In a recent exchange with a scientist, I came upon an argument that intelligent design should not be taught in public schools because it is not science and is not falsifiable.  I am not a scientist, but this argument led me to a question: what would falsify the theory of evolution by means of natural selection?  I decided to get some of the basics of the theory of evolution from a hostile source.  Here are some quotes from Douglas Futuyma, professor of evolutionary biology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution and the American Society of Naturalists, that I find relevant to my thoughts:

The reason that natural selection is important is that it’s the central idea, stemming from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, that explains design in nature. It is the one process that is responsible for the evolution of adaptations of organisms to their environment.

Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection caused quite a stir when it appeared in 1859. Evidence to support evolution and natural selection, of course, has accumulated over time, and now science accepts that evolution is a fact and that natural selection explains very well how adaptive evolution takes place.

You can’t have any evolutionary change whatever without mutation, and perhaps recombination, giving rise to genetic variation. But once you have genetic variation, there are basically two major possibilities:

  • First, there is simply no difference between the different genotypes or different genes in their impact on survival or reproduction, and in that case, you can have random changes of one versus the other type in a population or a species until eventually one replaces the other. That is an evolutionary change. It happens entirely by chance, by random fluctuations. That is what we call the process of genetic drift.
  • Genetic drift is very different from possibility number two, natural selection, which is a much more consistent, predictable, dependable change in the proportion of one gene vs. another, one genotype vs. another. Why? Simply because there is some consistent superiority, shall we way, of one genotype vs. another in some feature that affects its survival or some feature affecting its reproductive capabilities.

. . . .

Evolution certainly does involve randomness; it does involve unpredictable chance. For example, the origin of new genetic variation by mutation is a process that involves a great deal of chance. Genetic drift, the process I referred to earlier, is a matter of chance.

. . . .

[N]atural selection is not like Mother Nature watching over us. Since natural selection is totally an impersonal process that is nothing more than a difference, generation by generation, in the reproductive success of one genome over another, there’s no way that it can look forward to the future or guard against the possibility of extinction. What individuals have right now that gives them superior adaptation may lead to disaster tomorrow.

. . . .

[F]irst of all, random processes are involved in the evolutionary process. For example, the origin of new mutations: a lot of evolution is dependent on particular mutational changes in genes that were very, very rare or unlikely, but that just happened at the right time, in the right species, in the right environment, but it need not happen that way. So, there’s this unpredictability. In addition, the particular sequence of environmental changes that the Earth underwent and that organisms were exposed to over billions of years has left a long-term imprint on species as they are today. If the sequence of environmental changes were different, you would have a different evolutionary history, leading to entirely different organisms over time.

. . . .

The philosopher Daniel Dennett called natural selection “Darwin’s dangerous idea” for a good reason: it is a very simple natural mechanism that explains the appearance of design in living things. Before Darwin, the adaptations and exquisite complexity of organisms were ascribed to creation by an omnipotent, beneficent designer, namely God, and indeed were among the major arguments for the existence of such a designer. Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) concept of natural selection made this “argument from design” completely superfluous.   It accomplished for biology what Newton and his successors had accomplished in physics: it provided a purely natural explanation for order and the appearance of design. It made the features of organisms explicable by processes that can be studied by science instead of ascribing them to miracles. The contemporary “intelligent design” movement is simply a repetition of the predarwinian argument, and of course it cannot be taken seriously as a scientific explanation of the properties of living things.

[Underlining added.]

So what I take from the above is that evolution involves a process of random and unpredictable mutation, combined with a predictable process of natural selection whereby certain mutations win out over others, but all mutations in all species began in a single common ancestor.   [Another more succinct summary is available here.]

Professor Futuyma admits that there is an “appearance of design in living things.”  He claims that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection—which is to say, one way of interpreting the evidence—explains that appearance of design based on random occurrences.  The intelligent design (ID) crowd claims that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is not the best explanation of the appearance of design.  The ID people claim that life appears designed because it is designed; it is not random.  Now, keep in mind, the ID scientists make no claim for the source of this designer—it could be aliens; they can’t (and won’t) say (“Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design does not claim that modern biology can identify whether the intelligent cause detected through science is supernatural”).  But ID scientists claim that life was designed by some intelligent source.  I’ll allow some of the ID people to speak for themselves:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. . . .

