1-Hampi wall

Hampi, Karnataka, India, January 1991


Much Wenlock 1403

Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England, March 2014

Cherry and Hawthorn

Following treesFollowing the trees through the year, starting on 7 March, 2014. Click to see larger size.

My office window overlooks these two trees, so two all-too-brief treats are coming soon.

For many other trees, click on the tree image on the left.

Cherry&Hawthorn 140307a

Cherry&Hawthorn 140307b

Debating God: part one

Parliamentary debates are usually taken as the model for speech debates, but legislatures debate policies, not, primarily, factual issues. The answer to a debate in a legislature is ‘yes, we shall pass this legislation [or amendment]’ or ‘no, we shall not’.

The question, ‘does god exist?’, lends itself to no such yes/no answer. The two sides of such a debate are not mirror-images of each other. Theists are mostly believers in a body of scripture that conveys some supposed revelation, and given that you believe this revelation you are almost certain to answer ‘yes’.

The opposite is not true. Suppose you had never heard of any god, and someone said ‘there is a god’. A reasonable response would be, ‘I am sceptical, show me evidence’.

In actual fact, we live in a country where one religion was previously dominant and enforced over the centuries through compulsion. In earlier times, this was backed up by torture and death. More recently, relatively gentle sanctions were used, such as making church membership obligatory for marriage or university attendance.  (I cannot go into a mediaeval church now without being reminded of the brutal history of the Church, which reflects the unremitting cruelty of the Pentateuch, but I am digressing.)

For historical reasons, then, we have come to our present, relatively secular, situation through active scepticism and resistance. Nevertheless, this does not mean that non-theists necessarily answer ‘no’ to  the question ‘does god exist?’. In fact I have come across people with a whole range of positions from ‘it is possible that some kind of supreme being exists’ to ‘it’s so improbable that it is not worth wasting time thinking about it’.

What kind of god are we debating? The people who suggested this debate believe, presumably, in one of the variations on the christian god. But people have believed in thousands of different kinds of god at different times and in different places. As Richard Dawkins likes to say, we are all atheists, it’s just that he believes in one god fewer than a christian or muslim does.

On the one hand, some people argue for a kind of basic foundation of the universe or of life, which may or not be intelligent. Often this will be presented in some form that people feel requires an agnostic position. When presented with this, I will ask for some consequences in the observable world that could be used to test for the existence of such a ‘god’. If those are not forthcoming, then I shall simply consider the existence this ‘god’ not worth the effort of thinking about.

On the other hand, most religious people believe in some kind of god who makes personal demands of behaviour, reverence and belief in certain claimed facts. These religions all assert the truth of what they claim about their own god over the claims of other religions. For example, both muslims and christians believe in Jesus. But to deny that Jesus is the son of God is blasphemy to christians. To assert that Jesus is the son of God is blasphemy to muslims. As these religions contradict each other, at most only one can be true.

Therefore, if you are going to debate whether god exists, we need to know in advance exactly what claims are being made about this god.

As the organisations promoting this debate are (I suspect, a very specific sort of) christian, and there is no reason to suppose they are going to assert the validity of any rival religion, I’ll concentrate on christianity.

Although I may be agnostic about more generic kinds of god, I think christianity is false. (This, I hasten to add because it will likely be raised, does not mean that I think that what is often referred to as ‘christian morality’ is all bad.)

My reasons for rejecting christianity are many: the contradictions between christian doctrine and history and science, the internal contradictions, the very flawed moral compass, and the dubious and political ways in which the scriptures were assembled that belie the claim that they are the ‘Word of God’.

That’s a start. Would PurpleFish members like to comment?

Shropshire Humanist Group website

For readers in my area, I’ve just uploaded a new website for the Shropshire Humanist Group. No, I know it’s not the most beautiful work of art, but it’s better than nothing. It can always be improved, and I know there must be people out there – in my area as everywhere else – who would feel relieved to discover there are other people who think the way they do.

This is the beauty of the web – being able to search for information quickly and make connections between ideas. It’s not so long ago that this would have meant a trip to the library and a possibility of not finding the information one is looking for.

And this short post (as well as links elsewhere) should help the new site get picked up by the search engines.

Other creationists who crashed the Darwin party

[BPSDB]The “Shrewsbury Deep Waters Trust” were not the only creationists to take advantage of the Darwin celebrations in Shrewsbury. During March/April the Christadelphians sent leaflets throughout the town and set up a stall in the town centre advertising meetings – although they were not very efficient about it, as the leaflet came through my own door after the meetings had taken place.

The leaflet was produced by the Shrewsbury Christadelphians, although it seems likely that similar materials have been distributed elsewhere. What interested me was the quotation on the cover.

Darwin Question leaflet

Darwin Question leaflet

I asked the local Christadelphians, at their email address, for the source of the quotation, but I haven’t yet had a reply after five weeks.

I have searched on the web, where all Darwin’s writings are available, and have not been able to find it there. As far as I can tell, Darwin did not write a volume called “My life and Letters”. His son Francis put together a collection called “Life and Letters”. This contains one sentence that may be what the Christadelphians are referring to. This reads: “When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory.”

