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February 14, 2006

Darwin's Silver Box: A parable about the Darwinist vs. Intelligent Design Debate

Posted by Myles Harris

Since the publication in 1996 of Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box: The biochemical challenge to evolution, a movement called "Intelligent Design" has steadily gained ground in America. Intelligent designers suggest that the cell is irreducibly complex and therefore cannot have evolved from simpler forms. The only alternative is to believe it is designed. Darwinists believe the opposite. Life is a product of blind chance, and explained both in the fossil record and our present knowledge of cell chemistry.

In the last five years this debate has become increasingly bitter and has reached the US courts. In his parable "Darwin's Silver Box", English physician Myles Harris puts both sides of the Darwinist vs. Intelligent Design debate. He suspects the argument is similar to the one debated by medieval scholastics about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. For Dr Harris believes the debate shows that there are limits to what we can know. This realisation, argues Dr Harris, may have a more profound effect on society than the discovery that the world was not the centre of the universe.

On a planet where computers had yet to be been invented and electricity is unknown, an earthquake fissures a great rift in the earth. At the bottom of the fissure, hundreds of feet below the surface, a strange box made of an unknown, shiny metal is found. When the box is opened its discoverers find an arrangement of what look like keys, with each key having a different mark.

On the inside of the hinged lid, opposite the keys, is a square piece of glass of greenish colour which is slightly soft to the touch. If you look hard at its surface you can dimly see your face. There are four screws on one side of the box. When they are removed a panel comes away revealing a network of tiny green boards covered in gold, copper and silver wires. In one corner is a small, delicate wheel.

Although this is a society without electricity, computers or a knowledge of chemistry, it is philosophically very advanced. Evolution, the motion of the stars and gravity are understood. What there is of the fossil record is well known, and philosophers understand how various layers of the earth indicate its age. As a result evolution underpins the basis of peoples' understanding of who they are and how they should live. Since they learnt they arose by chance men and women have given up believing in a creator and understand there is no higher hand. Never the less what surprises everybody about the box is the depth at which it was found. Far deeper than any fossils.

The symbols on the keys cannot be understood - although the court code breakers will eventually solve their meaning - but it does not take long for the royal mathematician to realise that the marks on the upper row of keys are numbers. When this is understood more numbers are recognised on the outer casing. The royal astronomer, called in to give his opinion on the box, is astonished to see a set of numbers inside the open case which refer to a position in the sky. The planet we are on has simple telescopes and when the astronomer royal points his at the spot in the sky indicated by the numbers a small, circular shining object is observed in the near heavens.

A storm of controversy ensues. Is the box the work of an intelligent race who once lived on the planet, or is it a natural object, one of a species that has evolved using quite different materials to those that make up animal and plant life, perhaps a species that lived on the planet long ago and is now extinct?

Most people are immediately convinced that this object is the product of an advanced civilisation. How could it be otherwise? It is clearly a machine of some description and proof of an intelligence greater than ours. This is confirmed by recent observations of the object in the sky. Astronomers have seen sunlight flashing on its surface and they believe it is made of the same substance as the box's outer casing. How could two separate and widely spaced artefacts arrive where they are by chance? And why should one have information written on it about where the other was?

This view does not please the evolutionists who for many years have held an important place in society, with many holding well funded academic chair, chairmanships of important committees and retaining a major voice in public affairs. They have fought off all sorts of silly theories about the origin of life, including one by people called "intelligent designers" who say that living things are far too complicated to be the result of chance. But by dint of careful scholarship they have educated the public to see how misconceived such an idea is - and ultimately philosophically flawed. If the box is designed, who designed the designer, for the designer must be far more complicated than his box. And who designed the designer of the designer of the box? They remind people of the turtle joke.