If [evolution] simply means “change over time,” or even that living things are related by common ancestry, then there is no inherent conflict between evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory. However, the dominant theory of evolution today is neo-Darwinism, which contends that evolution is driven by natural selection acting on random mutations, an unpredictable and purposeless process that “has no discernable direction or goal, including survival of a species.” (NABT Statement on Teaching Evolution). It is this specific claim made by neo-Darwinism that intelligent design theory directly challenges.

Now, as to the claim that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection is scientific and ID is not because ID is not falsifiable: how is the concept of randomness possibly falsifiable in any way that ID is not?  Is the question of whether some certain pattern is random or designed not a proper subject of scientific inquiry?  If not, then scientists have no business saying anything is random (and thus Professor Futuyma’s brilliant explanation above is not scientific; the concept of randomness is all over the place).  But if that question is a subject of science, then ID certainly belongs in the scientific discussion.  ID is merely an interpretation of the evidence which, as Professor Futuyma admitted, establishes the appearance of design in nature. 

Thus, the ID proponents claim that what they are doing is science:

Is intelligent design a scientific theory?

Yes. The scientific method is commonly described as a four-step process involving observations, hypothesis, experiments, and conclusion. Intelligent design begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high levels of CSI. Scientists then perform experimental tests upon natural objects to determine if they contain complex and specified information. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures to see if they require all of their parts to function. When ID researchers find irreducible complexity in biology, they conclude that such structures were designed.

So, if we’re going to teach the evolutionary process in public schools, either we include arguments for randomness and arguments for intended design, or we exclude both.  I do not buy Professor Futuyma’s conclusory dismissal of ID on the ground that the design argument is “pre-darwinian” and therefore wrong or unscientific.  Darwinian evolutionary theory is pre-Naturallawyer (Darwin died long before I was born); so is it wrong if I disagree with it?  The age of an argument is a remarkably bad reason for discarding an argument.  Equally suspect is the argument that ID is wrong because the “scientific consensus” says that it’s wrong.  The consensus of the scientific community is constantly changing.  If scientific consensus is a reason to abandon a controversial argument, the emperor is wearing some mighty fine new clothes on his way to public schools these days.

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An interesting post on the blog of a South African discusses what people mean when they assert that they have a right to believe what they want:

[C]an anyone actually believe something just because they want to? Go on, try it. Pick some belief at random, something silly which you never really took seriously before, and will yourself to believe it…

I doubt you had any more success than I did.

What we can claim is the right to express and practice our beliefs, whatever they happen to be, to the extent that our actions do not infringe on the rights of others.

It is these other rights which concern me most. Attempts to defend a belief which cannot be limited may infringe on a few of them, for example:

Freedom of expression: False beliefs can generally only be maintained by ignorance. If someone has the “right” to believe something then that necessarily means that we must loose the right to argue with them about it.

Equality: Many beliefs are discriminatory. So often the so called “right to believe” is used to justify acts of discrimination in all their various forms.

In conclusion, We need to stop assuming we can control belief and let free expression take care of defending rational beliefs and gradually dismantling the irrational ones.

I agree that many people misuse the term “right to believe” just as they misuse the phrase “stop forcing your beliefs on me.”  No one can really be forced to believe anything, although certainly propaganda and brain-washing do exist.  Some are better at guarding their minds than others.  Still, people generally use these phrases more as nifty sound-bites than intelligent arguments.

That said, after reflection, I do believe one can choose to believe things.  One may not be able to choose to believe a fact in the abstract, especially something we know is wrong.  No matter how much I close my eyes and insist to myself that Catalina Island does not exist, I cannot do so because I’ve been there and know that it does.  However, consider a situation where a friend claims to have visited an unnamed island in the South Pacific where there are beautiful mountains and waterfalls.  Depending on my friend’s propensity to tell the truth or exaggerate, I can make a rational choice whether to believe him or not.  In court, we ask juries to decide which testimony they believe based on the evidence.  Sometimes that requires a very difficult decision, but a decision nonetheless.

