Wednesday, June 16

Growing An Intellectual Conscience


Sometimes I am driven, against my more charitable instincts, to wonder just what it takes for advocates of creationism and intelligent design (ID) to grow an intellectual conscience.  I am referring, of course, to people who should know better, in fact, people who have no business not knowing better. The latest example is courtesy of Howard Smith, as cited in a recent issue of David Klinghoffer’s creationist / ID blog  In that blog, Smith – or perhaps Klinghoffer’s citation of Smith’s text – irresponsibly misquotes Prof. Stephen Hawking and misrepresents the Anthropic Principle so as to misinterpret both as lending support to Klinghoffer’s blatantly creationist agenda.


Klinghoffer cites Smith as claiming that Hawking asserted on a TV documentary Reality on the Rocks that "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet." Klinghoffer asserts that Carl Sagan paraphrased this sentiment in Sagan’s celebrated series Cosmos by saying "We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star." The YouTube video of Hawking’s assertion has been taken down because of alleged copyright infringements. But if Klinghoffer is correct that Sagan’s assertion is a paraphrase of Hawking’s view, then either Klinghoffer is misusing Hawking’s statement (or Smith is misusing it) or Klinghoffer is mischaracterizing Sagan’s statement as a paraphrase of Hawking’s. One of those has to be the case. Sagan did indeed make the attributed statement. In fact, Sagan states that sentiment over and over again, just in different words, throughout most of Cosmos. But if you take the trouble to consider the statement in full context – something Klinghoffer evidently is not required to do by his professional ethics – you find that the on-the-surface intent of Sagan is quite the opposite of Klinghoffer’s interpretation. Sagan is concerned to emphasize, not the insignificance of the human race, as Klinghoffer alleges, but to affirm, to emphasize, even to magnify that significance.  Human beings, Sagan argues, are significant precisely because we are so rare, so fragile – so weak, if you will -- such shining examples of warmth and of life, individual and infinitesimal oases of meaning in an otherwise dark, hostile, and meaningless Cosmos. When considered in full context, the true spirit of Sagan’s assertion – and if that is indeed a paraphrase, of Hawking’s statement – is contained in that magnificent jumble of fragments, the Pensees of Blaise Pascal (boldface added):

Man is a reed, the weakest of nature, but he is a thinking reed. It is not necessary that the entire universe arm itself to crush: a vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what kills him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage that the universe has over him, the universe does knows nothing.

So … y’pays y’money and y’takes y’choice. If, as Klinghoffer argues, Sagan’s statement is a true paraphrase, a mere restatement in other words, of Hawking’s opinion, then Hawking’s evaluation is actually just a recasting of Pascal’s “thinking reed” humanism, i.e., the exact opposite of an assertion of humans’ insignificance. On the other hand, if Hawking is indeed denigrating the significance of humans in the greater cosmic scheme of things, then in no sense whatsoever can Sagan’s statement in Cosmos be interpreted as a paraphrase. But in either case, Klinghoffer has used those respective statements dishonestly to further his creationist / ID agenda.

Charles Darwin


A similar critique applies regarding the Anthropic Principle (AP). Re AP, Klinghoffer makes the same error of confusing cause with effect that many critics, especially ID-motivated critics, make when they talk about the AP.

The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life. The strengths of the four forces that operate in the universe -- gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions (the latter two dominate only at the level of atoms) -- for example, have values critically suited for life ...

This is just true enough to be dangerous. For example, given what we know of the time-scales of evolution, it is a pretty safe bet that if Newton’s gravitational constant were such that stars burned so hot they typically evolved from primitive gas cloud, through the mature stars, to neutron stars or black holes or red giants in, say, 100,000 years, or even a million years, there would simply and literally not be enough time for life, at least intelligent life, to evolve. What Richard Dawkins aptly calls the greatest show on earth would be over before it even began, at least vis a vis sentience.