A famous astronomer having just finished a lecture on gravity was stopped by a little old lady at the exit, saying:

I enjoyed your lecture, but you haven't got it right.
Perplexed, the astronomer asked:
What haven't I got right?
The old lady responded:
The world is not held up by gravity.
Now exasperated, the astronomer asked:
What holds it up then?
The reply came:
A huge turtle.
The astronomer triumphantly shot back:
Aha! And what is the turtle standing on?
The old lady glanced around, leant forward and whispered hoarsely in his ear:
It's turtles all the way down.
The box, evolutionists say, is obviously a product of chance. The common people should not, just because it is so complex, be misled into thinking it is anything else than a sophisticated natural object. If they do they will be falling for the "watch heresy". Many years ago a noted theologian suggested that if you came across a pocket watch in a forest you would be correct in thinking it was designed by an intelligent hand. This was proved to be quite wrong because many natural objects are far more complicated than a pocket watch, and they arose by chance. Because this object was a million times more complicated did not mean it was designed. Evolution was perfectly capable of creating objects even more complicated than the metal box. And the chances of it being somehow linked to the object in the sky are, when written down on paper, no greater than the chance combinations needed to create the human eye.

Nor does its unusual material mean it is artificial. By some rare evolutionary chance this particular combination of metals has come together to create this object. And anyhow what, after all, is artificial? The human hand looks artificial, but it is many times more complicated than the box.

At this stage the debate is deadlocked. A case is fought in the courts as to whether intelligent design should now be taught as science in schools, but is thrown out. Scientists however become more and more worried that the discovery of the box is fuelling superstition. There is a growth of fundamentalism. Huge crowds gather on the anniversary of the finding of the box, praying and dancing. There is talk of a revolution with the replacement of the king by a panel of "God's chosen" and the raising of a great temple to the box.

But far away from the royal palace, on an obscure island off the mainland, an inventor has discovered how to mix certain salts in water to create a strange form of lightning which he calls "wire juice". Conducted from the jars through wires, he uses it to light his hut at night. He calls it "wire juice" because if you touch the wires it gives you a nasty shock. Mocked by his simple neighbours, and in fear of being burnt as a witch, he takes his invention to the capital in the hope he might sell it. After showing it in the streets for a few days to the great wonderment of the crowds, news of this invention reaches the palace. He is summoned to appear before the King.

Now the King, being an enlightened monarch, holds a monthly audience to which inventors are invited to show their work. There are not many discoveries, and the King, to tell the truth, is a little tired of been shown perpetual motion machines, crucibles for turning lead into gold, cures for toothache and magic hats for seeing the future. None of them work. Nor can anybody tell him the meaning of the magic silver box which sits in the middle of the room, silent yet dominating.

But our inventor's magic jars work superbly, lighting up the dark winter's afternoon. The King, entranced, begs him to show him the secret. The inventor explains there is something in the jars that runs along the wires, and if his highness would be so kind as to hold on to their bare ends he will feel it. The king grasps the wires and our inventor throws a switch.

Now custom has it that each day the King wears a different robe. On Monday it is Ermine, on Tuesday the finest bear's fur, on Wednesday it is gilded with cameos, on Thursday buttons of lapis lazuli, but on Friday, the day of the exhibition, the King wears a robe embroidered with the finest filigree silver. As soon as the switch is thrown, the King receives a shock which causes him to stagger backwards so that the sleeve of his silver garment touches the casing of the magic box. Immediately the green mirror under the lid of the box begins to glow, a bell is heard, strange figures course across the screen, and a picture of the object in the sky the Royal Astronomer has seen through his telescope appears.

The large crowd that has assembled is terrified. Save for a few sobs, and a few people praying, a tense silence fills the room. Then the picture of the object in the sky vanishes and some writing appears on the screen. The court code breakers, who have long ago worked out the alphabet of the keys, are hastily summoned. Quickly, because the glow on the screen is starting to fade, they scribble down the mysterious shapes. As the screen fades to darkness one of them waves his paper and shouts:

I have translated it.
The King shouts back:
For the sake of God and the Holy Agros tell us!
The code breaker responds:
Your Majesty, it says, "It's turtles all the way down".
© Myles Harris 2006

Myles Harris is a doctor and a journalist. He has worked in England, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Canada and Africa. He has written for The Spectator, Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Evening Standard and Daily Mail. He is the author of Breakfast in Hell (Simon & Schuster New York, Picador London), an account of his work as a doctor in a relief camp during the Ethiopian famine of 1984.


