Saturday, September 28, 2013

Darwinism & materialism

Breaking Bad

Although I've heard of it, I've never seen Breaking Bad. The subject matter just doesn't interest me. By the same token, I bailed on The Walking Dead. Be that as it may, here are two insightful reviews;

Review of “The Reformation Made Easy”

The Reformation Made Easy
The Reformation Made Easy
John Stebbe has posted a brief review of Dr. C. Matthew McMahon’s recent work The Reformation Made Easy.

I would say that it goes a long way to doing that, but there is so much information to digest regarding the Reformation, that this book may make the Reformation ‘easier’ to comprehend, but still not quite ‘easy.’ From Wycliffe to Hus to Luther to Tyndale to Henry the Eighth, there’s a whole lotta history in this movement called the “Reformation” (and some would prefer the term “Reformations” because of the variety of ways it played out in various places in Europe). This book tries to make sense of it all….

Whatever your perspective on the Reformation, or Christianity in general, this book is an excellent short overview of the major events and personalities in this great movement of God, which is still shaping the world today.

Keep in mind that we’re in Reformation Season – just over a month away from the 496th anniversary of the Reformation!

There’s no such thing as a good pope

no such thing as a good pope
No such thing as a good pope
Seems to me that the writers at First Things just stop permitting comments on their articles at some point. They just stop watching. For example, I posted the following comment in response to this article, but First Things says NO GO:

Don Roberto – Fr Neuhaus also said this: “One cannot draw a neat and uncontested historical line between the apostolic “primacy” of St. Peter and the primacy of the current pope in Rome. But there is a clear line of apostolic authority. Clearer, at the very least, than any other line can be drawn” (from “Catholic Matters”, pgs 18-19).

In both cases, there is not “a clear line” – neither to Peter, nor to “apostolic authority”. The “unclear line” to “apostolic authority” is something that worked for Irenaeus vs the Gnostics in the 2nd century; there is no hint from him or anyone else that what worked in the past was to be a “system” of “succession” that was going to “guarantee” authority for all time. Regarding the “unclear line” extending from Peter to Damasus, it is not only “unclear”, but nonexistent. [And anyone who’s studied in a seminary ought to be familiar with this history].

A funny baby video

I think the juxtaposition of emotions makes this funny.

Is ID science?

Many people argue intelligent design (ID) isn't science.

I'm not an ID theorist. Nor am I affiliated in any way with the ID movement. So I don't speak with any sort of authority on this issue. And it's not necessarily a hill I'd be willing to die on. Rather, this is just my two cents' worth, which may be all it's worth.

Who made God?

Who or what made God?

This is a common question. There have been many solid responses to this question. Not only by sophisticated scholars, but by many sophisticated laypeople too. Many bloggers and commenters have likewise provided better responses than I can muster.

But, FWIW, if anything, here's my quick response:

  1. The truth is most thinkers believe there's some entity that's fundamental to the entire universe.

    For example, Carl Sagan famously said, "The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be."

    Likewise, many scientists tell us it's ultimately all about mass-energy.

    Stephen Hawking said in The Grand Design:

    Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper and set the universe going.

    Other scientists posit other fundamentals like quantum fluctuations or superstrings (e.g. M-theory).

    And these aren't all mutually exclusive to one another. They can overlap.

    But my point is these thinkers and scientists have in mind some fundamental entity or entities to explain the whole of existence. Yet, one could easily ask, if the cosmos is what's fundamental, then who or what made the cosmos? How did the cosmos make itself? How has it always just existed?

    If mass-energy is what's fundamental, then who or what made mass-energy? Where did mass-energy come from? How can mass-energy make itself? How has it always just existed?

    If a certain set of physical laws are what's fundamental, then who or what made these physical laws? From whence did they come? How have they always just existed?

    And so and so forth.

  2. As I mentioned above, others have better answers. For example, William Lane Craig has said (Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition):

    Something that exists eternally and, hence, without a beginning would not need to have a cause. This is not special pleading for God, since the atheist has always maintained the same thing about the universe: it is beginningless and uncaused. The difference between these two hypotheses is that the atheistic view has now been shown to be untenable.


    God didn't come from anywhere. He is eternal and has always existed. So he doesn't need a cause. But now let me ask you something. The universe has not always existed but had a beginning. So where did the universe come from?

80/20 arguments for God: the Why and Wherefore argument, part 2

Copyright for me but not for thee

On the one hand:

On the other hand:

Friday, September 27, 2013

What is mature creation?

Philip Henry Gosse was an eminent Victorian marine biologist. Some critics dismiss Omphalos as a rear-guard response to Darwinism, but he published his monograph two years before Darwin's bombshell. Omphalism is a radical version of mature creation. 

Because this was published in the mid-19C, the description seems a bit quaint. But suppose we recast the thesis is more contemporary terms. Indeed, there's a sense in which his vision was ahead of its time. We're just beginning to catch up to it.

Take virtual reality, as well as VR-themed movies and TV dramas like Harsh Realm, The Matrix, and Tron: Legacy. VR is like a sophisticated, immersive video game. 

The simulation has a "mature" component. The programmer creates a setting. It could be a landscape or cityscape. It may be populated by virtual characters. These only exist in the simulation. 

In addition to virtual characters there are alternates. These are real people who have virtual counterparts in the program. 

Incidentally, that's an intriguing way of to model substance dualism. 

The setting and the virtual characters are present from the outset. That's a given. So this is a well-furnished world rather than an empty world. 

