings...)

They are, of course, attacking a straw man here. Something that the theory of evolution in no way predicts. (In fact, if such a chimeric animal were to be found, it would seriously question the theory of evolution and give more credence to the possibility of animals having been made as they are via some other, completely different mechanism.)

However, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, as the saying goes. One of those "ridiculous" chimera that some creationists have sometimes presented to mock the theory of evolution is a fish with legs. There are even some such pictures made where the legs are pretty short, resembling those of a small reptile.

Well, what do you know. In this particular instance this actually is something the current scientific understanding of the evolutionary history of life on Earth has predicted: Fish with some kind of proto-legs that could crawl on land. For once the creationists understood something about evolution correctly (even if it wasn't really the result of actually studying the subject.)

And what do you know, years after the first of those caricatures had been made, fossils of fish with proto-legs have been found. Morphological and anatomical analysis of these limbs strongly suggests that they were indeed used for crawling on land. They also are morphologically similar to modern tetrapod limbs (ie. with similar bone structure), giving strong evidence for the evolutionary history of land tetrapods from fish.

For once creationists got one of the "if evolution is right, then we should find one of these" claims right. And we have found them, thank you very much.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Josh McDowell and the anthill

In the book The New Evidence that demands a verdict, its author, Josh McDowell tries to explain why it was necessary for God to be born as a human. He does this by writing a metaphor:
"One reason would be to communicate with us more effectively. Imagine you are watching a farmer plow a field. You notice that an ant hill will be plowed under by the farmer on his next time around. Because you love ants, you run to the ant hill to warn its tiny inhabitants. First you shout to them the impending danger, but they continue their work. You then try many other form of communication, but nothing seems to get through to the imperiled ants. You soon realize that the only way you can really reach them is by becoming one of them."
This is one of the worst metaphors for anything that I have ever seen. There are quite many things horribly wrong with it.
  1. According to Christian theology, including the one that McDowell himself accepts, God created everything. In terms of this metaphor, that means that this person shouting the warnings is the one who created the ant hill, the field, the plough and the farmer. Moreover, this person knew perfectly well in advance what would happen when he created those things. Therefore it's fully and completely God's own fault that this is happening.
  2. If "God" here wanted to save the ants, the rational thing to do would be, rather obviously, to stop the farmer. This especially so because "God" had created the farmer and the plough in the first place...
  3. This metaphor is painting God as limited and impotent. It seems to be saying that God cannot stop the farmer and the plowing, that it's completely out of his influence and authority, something that he cannot do anything about. He cannot even do as much as take the ant hill and move it somewhere else. The only thing that God is able to do is go to the ant hill and shout at it. This goes blatantly against the concept of an omnipotent god in Christian theology.
  4. It likewise paints God as limited because he's completely unable to directly communicate with the ants. This not only goes against Christian theology about God's omnipotence, but it also directly contradicts the Bible, given that it contains numerous instances of God directly communicating with people. The metaphor seems to be saying that God cannot communicate directly with us (for whatever reason), even though that's very clearly not the case in the Bible.
  5. The man (who should be omnipotent) becoming an ant is most certainly not the most effective way of communication. Direct communication, which the god described in the Bible is perfectly capable of doing, would be a lot more efficient. Him becoming one of the ants and preaching to them the impending disaster is actually one of the least effective ways of getting the message through that one can think of. It's more or less guaranteed that a significant portion of the population will never even hear the message, and even from those who do, a significant portion won't believe it. Direct communication would be a lot more convincing and effective.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Kalam Cosmological Argument video

The YouTube channel 'drcraigvideos' presents most of the arguments made by William Lane Craig. I do not know if he personally endorses or approves these videos, but I think that at the very least it's not his own personal YouTube channel.

Anyway, I thought of looking at this video and see how many argumentative fallacies I could spot.

Ironically, the fallacies start even before the actual argument is presented:

"Does God exist, or is the material universe all that is, or ever was, or ever will be?"
We start with a false dichotomy. Those are not the only options, you know.