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Brilliant story, well-told.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at February 15, 2006 01:34 AM
•••

This relates back to the vicious written assault on William D. Rubinstein after he expressed some doubts about evolution, and Myles Harris defended him in two blogs (see the author archives). Many of these came from atheists, though to their credit, they prefer (as judged by following some of their web links) to let off steam through sex like bonobos rather than like you-know-who who show extreme violence, much like the Gombe chimpanzees did before their leader Frodo died of flu. But the one thing they DO NOT want is conservatives or Christians accepting evolution, because that will spoil their agenda of controlling the culture and morals of the next generation. A recent Guardian article* relates how much closer genetically the chimps and bonobos are to us than to the other great apes. But between us and the chimps there is a seven million year evolutionary exodus from Apedom, and just as God judged those Israelites who hankered after the flesh pots of Egypt, so he will judge today’s hominids who hanker after the flesh games of the jungle.

However, I really don’t get the point of the parable. Perhaps this is because I look at it from a different perspective. Much of the output of the ID people seems like argument in a court of law. Lawyers as such cannot understand science, which is why, when I saw Phillip E Johnson on the telly a few weeks ago talking about putting Darwinism on trial, I was completely put off. Incidentally, the Tennessee “Monkey Trial” was lost by the lawyer Darrow’s rudeness and bombasticism, while the recent Dover, Pennsylvania trial, in which the pro-evolution side relied on a scientist rather than a lawyer, went the other way.

But there is surely a religious element to ID. But the secular evolutionists have no right to complain. They were abusing evolution and geology to attack religion long before the counter attack in the 1920s, typified by George McReady Price’s 1926 book “The Genesis Flood”.

But whatever field of science a believer is in, he should remember what C.S.Lewis said in a lecture to some students:

By leading that [learned] life to the glory of God I do not, of course, mean any attempt to make our intellectual enquiries work out to edifying conclusions. That would be, as Bacon says, to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie.

*The article is well worth reading for its science content, but I suspect much of the drive to reclassify humans and chimps in one genus is driven by an unwritten Kulturkampf which C.S.Lewis described as the Abolition of Man.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 15, 2006 07:35 PM
•••

Hey, I wrote a story! It's called "people who I think are stupid!" and it features a bunch of characters who hold caricatured versions of the views they actually hold. Did I mention that they are stupid?

Can I write for the Social Affairs Unit now?

Seriously though, when one needs to resort to imaginative fiction to try and imagine a world in which solid evidence for their position turns up, I should say that they are probably in need of some serious soul-searching of their own.

If we ever turned up something as complex as a computer, (let alone the inherent cheapness of using an example which we a priori know to have been designed, and which has the writing and information about its creators plastered all over it) in a place that was wholly out of context for such complexity, we would be quite likely to infer design. But this analougy doesn't hold for biological life, and no amount of fantasizing can fix the deep problems with such an analougy. Furthermore, nothing like a computer has turned up, let alone any information that is _communicative_ instead of functional.

Instead, we find functional complexity IN a relevant context (in the midst of a biological system of adaptive reproduction) with all the characteristics of having been shaped by natural selection (i.e. the same sort of results we see when we use natural selection to design software or engineer things: highly repititious, indirect, meandering, redundant, but often surprisingly innovative solutions).

Posted by: plunge at February 17, 2006 10:52 PM
•••

"The article is well worth reading for its science content, but I suspect much of the drive to reclassify humans and chimps in one genus is driven by an unwritten Kulturkampf which C.S.Lewis described as the Abolition of Man."

Keep in mind that chimps were originally in one genus with us: they were then taken out. This is a move to restore them.