But once the initial conditions are put in place, the virtual world can undergo internal development. One catalyst comes from the outside. Because the program is interactive, users can cause events within the simulation. Their choices and actions drive the plot. 

That would be analogous to the distinction between fiat creation and ordinary providence. 

There are variations on this theme. In one version, characters are conscious of the illusion. In another version, characters are unconscious of the illusion. In still another version, characters become conscious of the illusion. 

Of course, there's a sense in which the virtual world is real within the simulation. It has its own laws. Cause and effect. Actions have foreseeable consequences. 

That's a hitch way of modeling mature creation. If Gosse were living today, that's how he might conceive it. 

Although this is fictitious, it has some real world analogues. As neuroprosthetics continues to advance, I'm sure that will be applied to virtual programming. The neurointerface will practically erase the gap between illusion and reality. 

Likewise, consider the holographic universe:

Now, I myself don't think the universe is a computer simulation. But why is that a reputable theory, while mature creation is disreputable?  

The principle of parsimony

Many scientists or philosophers of science operate with two criteria: methodological naturalism and the principle of parsimony. They have other criteria as well. Right now I just wish to concentrate on simplicity, especially in terms of how that relates to methodological naturalism. 

Before proceeding, we need to say more about simplicity as a criterion in scientific theorizing. 

The view that simplicity is a virtue in scientific theories and that, other things being equal, simpler theories should be preferred to more complex ones has been widely advocated in the history of science and philosophy, and it remains widely held by modern scientists and philosophers of science. It often goes by the name of “Ockham’s Razor.” The claim is that simplicity ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating and choosing between rival theories, alongside criteria such as consistency with the data and coherence with accepted background theories. Simplicity, in this sense, is often understood ontologically, in terms of how simple a theory represents nature as being—for example, a theory might be said to be simpler than another if it posits the existence of fewer entities, causes, or processes in nature in order to account for the empirical data. However, simplicity can also been understood in terms of various features of how theories go about explaining nature—for example, a theory might be said to be simpler than another if it contains fewer adjustable parameters, if it invokes fewer extraneous assumptions, or if it provides a more unified explanation of the data.There are many ways in which simplicity might be regarded as a desirable feature of scientific theories. Simpler theories are frequently said to be more “beautiful” or more “elegant” than their rivals; they might also be easier to understand and to work with. However, according to many scientists and philosophers, simplicity is not something that is merely to be hoped for in theories; nor is it something that we should only strive for after we have already selected a theory that we believe to be on the right track (for example, by trying to find a simpler formulation of an accepted theory). Rather, the claim is that simplicity should actually be one of the key criteria that we use to evaluate which of a set of rival theories is, in fact, the best theory, given the available evidence: other things being equal, the simplest theory consistent with the data is the best one.Many scientists and philosophers endorse a methodological principle known as “Ockham’s Razor”. This principle has been formulated in a variety of different ways. In the early 21st century, it is typically just equated with the general maxim that simpler theories are “better” than more complex ones, other things being equal. Historically, however, it has been more common to formulate Ockham’s Razor as a more specific type of simplicity principle, often referred to as “the principle of parsimony”...However, a standard of formulation of the principle of parsimony—one that seems to be reasonably close to the sort of principle that Ockham himself probably would have endorsed—is as the maxim “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity”. So stated, the principle is ontological, since it is concerned with parsimony with respect to the entities that theories posit the existence of in attempting to account for the empirical data. “Entity”, in this context, is typically understood broadly, referring not just to objects (for example, atoms and particles), but also to other kinds of natural phenomena that a theory may include in its ontology, such as causes, processes, properties, and so forth.It is important to recognize that the principle, “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” can be read in at least two different ways. One way of reading it is as what we can call an anti-superfluity principle (Barnes, 2000). This principle calls for the elimination of ontological posits from theories that are explanatorily redundant.Mill also pointed to a plausible justification for the anti-superfluity principle: explanatorily redundant posits—those that have no effect on the ability of the theory to explain the data—are also posits that do not obtain evidential support from the data. This is because it is plausible that theoretical entities are evidentially supported by empirical data only to the extent that they can help us to account for why the data take the form that they do. If a theoretical entity fails to contribute to this end, then the data fails to confirm the existence of this entity. If we have no other independent reason to postulate the existence of this entity, then we have no justification for including this entity in our theoretical ontology.When the principle of parsimony is read as an anti-superfluity principle, it seems relatively uncontroversial. However, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of instances where the principle of parsimony is applied (or has been seen as applying) in science cannot be given an interpretation merely in terms of the anti-superfluity principle. This is because the phrase “entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” is normally read as what we can call an anti-quantity principle: theories that posit fewer things are (other things being equal) to be preferred to theories that posit more things, whether or not the relevant posits play any genuine explanatory role in the theories concerned (Barnes, 2000). This is a much stronger claim than the claim that we should razor off explanatorily redundant entities. The evidential justification for the anti-superfluity principle just described cannot be used to motivate the anti-quantity principle, since the reasoning behind this justification allows that we can posit as many things as we like, so long as all of the individual posits do some explanatory work within the theory. It merely tells us to get rid of theoretical ontology that, from the perspective of a given theory, is explanatorily redundant. It does not tell us that theories that posit fewer things when accounting for the data are better than theories that posit more things—that is, that sparser ontologies are better than richer ones.Another important point about the anti-superfluity principle is that it does not give us a reason to assert the non-existence of the superfluous posit. Absence of evidence, is not (by itself) evidence for absence.Consider the following list of commonly cited ways in which theories may be held to be simpler than others:
  • Quantitative ontological parsimony
  • (or economy): postulating a smaller number of independent entities, processes, causes, or events.
  • Qualitative ontological parsimony
  • (or economy): postulating a smaller number of independent kinds or classes of entities, processes, causes, or events.
  • Common cause explanation
  • : accounting for phenomena in terms of common rather than separate causal processes.
  • Symmetry
  • : postulating that equalities hold between interacting systems and that the laws describing the phenomena look the same from different perspectives.
  • Uniformity
  • (or homogeneity): postulating a smaller number of changes in a given phenomenon and holding that the relations between phenomena are invariant.
  • Unification
  • : explaining a wider and more diverse range of phenomena that might otherwise be thought to require separate explanations in a single theory (theoretical reduction is generally held to be a species of unification).
  • Lower level processes
  • : when the kinds of processes that can be posited to explain a phenomena come in a hierarchy, positing processes that come lower rather than higher in this hierarchy.
  • Familiarity (or conservativeness)
  • : explaining new phenomena with minimal new theoretical machinery, reusing existing patterns of explanation.
  • Paucity of auxiliary assumptions
  • : invoking fewer extraneous assumptions about the world.
  • Paucity of adjustable parameters
  • : containing fewer independent parameters that the theory leaves to be determined by the data.