Even so, the right to decide what one believes does not in itself require action or inaction by any other private individual.  If I speak falsehood and deceive others into false beliefs, the correct course is not to limit the expression of false beliefs, but to respond with truthful ones (this is what the above post is getting at in the conclusion).  In America, that’s the whole point to the First Amendment:

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).

Now, with respect to freedom to follow one’s beliefs through actions, we have a much more difficult question.  I think there should not be a bald right to act on one’s beliefs however one sees fit.  You’ve got to have more.  When a bald right to act on one’s beliefs is respected, we get ridiculous statements like the following:

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

Come again?  We have a right to define our own concept of the universe?  And that right is supposed to be respected by law?  Of course, that’s nonsense.  The law will not permit me to define my concept of the universe if my concept of the universe claims that law does not exist.  Anarchy is not among my liberties.  There is no right to define one’s existence.  The Supreme Court was out to lunch in that statement, as the dissent noted:

A State’s choice between two positions on which reasonable people can disagree is constitutional even when (as is often the case) it intrudes upon a “liberty” in the absolute sense. Laws against bigamy, for example — which entire societies of reasonable people disagree with — intrude upon men and women’s liberty to marry and live with one another. But bigamy happens not to be a liberty specially “protected” by the Constitution.

As argued in the dissent, a government may make choices that intrude on the liberty to act upon one’s beliefs.  But when it does, the question is not whether it may intrude on such actions in the abstract, but whether the particular intrusion is just.  That will be a matter of politics.  But it makes no sense, in the public discourse aspect of the process, to assert that a law should be changed because it infringes on someone’s right to practice their beliefs.  The kind of belief and the kind of intrusion must be considered on their own.

Incidentally, to address the discrimination argument in the post, I’m going to disagree with the proposition that “acts of discrimination” are inherently a bad thing.  Lots of discrimination is beneficial.  We discriminate against minors when we do not allow them to drive.  We discriminate against those who commit crimes by throwing them in jail.  The question is not whether a law is discriminatory, but whether it is rationally discriminatory.  And of course, that will draw some really heated debates, hence the current climate of politics and the media.

Merry Christmas

December 25, 2009

Posted this a few weeks ago, but it deserves another post today:

Merry Christmas everyone.

Apparently I’m late arriving to this “news,” but last school year 14 year-old high school student McKay Hatch of South Pasadena High School started the No Cussing Club to encourage students not to swear.  Interestingly, Los Angeles County subsequently commended him by declaring No Cussing Week in the County.  The LA Times did a feature on the student’s efforts, including the expectedly mature response of his fellow high school students when he started his club:

McKay took heat when he set up a registration table at the high school during club sign-up day.

“My dad didn’t want me to do it. He figured I’d be harassed,” he said.

“I got cussed out by about 50 people during club rush. But I had 120 people sign up. Later, a senior who had cussed me out apologized. He’s now the club vice president.”

Through his club Internet site, the boy has also been showered with pornographic and obscene rants e-mailed by opponents of his anti-cursing campaign.

His father deletes the obscenities when they come in.

The boy’s rough treatment was cited by Cacciotti.

“The proclamation is an opportunity to recognize and celebrate the courage he had to stand up for what’s right,” Cacciotti said.

While that seems to be a feel-good story, I’d like to focus a little more on South Pasadena Mayor’s remarks quoted in the feature:

“Lack of civility can erode a community. It’s one of the issues across America that affects even small towns,” said Mayor Michael A. Cacciotti, who Wednesday night proclaimed March 3 through 7 “No Cussing Week” for his city’s 25,824 residents.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Antonovich, who promoted a county-wide No Cussing Week, also commented:

Antonovich has no interest in ticketing the foul-mouthed. “It’s not enforceable,” said [Supervisor] Antonovich spokesman Tony Bell. “It’s like Breast Cancer Awareness Week. We want to remind people about their choice of words. Use different language — be kind; be civil.”

I find this interesting.  Preliminarily, I’ll note that swearing is usually distasteful, unnecessary, and probably harms the speaker more than he or she realizes.  Rather than merely giving up “cussing,” try giving up all negative slander and complaining about other people, as well as “venting” (angrily swearing), and see how your day goes; you’ll probably be happier. 

