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January 18, 2005

Creation/Evolution Must-Reads and Misses

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Must-reads

The blind watchmaker: why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design
Richard Dawkins

Darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life

Daniel Dennett

Both of this books -- one by a zoologist, the other by a philosopher of consciousness -- make a sweeping, unflinching (even bigoted) case for evolution and go on to examine what they believe to be necessary consequences: God does not exist, there is no afterlife, free will is an illusion as we are essentially just robots, etc. A goodly portion of both books is devoted to trashing Stephen Jay Gould's lukewarm semi-adaptationist position on Darwinism, and I don't blame them one bit for that. Dawkins, unsurprisingly, spends more time discussing the biological evidence, while Dennett is more concerned with demolishing teleology and promoting the so-called "strong AI" that he believes is indistinguishable from our own "consciousness." These two books should be read for their convincing physical cases for evolution, but make no mistake, they aim to make the analogous metaphysical cases for atheism.

Dawkins and Dennett believe that evolution entails atheism, and that those who disagree probably haven't thought about it very carefully. In fact, much like the logical positivists of days long past, they hold that the notion of God is nonsensical and deserves no intellectual standing whatsoever. They have discovered the answer to everything, it seems. Abiogenesis? Well, not proven technically, but Dawkins says any alternative is a "feeble argument" because it doesn't explain anything (whether something conforms with the facts apparently matters little). Fine-tuning arguments about the universe? Simply silly, says Dennett: we merely need to postulate a Darwinian multiverse generator and explain those away. Why is there something rather than nothing? Well, why not? (Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations explores this topic and seriously considers this possibility that something has no ontological advantage over nothing. In which case, he mused, the default position in an existence proof could just as easily be pro rather than con. Whence Dennett's opposition to theism? But I digress.) Both men, purveyors of what Nozick called "coercive philosophy," can be counted on to denigrate and question the motives of anyone who would use "pseudoscience" against their impeccable position. Attached is the OED's definition so you can judge for yourself whether that's the pot calling the kettle black: a pretended or spurious science; a collection of related beliefs about the world mistakenly regarded as being based on the scientific method or as having the status that scientific truths now have.

Also worth reading by Dawkins: Climbing mount improbable

and by Dennett: The mind's I: fantasies and reflections on self and soul (co-written with Hofstadter of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame)

The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark

Carl Sagan

Part memoir, part debunker's manual, Sagan's The Demon-haunted World is a treasure. He earnestly proclaims science and reason as the hope for mankind, unmasking the delusions of the world with a mixture of clarity and kindness not often seen in the skeptical literature (e.g. he is always careful to identify his misguided creationist quarry as being of the "literal" variety, and he respects religion even though he thinks it jumps to unwarranted conclusions). Like Michael Shermer in Why People Believe Weird Things, Sagan is inclined to think that good science is done by imaginative, yet disciplined, people; and (he thinks) disciplined people don't believe anything until it's proven. To that end, he includes what he calls a "Baloney Detection Kit" with a list of fallacies and questionable tactics employed by cranks. Sagan wrote a beautiful book that I've read and re-read, each time enjoying it anew. But... (you could have guessed)

I have two minor beefs with Sagan's book. The first has to do with his all-or-nothing view of belief. It's been my experience that I tend to hold beliefs of varying confidence. I am extremely confident, for example, that 2 + 2 = 4, but less so regarding the Schrödinger equation, though I believe it also. Do I believe in Hawking's theories of black hole formation? The theory fits the evidence, I'm told, so I'd put it in the "plausible" category. And so on. My second complaint involves his list of "fallacies" on pp. 212-215, many of which are not broadly logical fallacies at all. In fact, some of them betray a political bias, especially "inconsistency" and "short term vs. long term." He obviously disbelieves in mutually-assured destruction and believes in the necessity of space exploration, but were his reasons for belief based on unimpeachable reason in those cases?

The case for the Creator: a journalist investigates scientific evidence that points toward God

Lee Strobel

Strobel has a background as a hard-hitting, "just-the-facts" reporter, and as an atheist. He has, however, left much of that incredulity behind since becoming a Christian. This book's format largely mirrors his previous books The Case for Faith and The Case for Christ, presenting its cumulative case by way of interviews pieced together with personal narratives. There are no hostile witnesses in this book, which is disappointing; Strobel gives his former opinions as the other side, but this device tends to generate straw men rather than solid objections. Nevertheless, he asks at least one tough question per interview. The material in this book gives a decent overview of the in-vogue cosmological, astronomical, and biological (Intelligent Design) arguments for Christian theism -- it's "Reason for the Hope Within-lite." Its hidden curriculum can be contrasted with Pennock's book, listed below.