One caveat: I think it's arbitrary to define simplicity as favoring bottom-up processes over top-down processes. If anything, a top-down process would be more economical. 

Suppose a cosmologist challenges a creationist to address evidence for the antiquity of the universe. Suppose a Darwinian challenges a creationist to address fossil evidence for the evolutionary narrative. Suppose a creationist responds by invoking mature creation or omphalism? That clearly violates methodological naturalism. 

Of course, since methodological naturalism is methodological rather than metaphysical, since it doesn't prejudge (much less prove) how nature actually operates, why should we care whether we violate methodological naturalism? Isn't science supposed to describe how nature actually works?

But for now I'd like to focus on another point. Although methodological naturalism conflicts with mature creation, it also conflicts with Occam's Razor. For mature creation satisfies several virtues of the simplicity criterion. It posits a single agent (God), a single process (divine fiat), a common casual explanation (fiat creation). It posits fewer causes, processes, and events. It posits fewer changes. It provides a unified explanation. It's consistent with the data. Divine agency is not explanatorily redundant. To the contrary, this furnishes an elegant, economical account with enormous explanatory power. Far more so than mainstream cosmology and paleontology. 

So we have conflicting criteria. Which takes precedence: Occam's Razor or methodological naturalism? 

Likewise, suppose a Darwinian challenges a creationist to account for the genetic and morphological similarities between certain organisms? Suppose he points to a continuum of intermediate forms? Suppose the creationist responds by invoking the principle of plenitude. God chose to make a world with maximal variety. That, in turn, entails continuity and gradation. 

Now that clearly violates methodological naturalism. Yet appealing to a divine intention to make a world in which most-all compossible combinations are exemplified satisfies several virtues of the simplicity criterion. Far more so than the evolutionary alternative, with its wasteful, inefficient version of natural history. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Transitive memory

Critics often say the Gospel writers couldn't remember what happened. Now, that simply refuses to take inspiration into account.

But, putting that to one side, here's an interesting take on how people have ways to reinforce individual recollection:

Answering moral objections to the OT

Animal mortality

I'm responding to Facebook commenters on my recent animal mortality post:

If the image of God's ultimate cosmic peace (among other things) is that the lion lies down with the lamb, did the lion lie down with the lamb before the fall?

He needs to demonstrate why the Isaian imagery is literal rather than poetic. Does he take the same approach to other Isaian passages, viz.,

Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;    shout, O depths of the earth;break forth into singing, O mountains,    O forest, and every tree in it! (44:23).
“For you shall go out in joy    and be led forth in peace;the mountains and the hills before you    shall break forth into singing,    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;and it shall make a name for the Lord,    an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off (55:12-13).

And even if we take it literally, why assume the final state is just a throwback to the primeval state? 

Dion Astwood

I think the issue needs answering, but I don't find the criticisms in the article that compelling. Jesus made wine from water, that is a creative event.
Which weakens the YEC appeal to the 7th day as the terminus of divine creativity.
It is not that God could not create new kinds of creatures after the 6 days, it is that it does not appear that he did.
YECs usually take a stronger line on the implications of the 7th day to rule out macroevolution. To the extent that Dion relativizes its force, that opens the door to progressive creationism and theistic evolution. So he's defending YEC by arguments which undercut YEC.
Modifying creatures post fall, even genetically, fits with YEC. 
Not if the "modifications" fit the standard definition of macroevolution (i.e. novel body parts and body plans due to new genetic information).
The world was cursed and that means changes. Thorns (I believe) are mutated leaves, but that God directed that on a global scale fits in a with a curse.
He's assuming what he needs to prove. Gen 3 doesn't say the "world" was cursed. Gen 3 doesn't say thorns are mutated leaves.
Further, it is not that human death is assumed to apply to animal death thus animals were not carnivorous, it is that the animals were vegetarian as they are described. The author is incorrect about many carnivores, they can live even now on a vegetarian diet including felines, canines.
I specifically made allowance for exceptions. He needs to pay attention to what people actually say, rather than respond with prepared answers that don't address the specifics of the argument.
He is also probably incorrect about the vampire bat.
Does he know that or not? Why the weasel words ("probably incorrect").