Even so, is discouraging “swearing” a proper aim of government?  I’m not speaking of United States FCC regulations on scarce broadcast airwaves or public school rules (those are different debates).  I’m referring to local government encouraging “civility” where there is no crime or infraction, or encouraging an anti-swearing movement (like the analogous “Breast Cancer Awareness Week” noted above).  Isn’t that for the PR folks and the media?  Young Mr. Hatch didn’t need the government to get his idea going, or to write his book discouraging the use of swear words and bullying.  Why is the government throwing in its two cents?  Not that I think civility is a bad thing. 

It may seem innocent enough now, but consider these existing, and potentially existing (just for fun), governmental “booster days/weeks/months” (without any legal enforcement, of course): “Smoking Awareness Month.”  “Drug Awareness Week.”  “Black History Month.”  “White History Month.”  “Respect for Life Week.”  “Reproductive Healthcare Day.”  “AIDS Awareness Day.”  “Gay Rights Day.”  “[LGBT] Day of Silence.”  “The Harms of Homosexuality Day.”  “Coming Out of Homosexuality Day.”  “Respect for Islamic Heritage Month.”  “KKK Understanding Month.” 

Ridiculous as some of those are, there are actually people that value or encourage the use of swearing, and the government is asserting that swearing is “uncivil” even though justice does not demand that such actions be punished.  All of these campaigns can be (and are) celebrated through private funds and PR efforts.  The government is not needed to further the success of these efforts.

Indeed, there are even Christians that believe that there is nothing wrong with swearing (noting arguments for “stress valve” release, the evolution of language, and the relativity of words).  One can definitely set forth an argument that words are merely symbols for ideas, and the idea behind “darn it” isn’t all that different from “damn it.”  Personally, I think there is a slight difference; one is said out of deference to those who might be offended by the term, the other is said in spite of those who might be offended (and in many cases is said to intentionally offend).  Swearing doesn’t really offend me unless it’s directed at Jesus Christ, but I choose not to swear because I think a mature person does not purposefully offend someone (if someone is offended by Christian beliefs, I’ll state them anyway, but not for the purpose of offending them; for the purpose of speaking the truth with love).  I also find the choice not to swear to be a good barometer of my self-control.  When I find myself intensely desiring to swear, I know I’m on the edge of self-control.  If a person chooses to swear all the time, he or she will appear rather out of control to many people, and that perception will not help that person in life.  But counter-arguments do exist.

In any event, back to the governmental issue.  The governmental “booster efforts” may not come with any enforcement (the government won’t actually punish your swearing, or make you accept these potentially offensive beliefs).  They probably will not really affect your life at all.  Even so, someone paid by your tax dollars spent time working on these projects, and these projects express an opinion on an issue that probably does not need governmental opinion (but see below).  The government may need to outlaw slavery or some other activity because justice demands it, but it does not need to go on a PR campaign against slavery or tell citizens how to think about slavery.  Popular opinion should be permitted to change, and government ought to follow it.

On the other hand, perhaps we want the government paying homage to that which the populace finds true and just?  Perhaps the populace in South Pasadena does value civility and does find swearing uncivil.  Americans have all sorts of governmental rituals and displays that affirm cultural (and according to some, eternal) truths without enforcing said ideas on others.  I have no problem with encouraging respect for God on our coinage, or a nativity scene at the Civic Center at Christmas time (I’m not really concerned about an offended atheist that hates the nativity scene, though I’ll fight to make sure he keeps his right to criticize the nativity scene and voice his dissent).  Is the nativity fundamentally different than No-Cussing Week?  Are these improper soul-making efforts, which should be kept to the realm of the church?  Or are they harmless reflections of the beliefs of the majority of public citizens?  The question, I think, deserves further reflection, more than a mere blog post.  But I’m inclined to think that local governmental respect for the beliefs of the citizenry is appropriate, and if a dissenter doesn’t like it, he should fight to change the citizenry’s opinion.