Another subtler fallacy here is begging the question: It already assumes many things about the "God" option without giving any reasoning for them.
"Is the first premise true? Let's consider: Believing that something can pop into existence without a cause is more of a stretch than believing in magic. At least with magic you've got a hat and a magician."
Actually no, because now you have two things (the universe and the magician) whose existence require explanation rather than just one (the universe.)

This also falls into a false dichotomy because no third option is even presented as an alternative. Also because "I don't know" isn't considered a valid alternative (the video implies that one has to either believe that something or someone created the universe, or it popped into existence from nothing; the option of "I don't know" isn't presented as a valid position at all.)
"And if something can come from nothing, then why don't we see this happening all the time?"
Completely inconsequential argument. The rarity of the event is no indication of its existence of non-existence. (Also, us not "seeing" said event doesn't mean it's not happening all the time either. It may be happening all the time somewhere outside of our reach.) One would have to somehow demonstrate that it cannot happen before one can conclusively say it cannot happen. "We don't see it" is not enough to jump to this conclusion. (After all, we don't see God either, yet no apologist would accept this as a valid argument for God's non-existence.)

Incidentally, so-called virtual particle pairs may be appearing from nothing (and then disappearing) all the time. Craig rejects the validity of this based solely on principle (rather than science.)
"Everyday experience and scientific evidence confirm our first premise."
No, they don't. The first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause. We have exactly zero experience about things that begin to exist (in other words, first there is nothing, and then something begins to exist there.) The narrator herself said exactly this in her previous sentence. This is an outright contradiction and a completely false deduction.

(Craig himself responds to this counter-argument by resorting to a blatant fallacy of equivocation. The first premise of the Kalam argument is that if something was non-existent and then begins to exist, it must have a cause. When responding to this counter-argument, however, Craig switches to a different meaning of "begin to exist". He doesn't use the meaning of "first there's nothing, then something appear", but the meaning of "matter and energy transforms from one form to another". He tries to defend the former meaning by arguing using the latter meaning. He is extremely deceptive with this, because then he goes on to defend the second premise, which is that first there was no universe, and then it began to exist.)
"Did the Universe begin, or has it always existed?"
Here the narrator is pushing against an open door, so to speak. Most scientists, skeptics and atheists have no problem in accepting the notion that our universe, as it is now, had a beginning. The narrator goes on to argue why we should accept that. We already do, so it's rather irrelevant.

However, the narrator succumbs to more deceptive tactics by making it sound like skeptics and atheists are arguing that the Universe has always existed. In other words, she makes it sound like this is the only counter-argument that skeptics have. This is a straw-man.

(The actual correct answer is: "We don't know." It's accepted that the universe, in its current form, started from a singularity. Where that singularity came from or what it properties were before it expanded, or whether it appeared or something else, is an unknown. We cannot deduce anything from an unknown.)
"It's quite plausible, then, that both premises of the argument are true. This means that the conclusion is also true."
This is just outright faulty logic. You cannot jump from "the premises are plausible" to "the conclusion is true." Even if we accepted the premises as plausible, the proper deduction would be that the conclusion is also plausible, not that it's true.
"And since the Universe cannot cause itself, its cause must be beyond the space-time Universe. It must be spaceless, timeless, immaterial, uncaused and unimaginably powerful."
Says who? This is just full of faulty logic.

Even if we accepted the entire argument, those things do certainly not necessarily follow. Even if the existence of this universe had a cause, we do not know what that cause was or what its characteristics were. For all we know it could have been another universe, which would have certainly not been "spaceless, timeless, immaterial or uncaused." This hypothetical cause could have had any combination of those listed properties, or none at all.

The counter-argument to this is that this would only shift the need for the origin to that other thing, because that other thing would also had had a finite lifespan. However, the argument, as presented, is speaking about the cause of this universe in which we live. It argues that the cause for this universe of ours is "spaceless, timeless" and so on.