It is also not ad hoc. Plants died. Why does Steve think that ants need to be classified with dogs and not plants, or fungi, or sponges, or bacteria. 
Because ants are obviously more dog-like than sponge-like. Do the comparative anatomy. Is the body plan of an ant more like a dog or a sponge, fungus, daffodil?
Prelapsarian bacteria certainly died.
Irrelevant. I didn't discuss bacteria in the context of mortality, but good and evil.
Sponges are classified in animalia though we would not consider them dying prior to the Fall, nor even now. Scripture suggests that death relates to the soul and breath
"Soul" is misleading. That has traditional connotations of an immortal, immaterial seat of personality. Genesis doesn't use "soul" in that sense. He's bouncing off the rendering of the King James Bible.
thus breathing is a quality of an animal who can die, not Steve's presumption of how he thinks they must be classified.
To my knowledge, most organisms on earth require oxygen to survive. So doesn't his criterion backfire?

Or is he talking about a particular mechanism (e.g. lungs) to process oxygen? If so, that's ad hoc. 

His critique would be better if he were more well read 
I cited Sarfati and Snelling. And in my recent Genesis series I also cited Wise. Those are three of the best representatives of contemporary YEC.  

and interacted on a deeper level.

Ironic considering the superficiality of his own comments.

"So there is some level of death (or predation and Steve's feelings about anteaters and ants doesn't really cut it."

His bluster aside, once he starts carving out exceptions to his principle, he no longer has a principle. He can no longer object to antelapsarian death and predation as a matter of principle. At best, he can only try to drawn the line with certain types of prelapsarian death and predation, on a case-by-case basis. The original categorical claim undergoes a series of ad hoc qualifications. 

To say the counterexample of anteaters (which wasn't my only counterexample) "doesn't really cut it" is bluster rather than argument. 

"In terms of subsequent creation, I don't see it as a necessary problem."

It's a problem if you oppose six-day fiat creation to progressive creation or theistic evolution. 

 "Thorns are new…"

He's assuming the distinction is temporal rather than spatial. Why do thorns have to be new? They could preexist outside the garden. They are new to Adam and Eve. After Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, they encounter thorns thistles for the first time. 

Dion filters the text through YEC exegesis. He doesn't even seem to be conscious of alternative interpretations at this juncture. 

 "and this can either be targeted genetic change by God in a pre-existent kind, permitted genetic change (which continually happens with new disease) or creating a new kind."

Creation of "new kinds" subsequent to the cessation of God's creative work on day 7 is progressive creationism or theistic evolution rather than young-earth creationism. He's oblivious to tensions within his own position. Isn't one of the defining features of YEC that God made all the natural kinds during the six-day creation week? Subsequent developments are supposed to occur *within* the boundaries of a natural kind. 

 If day 7 doesn't mark the cut-off, then what distinguishes young-earth creationism from progressive creationism or theistic evolution? And, at the risk of repeating myself, if the infusion of new genetic information results in new body parts or body plans, isn't that the definition of macroevolution? To say that's divinely targeted is synonymous with theistic evolution. 

Is football unchristian?

The poor argument from poor design

Here is a helpful response from David Snoke on the argument from poor design:

A standard objection to the argument for design is the "Panda's Thumb" argument – if we look at some living systems, they appear to have instances of poor design. Does this imply that God cannot have designed it?

A quantitative standard of design helps in understanding this issue. Suppose I look at a Mercedes-Benz, and decide that the hubcaps are not aerodynamic enough. Should I conclude that the Mercedes-Benz is not a designed system? Or should I simply say that it is designed but does not have the highest possible level of design?

In the case of the Mercedes-Benz, perhaps I have missed some other function of the hubcaps. For example, perhaps they are designed for good looks instead of aerodynamics. In the same way, some authors have made much of the poor design of certain living systems without taking into account their other possible functions in a larger system. For example, peacock tails may make peacocks less efficient, but they have the function of pleasing people. Shade trees convert sunlight less e?ciently than algae, but shade trees provide shade for humans, and algae doesn't.

It is possible for a system to have undetected design. If we do not observe the function for which something is designed, then we will not see its functional dependence on anything. A young child looking at a piece of scientific equipment designed to create nanosecond digital pulses may see nothing but a box with blinking lights and not see any function at all. We can therefore talk about "detected design." If we see no design, we cannot prove that it is undesigned, we can only say that we see no evidence of design. With a quantitative measure of design, we may also say that we see only a certain degree of design.

As Augustine of Hippo argued, no thing but God can be perfect in every way. Therefore every created thing has "imperfections" to some degree. We therefore can speak of a heirarchy of design, from inanimate objects to "lower" life forms to "higher" ones, with increasing quantitative measure of design. This is warranted, for example, by the narrative of Genesis 1, which sets mankind over animals, animals over plants, and plants over the rest. Jesus also said, "Are you not much more valuable than they?"

Finding something further down in degree of design does not imply that no thing has design. In the same way, finding a simple little ditty written by Mozart does not mean he was a poor composer. People make various things for various uses, and there is no logical resaon why God could not do the same.

We must also distinguish between poor design and systems with good design but which have purposes that we do not like. A shark is a well designed killing machine. This raises the question of the problem of evil, which is a separate question. A well-designed, destructive system does not imply the lack of existence of design. It may imply a well-designed instrument of wrath.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thorns and thistles, God's new bells and whistles

The context for my post is Steve's post here as well as a subsequent thread over on Bnonn Tennant's Facebook wall where Dr. Dion Astwood weighed in. (To lay out my cards, my own broad position is I incline toward a mature creation, but I'm open to progressive creationism.)

Dion Astwood said:

Thorns are new and this can either be targeted genetic change by God in a pre-existent kind, permitted genetic change (which continually happens with new disease) or creating a new kind.