Intelligent design creationism and its critics: philosophical, theological, and scientific perspectives

Robert Pennock, editor

Rather than attempt to read Behe, Dempski, and Johnson -- to say nothing of the Discovery Institute's burgeoning library of follow-ups -- I recommend this comprehensive, albeit biased, collection. It includes the core arguments for the evolution-as-atheism of Johnson, the irreducible complexity of Behe, and the abstruse "complex specified information" argument of Dempski, as well as Plantinga's peripheral contributions to the area. Rebuttals by well-known evolution proponents follow each article, differing in quality and viewpoint. Curiously, ID proponents don't get a chance to give short remarks on the rebuttals, unlike what is customary in this type of collection. The real reason to check out this volume is to see firsthand the catcalling and stereotypes that each side sometimes employs. In one instance, Johnson writes a three-page note attempting to demonstrate Darwinism as incoherent by (dubiously) linking it to "a form of dualism." Dawkins responds with a paragraph of rebuttal and another page of vitriol against the eeevil lawyer Johnson and how he's been educated beyond his ability to form rational thought. I'm not exaggerating; that's practically a quote.

By the way, I wouldn't bother with Pennock's shorter treatise, Tower of Babel. His best arguments are contained in the larger volume (he at least thinks that he's being fair); and while his discussion on the similarities between Intelligent Design theorists and Raelians is amusing, his analogical argument against ID by way of "evolutionary linguistics" and a literal Babel story is too confused to be of much use.

The Genesis flood: the Biblical record and its scientific implications

John Whitcomb and Henry Morris

Actually, I'm not recommending that you read this book, but take a look at least. It's important to the debate largely due to its grand-daddy status as the bedrock of "creation-science." Using the Scriptures as their ultimate guide, Whitcomb and Morris shoehorned every century-old idea they could into making the facts of geology fit the Genesis story. This is young-earth creationism at its most beguiling, generated by men whose devotion to a literal reading of the Bible trumped science, no matter what the evidence. For their part, I'm sure they felt this philosophical commitment was necessary. But the political odium that belonged to them has been accrued to all other Christian scientists. I suspect that every time a militant Darwinian picks up a book questioning evolution, they read that book as though they're reading this one.

Avoidables

Anything written by
Stephen Jay Gould

Well, maybe not anything. Gould may very well have been the most prolix scientist in history. His passionate, wide-ranging, and fantastically urbane essays, liberally festooned with truly sophisticated adjectives and obscure Latin sayings, left readers in awe of his wordsmithery. To that end, I submit that his baseball book, Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, is likely a good read; his real strength in natural history emphasized the history, as Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle ably demonstrated. But Gould's coruscating writing style largely got in the way of his scientific message. I wrestled in vain with his behemoth, 1,433-page The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, hoping to glean a thorough understanding of evolution in among the desultory ramblings on architecture, Baupläne, creationism, and many other things that I am loathe to further name abecedarially. Gould apparently believed that penning a simple declarative sentence would be the death of him. In fact, on many occasions in the book he seemed to be apologizing in advance for writing one! If there were such a thing as a Gould drinking game, "-- I can't think of another way to say this --" would be a social opportunity. (As it happens, he died shortly after publication, so maybe he had good reason to think thus.) On a more substantive note, many of his critics feel that Gould was unduly self-congratulatory, expertly weaving a slanted view of evolution which feels mystical and vaguely Marxist.

Incidentally, since Gould freely proclaimed his Marxism, his works stand particularly vulnerable to such charges. He held to the belief that some scientific research, such as sociobiology, should be resisted merely on the basis of its consequences to man's equality, regardless of its possible truth. His much-celebrated polemic The Mismeasure of Man, conveniently reprinted with new material contra The Bell Curve, illogically tried to crush all notions that there might be any utility in intelligence testing or that intelligence might be measurably different between populations. I don't happen to believe that Herrnstein and Murray had anything approaching proof, but they were not simply trumpeting pseudoscience. They were maligned in every public forum, largely by people who made no attempt to understand their work, simply because they had some evidence that intelligence was hereditary. Admittedly, it is a dangerous idea. Maybe Dennett would like to try his hand at this one.

Can a Darwinian be a Christian?: the relationship between science and religion

Michael Ruse

Ruse, it must be charitably said, seems like a nice guy. His books are thoroughly anti-polemical and he evenhandedly plumbs the social consequences of evolution in Mystery of Mysteries and From Monad to Man, pointing out everyone's biases along the way. Like Dawkins, Dennett, William Provine, and (strangely enough) ID bigwig Phillip Johnson, Ruse believes that if evolution is true, then naturalism is true. But unlike Dawkins, who is an evangelical atheologian, Ruse doesn't think that Darwinism necessarily gets in the way of Christianity. To be sure, one must be willing to accept an old earth and a continuous creation. And maybe that affects the status of Adam and Eve somewhat, but the spiritual message of the Fall and subsequent salvation history can be understood in an organism-agnostic context, even extending the grandeur of God's mercy to multiple galaxies. But his thoroughgoing naturalism damns Christians with faint praise. What, precisely, is left of Christianity after we deny all miracles, even the resurrection? Ruse's tenuous position doesn't feel much more comforting than Gould's non-overlapping magisteria, where religion reigns over everything... that isn't in the universe. I believe science and religion can be harmonized, but any paradigm that gives God no right to enter the world He created is a non-starter.


Posted by The Greatness at January 18, 2005 04:07 AM

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