However, in other respects, Klinghoffer does confuse cause with effect. For example, with regard to the alleged "fine-tuning" of physical parameters. It would be possible to argue, and I have even seen it actually argued, that the earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere is “fine-tuned” to support our kind of life. But it was not always thus. There was a time when the earth had a reducing atmosphere, i.e., an atmosphere that, among other characteristics, was oxygen poor, an atmosphere in which our oxygen-loving form of life – never mind anaerobic bacteria – would be poisoned by oxygen. But one can still play “anthropic games” with intelligent, oxygen-averse life:  one intelligent oxygen-averse being says to another “How wise God was in creating a planet with no oxygen … just so we would not end up breathing such poison and die!” Or one can imagine intelligent denizens of, say, the moon Titan going out for a stroll to admire Saturn hanging majestically in the sky, get a breath of fresh methane, and to thank their God for creating a moon without oxygen and without nitrogen and other atmospheric poisons.  In other words, the mere fact that intelligent species S(X, Y, Z) evolved under conditions X, Y, and Z does not warrant the inference that conditions X, Y, and Z were "pre-configured" as they were in order to result in species S(X, Y, Z). Swap out X, Y, and Z for an equally probable alternate set of conditions A, B, and C and – given our experience just on earth, never mind other planets – there is a substantial and non-negligible chance that we would end with a different, but equally sentient, species S(A, B, C). (I invite you to consider the late Stephen Jay Gould’s fascinating argument, in his book about the Burgess Shale Wonderful Life, that even earth-like conditions could have produced a different form of life – or no life at all – if one were to hit a “Reset” button and run evolution all over again.) Conditions drive evolution, not the other way round – at least until sentient beings become intelligent and technically proficient enough to alter their own environment and direct their own evolution.


But there is a still-deeper problem with Klinghoffer’s argument, especially vis a vis the AP:  how can we distinguish a natural from an artificial – the latter meaning “sentiently created” – entity or event? I dealt with this issue at greater length back in January of 2015 with my thought-experiment of a New Guinea native finding a wristwatch in the jungle. How would my hypothetical New Guinea native, who, by hypothesis, had never encountered any artifact of a technological civilization beyond perhaps, say, a jet’s occasional contrail high overhead, know that the wristwatch was not some exotic, never-before-encountered plant? (For all their faults otherwise, the arguments presented by ID author William Dembski do evolutionary biology a service in that they do persist in raising just this issue. His answers are untenable, but the questions remain legitimate.) Or perhaps a gift from the god(s) a la 1984's The Gods Must Be Crazy? As I said in my 2015 column, this was an issue David Hume raised with far more sophistication than I in his argument against miracles.  Paraphrasing Hume, we can say which things / entities / artifacts / events are artificial and which are natural because we have seen them manufactured or occur naturally, or at least read accounts of such, multiple times. But we have never seen a universe come into existence, and so lack the competence to make such a "global", ID-friendly assessment. And be such an event ever-so-improbable, mere improbability alone is no warrant for justifying an inference of Divine intent. Klinghoffer's reasoning, and ID / creationist reasoning generally, about such "ultimately improbable" events as the origin of the Cosmos requires an act of hubris that would make that of Lucifer look positively modest by comparison. Rather than rehearse even my "Cliff's Notes" article on Hume's argument, I will invite you to read that "Skeptic's" column and then do a deep-dive into Hume's An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, especially Section X.

Growing an intellectual conscience requires allowing one's sources to speak for themselves, in full context, not just the parts that support your thesis, and also to consider even those nuances of the subject that weaken your position, not just the ones that strengthen it. I recommend both practices to those committed to ID and creationist ideology -- and caution their readers that there is still a long road to travel to that ideal.

James R. Cowles

Image credits
Watch works ... Author unknown ... Public domain
Hubble deep-field image ... NASA ... Public domain
Charles Darwin photo ... Library of Congress ... Public domain
WMAP image ... NASA ... Public domain
Flammarion engraving ... Camille Flammarion, Paris, 1888 ... Public domain

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