My response:

  1. Hm, "creating a new kind"? So, at the Fall, God got rid of all the vegetarian lions and created new carnivorous lions to replace them?

  2. Also, per Isa 65:25: "The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord."

    If we take this literally, then I guess in the Millennium God will re-replace the carnivorous lions with vegetarian lions?

  3. If, post-Fall, "thorns are new," and if there are "creati[ons] of a new kind," then how is this substantially different from God creating a new creation? Is it a re-creation of creation? God created everything, then the Fall, then God re-created everything, then the Millennium, and God re-re-creates everything again?

  4. BTW, don't some OECs who subscribe to the gap theory believe that there was a war in heaven, the fallen angels or demons (not sure if they make a distinction) were thrown down to earth, and fallen angels or demons were somehow responsible for all the predation, parasitism, pathogens, etc.? If so, then there seem to be striking parallels with the YEC argument for all the predation, parasitism, pathogens, etc.

  5. If God genetically changes a vegetarian lion into a carnivorous lion, a digestive tract that once digested grass like a cow to a digestive tract that now digests meat, or teeth or claws more like a rabbit or other herbivore to razor-sharp teeth and claws, then in what sense is it still the same lion? Say if God genetically changed me from an average human being into a human being that has wings so I can fly like a bird or gills so I can breathe underwater like a fish, then in what sense am I still a human being? Harvey Birdman or Aquaman, here I come!

Grab the mike!

Although it's too early to take the full measure of Pope Francis, it's quite possible that he's a talkative, impulsive, intellectual bantamweight who's in way over his head. 

No doubt the papacy has had many incompetent pontiffs over the centuries, but that was before the electronic media age. It was easier to keep them out of the public eye while handlers ran the show. Not so now. 

It's kinda like the keynote speaker who shows up drunk at the main event. As he begins to ramble and make indiscreet comments, there's a sense of collective embarrassment in the auditorium. How to wrest the microphone from his clutches before he does more damage to himself and to the event. 

We've all seen movies and TV dramas with that scene. 

Political stunts

As I write, Ted Cruz has been conducting a filibuster on defunding Obamacare. Before that, Rand Paul conducted a filibuster on domestic drones. Both actions are political stunts. That's because, as long as Democrats control the White House and one chamber of Congress, Republicans can't do anything to change the status quo. 

However, when I say "political stunt," I'm not necessarily using that as a pejorative expression. For one thing, Republicans do need to do things to distinguish themselves from Democrats. For another, a political stunt can raise public awareness of an issue.

It's like talking about impeachment. Obama has committed impeachable offenses. As a practical matter, he can't be impeached. Democrats control the Senate. Moreover, Obama would have to be massively unpopular among the electorate for impeachment to be politically viable. 

But even though it would be futile for the House to initiate impeachment proceedings, there's nothing wrong with Republicans publicizing Obama's impeachable offenses. That's something that needs to be drilled into the public awareness.

Republicans confront a dilemma, although it's just a hypothetical dilemma at this juncture. If Republicans had the clout to defund Obamacare, they would be punished for doing so prematurely. Many voters have no intellectual patience for abstract consequences. They can be forewarned, but as long as the consequences are tomorrow rather than today, many voters ignore the warnings. Many voters love the idea of universal healthcare. As long as it remains an idea, they love it. It's only when Obamacare begins to bite that some voters will wake up and realize it wasn't such a swell idea after all. When their coverage is dropped. When their premiums skyrocket. 

Unfortunately, the electorate doesn't reward politicians for preventing disasters. Something that didn't happen is a nonevent. That doesn't register with many voters. Many voters are crisis-driven. They procrastinate until it's too late to forestall the damage. 

Ironically, there's a sense in which Republicans must wait for Obamacare to be implemented, for the economic consequences to take hold, before enough voters will appreciate, or even clamor for, repeal. In the meantime, Republicans need to constantly connect the dots for oblivious voters. 

Recently, there was  a dustup between Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Christie is prepositioning himself for a presidential bid. If he ran, he'd be the establishment candidate. 

With his northeastern worldview, he's totally out of touch with the party base. To some extent, Rand Paul has the wind to his back, although he has competition. Indeed, Cruz is a case in point. Rubio used to be a rising star, but his involvement in "comprehensive immigration reform" debacle turned him into a falling star. 

Right now the GOP is sorting itself out. NRO is something of a bellwether. On the one hand you have the old-guard hawks who automatically support the NSA, Syrian intervention, and a muscular Executive branch. Many pundits find it hard to reinvent themselves in the face of novel challenges. They formed their worldview under different circumstances, and their worldview remains the same even when the ground shifts from under them. But Obama is exposing or creating fissures within NRO–and elsewhere in conservative punditry. 

Pope vs Popes

This is your pope on drugs
This is your pope on drugs ... 
John-Henry Westen, writing at, compares the recent comments of Pope Francis to things that his most recent predecessors have said: Pope Francis contrasted with Popes Benedict, JPII re: emphasis on abortion, gay marriage.

First, here is what Pope Francis is saying. Westen says, “Pope Francis has recommended that the Church pull back from her perceived emphasis on ‘abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.’”

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis said.

“This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that,” he added. “But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

In the interview the Pope says that the Church’s preaching must begin first with the “proclamation of salvation.” “Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence,” he said.