The real purpose of such a move is part of a broader attempt to make categories like "genus" more consistent. Not only are humans similar to chimps genetically, but morphologically we are far more similar to each other than most members of a genus are elsewhere in the animal kindgom (feel that little indent in the roof of your mouth? That's the only major morphological feature you have that a chimp lacks: everything else is a matter of shorter hair, bigger brain, rebalanced hip, and so on, all rather minor matters in terms of the general diversity of the animal kingdom). This sort of lack of consistency in category can become very confusing.

Posted by: plunge at February 17, 2006 10:57 PM
•••

If they lacked chemistry and mechanical typewriters, how in the hell could they have philosophy?

Do you seriously fail to see the difference between living things and non-living things?

Do you seriously fail to understand why it is illegal in the U.S. to teach religious dogma as science? Do you seriously misunderstand evolution as you state in your article?

Are you parodying yourself, creationists, or the hubris of anti-evolutionists?

Posted by: Ed Darrell at February 17, 2006 11:09 PM
•••

But if it doesn't exhibit classically held notions of life, why should evolutionists deal with what is essentially an inanimate box? Why would it not be classed as an artefact and studied by archaeologists? It's not bone, fur, teeth, skin, blood, tissue etc. Therefore an evolutionist would be unqualified to analyse it. There are many items discovered in excavation that have never been seen before by modern man, but we don't give them to all evolutionists to look at.

The watchmaker arguement is all fine and dandy, except a watch is not alive or indeed represent components of a living being.

Bones are inanimate objects from living beings, but they are not obviously designed. Which is the whole point of the argument.

For an intelligent design case to be taken seriously they must explain why features of anatomy are seemingly poorly designed. It's all very well to look at a flagella and note that's it's complicated and very well adapted to it's environment, therefore implying design intent, but to be truly convincing one must explain non-obvious design features. Eg Why do we get cancer? What is the purpose of the appendix? Why do whales have remnant legs? Why do human males have nipples? Once Intelligent Design proponents provide research into how and why male nipples (etc) could have been intelligently designed then maybe the rest of the world could start to take them seriously.

Posted by: LK at February 18, 2006 12:00 AM
•••

Well first its the same old tired argument I.D. has tried again and again. It hasn't worked before and it won't work now. It's the watch argument all over again. I.D. should NEVER be taught in science class because it's not science. The church gets into trouble every time they try and venture into the realm of science. Sometimes science supports evangelicals view of the bible, sometimes not. But when the church tries and make science 'fit' their view of the bible they end up with egg on their face. Lets talk about the Earth being flat or the Sun revovling around the Earth. Evolution is a scientific theory. As is gravity. But I dont see the church talking about 'Intellegent Falling'.

And Evolution does not conflict with the bible, unless of course you think it does.

Here is a quote I found somewhere (sorry I cant remember where).

"Newsflash -- scientific consensus isn't "an opinion lots of people agree with." It's not a ... popularity contest.

Science doesn't change if your feelings get hurt. Science doesn't change if you don't understand. Science doesn't change if its explanations don't fit with your theology.

The only thing that changes science is more science. Better science, better data, more facts, a new idea that explains existing facts better.

You can say you don't believe in science. But sweetheart, that doesn't make science wrong. So go ahead, don't listen to scientific explanations. But don't be surprised when the folks who believe in science keep being right and you keep being wrong.Which would be much more helpful criticism -- not that this is the orajones' fault -- if the administration ever felt any shame at being wrong."

I also have to say that this includes what is oxymoronically called "Intellegent Design". This is because there is also a problem with what is Theory and what is not. Theory must be supported by emperical evidence. Theory must be consistent with FACTS. The only way to disprove a Theory is by emperical evidence. Not by an idea or of a philosophy but by emperical evidence. I am sick of the anti-intellectual ideas being presented as an alternative to real science. I can only hope the American public wakes up.

Posted by: druidbros at February 18, 2006 12:51 AM
•••

Evolutionists claim that random variation and natural selection account for all the diversity in life we see. But there is no evidence for this. They ask us to take it by faith! (They claim that they have evidence--I've been to their websites--but it's highly unimpressive. First they take God out of the world, and then they try to come up with the least implausible explanation for why things are like they are. And they've done a good job--if minimal implausibility is your thing!)