There's absolutely nothing in the argument (even if we accepted it as valid) or anything else that would forbid the cause for this universe to be itself finite and caused.
"Much like God."
This commits a bunch of fallacies in one, and is extremely typical

Fallacy of the undistributed middle: "The cause is timeless, spaceless, etc. God is timeless, spaceless, etc. Therefore God is the cause." Even if there was a cause, and even if the cause had those properties, and even if God existed and had those same properties, it still doesn't follow that God is the cause.

Begging the question: The argument simply makes the presupposition that God exists, and that he has these properties. It doesn't even attempt to justify those claims. Even if there was a cause (which in itself has not been established), it may have absolutely nothing to do with this hypothetical god.

Fallacy of the single cause: It assumes a single cause, or single source, for the existence of the Universe. The argument doesn't even try to make this conclusion. There's absolutely nothing that would rule out multiple causes, chains of causes, or any combination thereof.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A prediction

Let me write here a prediction for the future:

In less than 50 years from now, a slavery denial movement will raise in the United States.

This will be a significant amount of people who either deny completely that slavery ever existed in the United States, or at the very least will claim that it is extremely exaggerated and that the real situation was not even nearly as bad (in other words, the "slaves" weren't slaves at all; they were just immigrant paid workers who were completely free and treated like anybody else, and at most had signed contracts with their employers that they had to fulfill.)

They will use all the same old tactics as every other denialist and conspiracy theorist has used.

I cannot predict how popular it will become, but it will most probably a relatively fringe movement, comparable to the holocaust denialists (although there's a real possibility that it will become larger due to Christians having an interest in such a thing.) Nevertheless, it will be a real denialist movement with all the crap that will become with it (websites, books, "documentaries", TV celebrities endorsing it, and so on.)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Why the creationists' statistics don't work

Creationists love to spout completely made-up numbers to show how "impossible" it was for life to appear on its own (or whatever else they are trying to prove.) In some cases there might be some semblance of actual estimation, but the problem even in these cases is that they make completely wrong assumptions.

For example, they may ask "what's the probability that all the atoms needed to form a single DNA molecule just happened to be in the right place at the right time?" Then they make up some figure.

The major problem here is, of course, that they assume that the original DNA molecule formed instantaneously, rather than it having been a very gradual process of "proto-DNAs" changing over time. However, an even more fundamental problem with this is that they assume that atoms just float around randomly, with no natural processes affecting them, and thus they coming together is just pure chance.

Even an elementary school textbook will tell you that atoms don't just float around without anything affecting them. They interact with each other, they attract or repel each other, they form atomic bonds, they form ionic bonds... There are all kinds of physical phenomena affecting how they interact and combine. For instance, two oxygen atoms making a bond and forming an O2 molecule is far from being a "random chance." There are physical phenomena that affect them and make this formation very likely.

To illustrate, suppose we simplify the problem a bit and ask the question: "What's the probability that two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom just happen to come together and form a carbon dioxide molecule?" If we do what creationists do, we just ignore all the natural laws governing their behavior, and simply estimate how many oxygen and carbon atoms there are on Earth, what the size of the Earth is, and from that come up with a number that tells us how likely it is for three of them to just happen to be close enough together to form a CO2 molecule. I haven't even attempted to do this calculation because it's an exercise in futility, but I wouldn't be surprised that it's like one in millions, or even trillions.

If we took that at face value we would have to conclude that the formation of CO2 is so incredibly small that there should exist none on Earth. Yet there is a lot of it.

The reason why there is a lot of it is because CO2 doesn't just form by "random chance", by three certain atoms just happening by chance to be in the right place at the right time. There are natural processes, well understood ones, that cause CO2 to form. (For example, up to 40% of the gas emitted by some volcanoes during subaerial eruptions is carbon dioxide. And we understand the reasons for this.)

Granted, the formation of organic molecules is much more complex and a significantly rarer occurrence. However, it didn't hapen "purely by chance." There are natural phenomena affecting how atoms and molecules interact with each other.