Other key lines from the Pope’s interview which pertain to this point include:

Scolding Pope Francis: “naïve and undisciplined” in recent interview

NARAL thanks Pope Francis
While some in the media and in official Roman Catholicism itself are falling all over each other to be excited about the Pope's recent remarks, others are much less hopeful about the prudence of the path this pope is taking:

R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, writes:
Francis, Our Jesuit Pope, First Things Blog, September 23, 2013:

I know Jesuits. They tend to be extremists of one sort or another. They’re trained to speak plainly, directly, and from the heart rather than according to the standard script.

Many passages in this interview reflect Pope Francis’ identity as a Jesuit. He speaks about himself in frank, personal ways that have the ring of authenticity. I don’t mean his comment that “I am a sinner,” which some secular commentators imagine a novel modesty. That sort of remark is Christianity 101. Instead, I mean: “I am a bit astute . . . but it is also true I am a bit naïve.” “I am a really, really undisciplined person.”

We’re not dealing with a modern politician who surrounds himself with handlers and carefully stays “on message.” Pope Francis is relatively unfiltered. He’s also not entirely self-consistent….


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The recurrent laryngeal nerve

I'm going to quote part of a Facebook exchange I ran across today:

Fulano De Tal 
RE The Recurring Laryngeal Nerve: The nerve's route would have been direct in the fish-like ancestors of modern tetrapods, traveling from the brain, past the heart, to the gills (as it does in modern fish). Over the course of evolution, as the neck extended and the heart became lower in the body, the laryngeal nerve was caught on the wrong side of the heart. Natural selection gradually lengthened the nerve by tiny increments to accommodate, resulting in the circuitous route now observed." - Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth

i) It's striking how unbelievers make very confident pronouncements concerning things they know nothing about. At best, Fulano is relying on thirdhand information, and probably fourthhand information (or worse), on the laryngeal nerve. To begin with, his stated source of information is Dawkins. So that's secondhand. But Dawkins is no expert on giraffes. So, at the very least, Dawkins is relying on secondhand information about giraffes. Which would make it thirdhand info for Fulano. Moreover, I doubt Dawkins consulted an expert on giraffes. Rather, this example has become such a cliché in the evolutionary literature attacking ID theory that I expect Dawkins picked it up from another Darwinian science writer who's not an expert on giraffes. And where did that science writer get it?

ii) Moreover, Dawkins hasn't been a working scientist for decades. Why assume he even has an up-to-date knowledge of current evolutionary biology? When was the last time he published a scientific article in a peer-reviewed journal? 

iii) Furthermore, one of Dawkins' staple objections to ID theory is that theistic explanations are "science stoppers." 

Notice, though, that when he defaults to the inefficiency of the blind watchmaker to account for the recurrent laryngeal nerve, his explanation is a science stopper. Rather than investigating whether this has unsuspected engineering advantages, he just assumes it must be the clumsy byproduct of a mindless process. So he stops short. He contents himself with that superficial explanation, rather than conducting an in-depth cost/benefit analysis of the recurrent laryngeal nerve–in itself, in relation to the overall body-plan of a giraffe, in relation to the habitant of a giraffe, &c.  

Also observe that Dawkins simply propounds a just-so story to explain it. He doesn't provide any hard evidence. 

iv) Finally, that example has been contested. For instance:

God's vineyard

"What more was there for me to do for my vineyard than I have not done with it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?" Isaiah 5:4 
Compatibilist: Well, you could have given us irresistible grace so we would have "most freely" [See Westminster Confession 10:1] yielded grapes pleasing to you. 
Maul Panata Molinist: Put me in the circumstances I would have freely believed. 
Jerry Walls Of course there may not be any such circumstances in any feasible world. 
Maul Panata Of course it's possible God could not give them irresistible grace.

Also, I say that response confuses epistemic with metaphysical possibility.
But, also see this: 

Jerry Walls When the smoke clears and the dust settles, I would not be surprised if the two views left standing are Open Theism and Calvinism. 
Maul Panata Jerry, I think you and I just found common ground there! 

Apropos your comment, I find it interesting no one has asked why a God with infallible foreknowledge of future contingents expected the vineyard to yield grapes? 
Jerry Walls Well, that could be anthropomorphic language, or expected in the sense of "would like to have seen it" 
Maul Panata But once we start doing that, Calvinists can employ similar outs. But the force of the "gotcha" seemed to rest on taking phrases woodenly literal. 
Jerry Walls Well, there does seem to be more involved in God doing all he can to elicit good grapes. And there are NUMEROUS passages in the prophets and elsewhere, where God emphasizes how he sent prophets, warnings, and so on over and over, which seems to imply he really wanted Israel to respond positively. So I don't think taking "expect" in the sense I suggest opens the door in the way you suggest. "Preferred" or "would have liked" is a reasonable reading of "expected," at least in English. Not sure if the Hebrew would suggest a different meaning. Lawson Stone, any thoughts here? 
Maul Panata Well, for the Calvinist you are suggesting "what more was there for me to do?" is the problematic part, not the expect part. At least that's what is indicated by the "Calvinist" response to God's question. Right? You're saying "God is sincerely asking that. It's a woodenly literal question. He's requesting information. The Calvinist has an answer: 'You could have given them irresistible grace." This is the sense on which your gotcha rests, right? 
Jerry Walls Yes, and on that matter, my point stands, irrespective of how "expect" is understood. Straightforward meaning is not the same as "woodenly literal." I think the essential point here is that God did indeed enable, encourage, and prefer a different response, and that this makes FAR more sense given libertarian freedom than compatibilist. And the same with many other passages in the prophets where God expresses disappointment, frustration, and the like. Even if there is some degree of anthropomorphism in the disappointment (and maybe there is not), the essential point stands.