Posted by: bloguy at February 18, 2006 01:22 AM
•••

This is easily one of the more laughably idiotic attempts to discredit evolution I've read in a long time. Thanks for the chuckle.

Posted by: Les at February 18, 2006 03:34 AM
•••

"This was proved to be quite wrong because many natural objects are far more complicated than a pocket watch, and they arose by chance."

No they bloody well didn't! For the umpteenth time: biologists do not believe that adaptive complexity in living things arose "by chance" or "randomly".

Go to the blackboard and write out a hundred times: "natural selection is NOT random".

Posted by: Tony Jackson at February 18, 2006 08:01 AM
•••

"Evolutionists claim that random variation and natural selection account for all the diversity in life we see. But there is no evidence for this."

Well, it's the only process anyone has so far put forward which can plausibly account for the adaptation of existing life to its environment and fits all the physical evidence we have about when and how this developed over time.

"They ask us to take it by faith!"

Nope. Stand or die, on the evidence.

"They claim that they have evidence--I've been to their websites--but it's highly unimpressive. First they take God out of the world, and then they try to come up with the least implausible explanation for why things are like they are."

Sorry, but there's no taking God out of the world. Just a pragmatic reduction of hypotheses to those that actually propose something tangible, that has contect with the evidence.

And the biological account is not only plausible, but pretty darn well substantiated by the evidence. Chances are, you hav a lot of misconceptions about both what the theory really proposes and what the evidence is.

Posted by: plunge at February 18, 2006 03:28 PM
•••

Now, Mr. Harris, if you had written a parable with some sort of artifically designed life (as you mention over at Pharyngula, that would have been a good - well, "what if," if not a parable. The silliness with the computer doesn't really work - there's no sensible reason to assume that it was in fact an evolved organism, rather than an artifact. You've loaded it against the 'arrogant evolutionary priesthood' in an unnecessary and unfair way.

Now, I'm not sure if you are trying to get at how people will absorb all sorts of things into a religious framework, with the computer becoming the focus of a cult and evolution providing people with a philosophy/moral system. That would be fairly clever, although somewhat at right-angles to reality again. If you aren't, then this next bit:


"As a result evolution underpins the basis of peoples' understanding of who they are and how they should live. Since they learnt they arose by chance men and women have given up believing in a creator and understand there is no higher hand."


is way off. This is just the same old boring caricature of evolution, version D (evolution's just another word for nothing left to lose - it's atheism, claims we just got here by blind, meaningless chance, is trying to surplant religion.) To greater or lesser degree, this sort of claim could be made about any advance in the last few thousand years that explained things previously attributed to the Gods (epilepsy is an illness, not a kind of divine madness?! The horror, the horror!) The whole religion/science thing is a wee bit complicated, but nothing about science says God doesn't exist, and many religious people - and entire denominations, etc - don't have a problem with evolution. Evolution says that given what we know about living creatures, their history and current diversity is best explained by (and so on). If you're not crazily, geekishly in love with science and the natural world, this is a bit dull, I suppose.


"and how they should live"
Silly buggers. This is largely like having gravity underpin your understanding of how you should live. It might well be helpful in some very specific areas (don't jump off tall cliffs), but beyond that . . . And nobody really says anything different. Even the evpsych people aren't really arguing this. Now, there's some wiggle room here - people might take evolutionary facts - we're kin to everything from eagles to E. coli, etc., even little ugly creatures are the result of a long, long process - and apply them to certain areas of ethical behavior - environmentalism, etc. It's science. Germ theory will tell you how to live in regards to washing your hands and not sneezing on people - beyond that, you're on your own (or not).


" Since they learnt they arose by chance"
Ahhhhhrrrrgh!
Yes, yes, meaningless chance, therefore life is meaningless and man is just a monkey. Bullpucky. Besides the vast philosophical/theological jumps - not just chance.