If you do a search for the exact words, though, you will find it quoted widely on creationist websites, with the same erroneous citation. Quite likely, the Christadelphians simply lifted it from one of these. It is an example of what is often called called “quote mining” – selecting from the words of people who are perceived to be “authorities” in such a way as to change the apparent meaning in a favourable way. Creationists often use this trick to make it seem as if scientists are expressing doubt about evolutionary theory, or pointing out a problem with the theory that does not actually exist. In this case, I doubt if the Christadelphians are being consciously dishonest – it probably never occurred to them that something that is so widely quoted by their brethren could be wrong.

“Quote mining” is so prevalent that TalkOrigins, one of the best web resources on evolution, has a project devoted to it: you can find the misquotation I am referring to discussed here.

Selecting Darwin on this matter is misleading too: Darwin is not an “authority” on evolution as the Bible is an authority to Christadelphians. Darwin originated the theory of evolution of natural selection which continues to be the basis for a vast research project. Discoveries in genetics now mean that we can trace the evolutionary descent of huge numbers of species – which Darwin could not do in the state of knowledge that existed in his time.

Incidentally, the history of the Christadelphians makes interesting reading. They comprise a tiny sect that tries to uphold to an extreme the literal accuracy of the Bible. Not surprisingly, it has fractured into even tinier fragments as its members fail to agree on differences of doctrine that most of probably couldn’t even see. A probably inevitable consequence of believing that you know the absolute truth is that eventually you must believe that only you (and your followers) know the absolute truth.

More about Stephen Meyer’s lecture on Intelligent Design

[BPSDB]Rather late, this is my comment on the lecture given in Shrewsbury (Darwin’s birthplace) in late February 2009 by Dr Stephen Meyer from the Discovery Institute. This was billed as reviewing “Darwin’s life and theories from a new perspective – an assessment of the evidence for design which has emerged through the advances in science since publication of his On the Origin of Species in 1859” . It was also advertised as Dr Meyer’s first public lecture on the theme of his new book, “Signature in the cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design”.

The book has not yet been published, so I can’t yet compare it with the lecture. However, it did seem to me that there was very little in the lecture that was actually new – I have been following the debate between biologists and ID proponents for some years now. It wasn’t possible for me to take notes fast enough to give a point-by-point analysis of the lecture.

The lecture was divided into two halves, with a short break of five minutes. The crucial argument was presented early in the second part. I’d almost call it a “climax”, because Dr Meyer is a showman: he knows how to ramp up the excitement and carry the audience with him. Of course, in this case the audience was largely sympathetic to his aim and uncritical towards his arguments.

There was, in reality, very little mention of evolution in the lecture – mostly quotations from Darwin and other scientists – although the whole thing was carried off so that I suspect that most in the audience really believed that they were witnessing a powerful critique of evolution.

The lecture began with a few comments about Darwin and evolution, there was some talk about “chemical evolution” and the work of Oparin and Miller, and then much of the first part was given over to explaining the basics – what seemed to me to be perfectly acceptable explanations of the shapes of DNA and proteins, and how the functions of proteins depend on their shapes. Then he went on to more contentious matters, including the ID proponents’ favoured idea of “specified complexity”.

The climax came after the break. Dr Meyer took the audience through the calculation of the probability of a protein (of 150 amino acids) assembling itself from its units – vanishingly small, of course. I could feel the excitement of the audience close to me as he approached the result and there was laughter as he calculated the final result. They must have felt that Dr Meyer had delivered the coup de grace to evolution by natural selection.

This was really the core of the lecture. The rest consisted largely of unsupported assertions of ID dogma, for example, that undirected natural processes do not produce large amounts of “specified complexity”, that creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity, that the functional integration of proteins, DNA and ATP is evidence for design, and that ID has been justified by predicting that so-called ‘junk DNA’ would be found to be functional (I’m not a biologist, but my understanding is that some noncoding DNA is known to have important functions, but that there is good evidence that much DNA has no function).

The lecture depended largely on what might be compared with a David Copperfield illusion: Dr Meyer did not demonstrate what the audience were no doubt expected to think he had demonstrated, and the whole effect depended on the audience seeing what it wanted to see and not questioning what they believed they had seen and heard.

The calculation of the improbability of a protein is irrelevant, because it entirely omits the very process that ID-ists claim to question – evolution by natural selection. The evolutionary process is what made it possible to observe the proteins we see today carrying out the functions that they do. No evolutionary biologist imagines that any functional protein somehow had to be assembled all at once out of its individual amino acids. Proteins evolved in organisms, through relatively small changes in the genetic material (changes that accorded with the laws of chemistry and physics), and were selected for or against by the environments prevailing at the time. No step required any probability that was unreasonably small in the available time frame.

What’s more, to look at the protein and its function the way Dr Meyer did is to get the whole thing backwards. The protein and its function were not “specified” first and the evolutionary process tailored to creating it. Both the protein and its function are as they are because they are the outcome of a whole series of changes that were possible at each step. They may not be the best possible way to carrry out the function, but they exist both because they are the result of a series of physically and chemically possible changes and they enable the organism to function in its current environment – specifically, to reproduce successfully. In many cases, it is now possible to trace the steps by which the current system and its function came about – see, for example, the debate between biologists and ID-ists over the biochemistry of blood clotting.