A few quick observations:

i) Jerry is used to surrounding himself with cheerleaders. Used to attacking soft targets. But the moment he encounters real competition, his snappy one-liners don't fare as well.

ii) Jerry's prooftext is also inconsistent with his belief in postmortem evangelism. If there was nothing more that God could have done for them in the past (which is the context of the divine exclamation), then recourse to postmortem evangelism implies that God didn't do everything he could have done at the time he said this. 

Isa 5:4 is a present statement (at the time it was spoken) about God's past provision. So if God has already done all he can, there's nothing more he can do in the future (i.e. after death). Conversely, if postmortem evangelism is true, then that entails the inadequacy of God's past, premortem provision. 

iii) There are passages in which God forewarns a prophet that his message will fall on deaf ears. God is telling the prophet ahead of time not to be disappointed by a negative response. Preparing his messenger for that foreseeable outcome. So why would God send a prophet to preach repentance if he "really wanted Israel to respond positively" when he gives the prophet advance knowledge that the message will be spurned?

And that's even before we get to the classic hardening passages. 

Dawkins in a nutshell

Maladroit, malevolent theistic evolution

This is a follow-up to an earlier post on theistic evolution:

After the original post sank into the archives, a commenter weighed in. Patrick Chan responded.

I'm reposting my own replies:


"When a beneficial mutation occurs, it tends to be distributed among the population. When a harmful mutation occurs, it tends to be rooted out. Hence, the effects of a single beneficial mutation tends to be greater than the effects of a single harmful one."

i) Don't harmful mutations greatly outnumber beneficial mutations?

ii) What if, say, a harmful mutation compromises the immune system, so that a population loses resistance to a deadly disease? Take hereditary degenerative diseases.

"Of course, we have evidence to go on, so we can ascertain whether evolution actually occurred."

What lines of evidence are you alluding to?

"I am inclined to believe that biological evolution (which excludes stellar evolution, abiogenesis, &c.) is improbable, but possibly not implausible."

That's equivocal. Are you saying biological evolution in general is improbable, or theistic biological evolution in particular?

"Because there is evidence to support it."

Once again, that's equivocal. Evidence for what? Evolution in general, or theistic evolution in particular?

"We simply lack the information to comment on how God guided the process of evolution. Nonetheless, we can say that God oversaw the process, so that there is teleology in nature, and man has a purpose."

What's your evidence that God guided the evolutionary process? What's your evidence that evolution is goal-oriented? What if God took a hands-off approach. What if God is shortsighted (a la open theism)?

"Then again, there are instances where evolution 'seems' more guided, e.g. the near-extinction of humans only 70,000 years ago."

i) Are you saying the survival of species is evidence of divine guidance? If so, does mass extinction indicate lack of divine guidance?

ii) You seem to be using Cro-Magnon as your frame of reference. I doubt Homo erectus or Neanderthal would share your sanguine view of natural teleology.

"However, I confess that I do not know God's purpose behind every event of evolutionary history. This is no more a weakness than not knowing God's purpose behind human history, e.g. the Holocaust. That, too, appears unguided and meaningless, but the knowledge that everything happens according to God's purpose assures us that it is not in fact unguided."

You seem to be taking evolution on faith, as if that's revealed truth.

"I wonder: Why do you think evolution is such an accepted scientific theory, having been exposed to so much confirmation…"

What confirmation do you have in mind?

"…and peer-review?"

That's a circular appeal.

"Is it all a conspiracy?"

Some Darwinians are quite upfront about their antipathy to Christian theism. In addition, scientists can suffer from tunnel vision.

"When a beneficial mutation occurs, it tends to be distributed among the population. When a harmful mutation occurs, it tends to be rooted out. Hence, the effects of a single beneficial mutation tends to be greater than the effects of a single harmful one."

My original statement wasn't limited to mutations. When I said, "For every lucky break, how many times does natural selection deal itself a losing hand? How can evolution stay in the game?"–that applies to natural history in general. All the haphazard threats to the survival of species.


"I wonder: Why do you think evolution is such an accepted scientific theory, having been exposed to so much confirmation and peer-review? Is it all a conspiracy?"

The life sciences are fiendishly complex. It's easy to lose your way in the labyrinth. Evolution supplies a unifying principle. Evolution puts the life sciences into a story. Gives it a plot. Drama. Characters. Linearity.

Never underestimate the power of storytelling. The perennial appeal of a good yarn. Consider the insatiable appetite for new movies.

The evolutionary narrative is more attractive at a distance. Heartless up close.

Theistic evolution softens some of the rough edges. Tries to convert the Darwinian dystopia into a utopia. Alls well that ends well.


"I'd haphazard a guess that beneficial mutations are sufficiently plentiful so as to ensure that evolution is possible."

Sounds like a faith-claim rather than a fact.

"Mutations also power micro-evolution, so if beneficial mutations are scarce, then we shouldn't be observing that either."

i) Aren't there ongoing debates about what mechanisms drive evolution?

ii) Also, opponents of evolution think organisms have some degree of built-in adaptability to new environments.

"If the entire population were affected by such a destructive mutation, then I guess they would be destined to hell in a handbasket. But I don't think that's very likely to happen in every case, as the affected individual(s) would be less likely to reach reproductive opportunities, and so the mutation would be rooted out of the gene pool."

People with hereditary degenerative disorders often live long enough to reach reproductive opportunities, for some these diseases only manifest in adulthood.

Also, within an evolutionary narrative, hominids mate as soon as they reach sexual maturity (i.e. adolescence). Generations are short.