Take little plastic discs, with one side black and one side white. Toss them up onto the air onto a white sheet of paper. Black or white side up? - that's chance (ie, mutations that affect coat color in little rodents of some sort). Now model what happens to white and black-furred little plump whatevers as they scurry across predator-filled winter wonderland after a few generations of living, dying, and breeding. Very orderly. Of course, that's not the core of the complaint, which is that it doesn't say anything about God doing it. Some folks will point out that it doesn't say anything about God not doing it, and that if someone created the universe, it's quite possible the dice are loaded in their favor - but science can't really help us there . . .


"men and women have given up believing in a creator and understand there is no higher hand.""
Again, why? Sure, that's one possibility, although one might point out that atheism predates evolutionary theory, and in most cases evolution only supports or contributes to such a stance. Another is made manifest in the many people/denominations who believe in God and accept modern biological science. After all, since we're dealing in theology, why couldn't God have used evolution? The idea of a God who keeps fussing with his creation (in terms of natural processes) is very pre-scientific, y'know?


Take the Flood bit. Whether or not it's based on the historical flooding of the Black Sea region, it has a marvelous just-so story inside it - why we have rainbows. Think of that: after every rain a colorful sign reminding us of God's promise not to drown the world again. And then that Newton comes along and spoils everything with his fancy-smancy optics! So, toss out the Bible? (PZ, stop cheering and shouting "Yes! Yes!" - I'm trying to make a point!)


Anyway, back to the replicators or whatever we invent a few decades from now. Let's say an earlier human civilization did so already, before their land sank into the sea (or maybe an alien race dropped some off while making people build pyramids). Would we recognize remains or living examples as designed creatures? If they were very different from other life, that would certainly a clue that something was going on. More interestingly, unless they reproduced through flawless replication, they would evolve. Hm,

(Cross-posted to Pharyngula)

Rob Olley writes "But there is surely a religious element to ID. But the secular evolutionists have no right to complain. They were abusing evolution and geology to attack religion long before the counter attack in the 1920s"

Not quite sure what you mean here. Are you talking about secular folks (possibly even scientists) actually attacking religion using science, or are you talking about scientists discovering (and telling people!) that a strict reading of Genesis wasn't supported by science, that the earth seemed to be quite old, and life seems to evolve?
(And what about those bad, bad linguists! I mean, if languages 'evolve' . . .

"But the one thing they DO NOT want is conservatives or Christians accepting evolution, because that will spoil their agenda of controlling the culture and morals of the next generation"

What are you talking about? Atheists aren't a well-organized bloc with a single aim or agenda. You get evangelical atheists, you get nonevangelical atheists, you get atheists who hate religion, or who are fascinated by religion, who disbelive in God with a passion and fervor that is, in a way, a form of worship, or for whom God is about as relevent as cricket (for many Americans). Anyway, if we had a fun kulturkampf agenda, why would we want conservative Christians not to accept evolution?? (political conservatives not accepting evolution, as a group and by virtue of their political orientation - that's just a) evidence of how crazy things are right now (or rather, the power of the right-wing Xtian part of Bush's base) and b) not accurate - many conservatives have no problem with evolution.

"But between us and the chimps there is a seven million year evolutionary exodus from Apedom"
I've never got this whole "we're not just animals we're not we're not we're not!" bit. Yes, obviously we're different from other animals in some very important and specific ways. The kind of thing people usually put on animals when they talk like this tend to be some of those same things that make us different (just the ones we don't like). Of course, folks sometimes make the opposite mistake, when they imagine that other animals -wolves, dolphins, whatever, are all wise and good. Why does it matter if I call myself a human or an ape?

" flesh pots of Egypt"
Umm . . what is a flesh pot? I've never been quite sure . . .

Never read Abolition of Man, so I won't comment on all that yet. Perhaps you can expand on this . . .

*****

Anyway, everyone knows the world isn't held up on the back of a turtle!! It's held up by four elephant standing on the shell of the enormous star turtle Great A'tuin! Silly Mr. Harris!