"Genetic evidence, paleontological evidence, biogeographical evidence, and the like. Evolution simply is the best explanation for all the biological data."

Well, I've often stated my own views on that subject–including recently.

"It explains why we have non-functional genes in the same location as the functional counterparts in other mammals, it explains the existence of endogenous retro-viruses."

We need to guard against the temptation of jumping on the bandwagon of fast-moving, highly technical field. Even within the past few years I've seen significant retractions about previous confident claims.

"Its hypotheses are frequently confirmed (pace the frequent creationist claim that evolution is untestable), as in the case of the discovery of Tiktaalik, an ancient intermediate fossil, whose location was predicted by evolution."

Evolution "predicts" intermediates. But creationism doesn't deny ecological intermediates. And Tiktaalik has been analyzed in the creationist/ID literature.

"I rule out a shortsighted God by e.g. ontological arguments about a greatest possible being."

i) Even assuming the ontological argument is broadly sound (Which version? Anselmian? Leibnizian? Gödelian? Plantingian?), that requires subsidiary arguments to prove what makes certain attributes great-making attributes.

ii) Moreover, the evidence of guided evolution must be counterbalanced against evidence to the contrary. You can't treat the alleged evidence for evolution as the standard of comparison, then automatically dismiss counterevidence. For the evidence itself doesn't furnish a standard of comparison. You could just as well take the counterevidence as your standard of comparison.

"No, it was intended to show that evolutionary history doesn't solely appear unguided, but that there are also cases where species got surprisingly lucky. However, I reject that we can deduce design and guidance from either lucky breaks or unfortunes in history. It depends on what is God's goal, and I think you'd agree that God didn't intend to create a utopia."

i) Since evolution is an ongoing process, how do you know the goal ahead of time? You can't start at the end of an ongoing process and reason backwards, for the process hasn't ended.
ii) Likewise, why assume evolution is guided in the face of such an apparently haphazard and slipshod process?
"Indeed, not everyone's fate is as happy as ours, but I wasn't meaning to establish teleology from solely one happening."

You're talking about entire hominid species or races becoming extinct–just to further the goal? Aside from the inefficiency, isn't that pretty ruthless? Is that just a business expense, like the high mortality rate of serfs conscripted to build St. Petersburg?
"If misfortunes in evolutionary history reveal a divine absence, then misfortunes in human history should likewise."

Evolution isn't revealed dogma. It doesn't merit the same appeal to divine inscrutability. If you say evolution is a guided process, but you automatically discount empirical evidence to the contrary, then your position is arbitrary and fideistic.
"If hostility to Christianity explains the prevail of evolutionism, then why are most scientists willing to accept that there currently is no theory of the origin of life?"

Not for lack of trying.
"Also, many evolutionists are Christian."

They've been given an interpretive framework. They see the evidence filtered through the grid.
"Why do you think evolution is such an accepted scientific theory, having been exposed to so much confirmation and peer-review?...Tunnel vision is corrected by the sheer number of scientist, all of whom have different views and are in different situations, thus furthering their sole unifying cause, namely scientific knowledge. Of course, it probably isn't perfect, but surely it sufficiently safeguards the objectivity of the scientific enterprise."

You have a backwards notion of peer review. In the nature of the case, peer review enforces ideological and institutional conformity. Those who buck the system are banished to Siberia. Look at how entrenched global warming became.
"I'd add that the occurence of evolution therefore is evidence of some sort of intentional agent behind it."

Do you assume that if an airplane crashes, that must be due to intentional agency rather than mechanical error? You seem to begin with outcomes, then simply assume intentional agency must lie behind the outcome.
"but I don't see how it would actually get off the ground as a serious scientific theory unless there were something to back it up."

That assumes evolution is a serious scientific theory, which begs the question. It's certainly taken seriously by many. But, then, so is ufology.

steve9/19/2013 6:59 PM
"My evidence that God guided the evolutionary process is: 1. evolution is true, and 2. Christianity is true. If Christianity is true, man isn't an accident."

That's illogical. God could be deistic. Or God could make nature an adaptive, stochastic system that takes on a life of its own.
"I rule out a shortsighted God by e.g. ontological arguments about a greatest possible being."

Assuming evolution is true, why should we only infer God's character from a priori arguments rather than a posterior effects like natural history?
"No, it was intended to show that evolutionary history doesn't solely appear unguided, but that there are also cases where species got surprisingly lucky. However, I reject that we can deduce design and guidance from either lucky breaks or unfortunes in history. It depends on what is God's goal, and I think you'd agree that God didn't intend to create a utopia."

You have a schizophrenic position. You think we should both judge and not judge the natural record by appearances. On the one hand, you think we should judge the nature record by appearances insofar as it (allegedly) bears witness to universal common descent by macroevolution. On the other hand, you don't think we should judge the nature record by appearances insofar as it bears witness to dysteleology, lack of foresight, lack of planning. On the face of it, natural history (a la evolution) bears witness to a God who's improvising on the fly. If evolution is goal-oriented, then then God is a poor marksman. To all appearances, he must be using nature for target practice to improve his aim. He keeps missing the target. Learning by trial and error. And a slow learner at that.
"If misfortunes in evolutionary history reveal a divine absence, then misfortunes in human history should likewise. God didn't share with us his reasons for permitting the Holocaust, and similarly, I don't need him to tell me what his purposes behind every seemingly non-ideal occurrence of evolution were."

If God used the process of evolution to eventuate man, then why were his means so ill-adapted to his ends? Why so many blind alleys, dead-ends, washed-out bridges, and cul-de-sacs?