Posted by: Dan S. at February 18, 2006 10:03 PM
•••

Critics of my parable "Darwin's Silver Box" are either being short sighted or disingenuous. Stripped of its religious and political overtones, which is why the argument over evolution versus intelligent design generates so much heat in the US (but not here in Britain where we are not so exercised by religion) the real problem is how to distinguish artificial objects from natural ones. This is much more difficult than it first appears. For example it was obvious to a 20th century European that an aeroplane was man made, but to a New Guinea native in 1939 it was equally obvious it was a bird, a natural object. Villagers often used to try and feed them after they landed.

We think we could never fall for such a trap but at the end of the 20th century with the coming of genetically engineered animals in the west - for example Dolly the Sheep – which are partly evolved and partly designed, the distinction between artificial and natural has begun to fade. Moreover by 2050 if the human race survives we should be able to create simple self reproducing animals which while appearing natural, are totally designed, and by 2100, given the speed of neurological and genetic research, perhaps animals which can outhink us. At this stage we will be in the same bind as the New Guinean villager. We will not be able to tell which is evolved and which is designed. One argument against this (P Z Myers) is that you might be able to tell an object was designed because the arrangement of its nested proteins (its bricks as it were) was different. But say it was found on another planet (or came from one) where animals evolved along a different path ?

This begs the question, that while it is perfectly possible that human beings are the product of natural selection, how do we know that in our primitive state as cells million years ago we were not the creation of creatures who themselves were either designed or evolved ? There is simply no way of telling at which stage evolution gave way to intelligent design, if it did at all. Or the reverse, if intelligent design gave way to evolution. Moreover we are ourselves intelligent designers, we now build biochemical machines, so nature can create such artefacts, using creatures who might themselve be the result of natural selection.

Nor is it any use trying to say these arguments are "only" philosophy and that the sole debates worth having are those based on empirical evidence. This sort of thinking is late 19th century. Quantum physics teaches us that mind and object cannot be disentangled. While we cannot influence the structure of the physical world with our thoughts, our thoughts construct a reality which may not be "out there". Nor can we rely on language. Human language is not a cosmic universal, it is a local patois, in terms of understanding the universe a few steps up from the barking of a dog.

Erwin Schrodinger (of Schrodinger's cat) one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time, was not deceived by empiricism. He said:

The world extended in space and time is our representation – "vorstellung". Experience does not give us any clue to it been anything besides that….
Later, of the inability of the mind to step outside the physical world he wrote,
Speaking without metaphor we have to declare that we are here faced with one of those typical antimonies caused by the fact we have not yet succeeded in elaborating a fairly understandable outlook on the world without retiring our own mind, the producer of the world picture, from it, so the mind has no place in it.
It is why philosophy is so important.

References:
What is Life? Erwin Schrodinger Cambridge University Press 0-521 – 42708-8

PZ Myers Pharyngula Web Site Comments – Not the Social Affairs Unit Again, 2006

Posted by: Myles Harris at February 19, 2006 03:20 PM
•••

In reply to my comment, a number of points have been raised by “plunge” and in particular by Dan S. There are far too many for me to reply to in one go, so I’ll start with just one by Dan S, who asks:

What are you talking about? Atheists aren't a well-organized bloc with a single aim or agenda.

Quite so. Actually, my target was Pharyngula. It seems that after Prof. Rubinstein posted his article, friends of P.Z.Myers reacted like a swarm of killer bees. So I looked a few times at the Pharyngula site. I have been fascinated by evolutionary topics for decades, though maybe some of preferences, which lean towards the botanical, might seem esoteric. This site has left such a bad taste in my mind that every time it made me uncomfortable (I do not mean doubting scientifically) with evolution for a week or so. I would not like to be an evolutionary biologist if the subject is populated by people like him.

I don’t know how many readers of this are British and how many American, so before my next point a word of explanation is in order. Here in Britain, about 20 years ago, there were two very left-wing politicians, Arthur Scargill who led the Miners’ Strike which was defeated by Margaret Thatcher, and Anthony Wedgewood Benn who supported the miners uncritically. Their extreme views were such an easy target for the media that a friend of centrist political persuasion wondered if they had actually been planted by the Conservative Party in order to discredit Labour. The point of this is, that ‘Pharyngula’s’ rudeness, etc., could give rise to speculation that he is a Republican ‘plant’. If you think this is too far-fetched, read this article about the Guardian’s ill advised attempt to influence voters in Ohio in the recent American election.

And why the Darwinian dingbats? Consider the following comment posted a while ago on the SAU blog:

nothing thrills a Republican more than the thought of extra-judicial beatings, ideally with the victim a member of a racial minority. Similarly, nothing raises the heart rate of a Democrat more than assigning a government official to oversee every tiny aspect of each person's life.

The Republican bit sounds so much like the Gombe chimpanzees on the warpath. But what about the Democrats? Joan Roughgarden (Stanford) wrote in the New Scientist something like:

Among female bonobos, those who do not participate in face-to-face genital rubbing might be excluded from food-sharing.

Never mind the sexual orientation aspect, the applied social pressure over every aspect of life, so like that in Communist societies and their imitators, fits the description quoted of the Democrats.

More tomorrow, DV.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at February 20, 2006 09:22 PM
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Harris has simply appropriated without attribution, William Paley's tedious 1802 tretise: "Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity"

He substituted a laptop computer for the watch of the original, but his "argument" is otherwise precisely the same as Paley's. I don't know whether to find it more shameful or more hilarious that Harris should see fit to copyright his "copy".

The argument rests on nothing more than equivocation as to what constitutes "design". Harris either doesn't grasp or choses to ignore the inescapable fact that we define "artificial" or "designed" not in terms of what it is, but in terms of what is is not: if it is *not* natural, then it is artificial, and was intelligently designed.

We know, a priori, that a thing was designed because we have experience of things of that nature (in the case of the watch) or of something similar to the object in question - in the case of the laptop (for how could we know that those little cubes are "keys" unless we already have experience of keys perhaps in a typewriter?).

We have zero experience of universes being artificially constructed by gods or any other beings, so how then can we claim that it is not natural? We cannot.

We can claim nothing about it until we have another universe to compare with this one. This second universe must, in addition, be one that we *know* a priori, was artificially designed as opposed to it having occurred naturally. Only then can we begin to compare the two and hope to draw some conclusions

Hilariously, even that wouldn't be decisive, because the artificer of the designed universe could well have copied our naturally occurring one!

In short, Harris's "argument" (or should I say, Paley's?) is totally vacuous.

Budikka

Posted by: Budikka at February 23, 2006 11:18 PM
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Oh come now Budikka! Of course it is Paley's idea placed in a modern context. I would have thought everybody would recognise that. Are you suggesting that every time anybody draws a triangle he should mention Euclid? (Voltaire said the essence of being a bore was to say everything.) The difference of course from Paley's mechanical ticker is complexity. A computer, especially one connected to a satellite in synchronous orbit, is hugely complex compared with a Victorian pocket watch.

A discussion of the (insoluble) problem of how we distinguish an artificial object from a natural one is contained in my previous post (not the original article) on this page.

You are absolutely right that the designer of a designed universe could have copied our universe. (slowly getting there.) The reverse is also possible. Turtles all the way down you see.

A more interesting question is one of knowledge. Could an ant walking in my garden comprehend the context of the garden, or that there were many more gardens, and the shape and nature of the huge being (me) standing next to him? I doubt it. But if you read many Darwinist writings you get the impression that the theory is the final word on the subject of that most contentious of all issues. How a universe made up of dead chemicals came to be alive - in the shape of the animal and plant kingdom - and sentient in the shape of us. Sentient about what? Is there knowledge “out there”?

Darwinists are in the same position as physicists in the late 19th century who said that there was nothing more to be discovered about physics, apart from a bit of tidying up. Then along came quantum theory and relativity.

My greatest objection however to Darwinism is the religious zealotry of its followers. In America its followers are presently trying to stifle all debate about the theory. There is a tremendous smell of fear about them, the same smell you get when you visit a fundamentalist Christian site.

Posted by: myles harris at February 24, 2006 01:02 PM
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