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that the Democrats in the Senate want to include abortion mega-funding under the auspices of “health care” and voted to do so.  The interesting thing is that they did so in a manner so as to avoid debate

The Democrats won’t debate it because they know they will lose in the court of public opinion, as demonstrated in various polls.  Indeed, CNN has reported that fully “[s]ix in 10 Americans favor a ban on the use of federal funds for abortion”.  Moreover, in these economic times, I highly doubt that Americans are all that eager to see tax money used to fund elective abortion and line the pockets of Planned Parenthood. 

As word gets out about this, the healthcare bill will be put in jeopardy.  Hopefully word spreads quickly across the blogosphere.

To follow up on a post from eight months ago, the Supreme Court has granted certiorari on (decided to review) the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Christian Legal Society v. Kane [and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law].  (The case has since been renamed “Christian Legal Society v. Martinez.”)  According to the Christian Legal Society’s press release, the Supreme Court will “decide whether a public university can refuse to recognize a religious student group because the group requires its leaders to share its religious beliefs.”

I am not sure that that description is precisely accurate.  The Ninth Circuit opinion to be reviewed held that the UC Hastings Law School’s policy that “all groups must accept all comers as voting members even if those individuals disagree with the mission of the group” was constitutionally permissible because it was “viewpoint neutral and reasonable.”  The “question presented” in the Supreme Court docket is “Whether the Ninth Circuit erred when it held, directly contrary to the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Christian Legal Society v. Walker, 453 F.3d 853 (7th Cir. 2006), that the Constitution allows a state law school to deny recognition to a religious student organization because the group requires its officers and voting members to agree with its core religious viewpoints”, as stated in the CLS’ petition.  (Scotusblog reported that the Court will decide “[w]hether a public university law school may deny school funding and other benefits to a religious student organization because the group requires its officers and voting members to agree with its core religious viewpoints”.)  Of course, none of these quite explain the hot-button point of this whole thing: the CLS wants to officially, as part of its organizational constitution, prevent homosexuals from becoming members or officers of CLS, and Hastings desires not to fund student groups that discriminate against homosexuals. 

One slight variation between the press release and the court docket is that the Supreme Court’s term is “core religious viewpoints”, not “religious beliefs,” which could be an important distinction.  Another issue I note is that even if Hastings requires all groups to “accept all comers as voting members” (the foundation of the Ninth Circuit’s decision), the CLS student group easily could have done that, and yet still required its officers to fit within the guidelines that the voting members established.  If gays, lesbians, and whoever else want to become officers, they can join the CLS and rally a vote to change the guidelines for officers (and law students have much better things to do than join groups and attend meetings just to oppose the missions of those groups and face the hostile arguments that would go with that attempt).  

In any event, the Hastings policy really seems ridiculous aside from its discriminatory aspect.  The CLS could probably say “anyone who shows up at the Bible study on [date] can vote.”  They can spread that message by email to the other CLS members.  Who is going to know?  Non-Christians will not regularly attend the Bible studies (it’s hard enough to get the Christians to attend them).  The policy seems to be a wholly ineffective way to “make a statement” against discrimination. 

Moreover, Hastings could eradicate its “official” policy prohibiting recognition of groups that don’t allow gay and lesbian officials, and simply allow the student government to assign funds however they want, which will inevitably include discrimination against the CLS anyway (and I speak from experience in this regard).

Nevertheless, the importance in the case is not that the CLS get funding, or that the CLS’ rule be permitted to stand (the group could continue to meet with its rule intact without funding from the school).  Rather, the important issue is that government not be permitted overt discrimination against the faithful for their commitment to their religions (whatever religion that may be), even when their religions deem homosexual activity to be sinful. 

Potentially, the Supreme Court could delve into whether the doctrine against homosexual sex is a “core religious viewpoint”, as stated in its “Question Presented,” because there are Christians who believe homosexual activity is morally acceptable.  Of course, that would certainly get the attention of the more conservative Christians across the country; they will not take kindly to a governmental entity telling them what their “core religious viewpoints” are.  I doubt that the Supreme Court would risk such a backlash, which could ultimately undermine its power.

More likely, the Court’s decision will set guidelines for a state school’s recognition of, or discrimination against, student-led religious organizations on the college/post-graduate level.  The ironic thing here is that even though the public school seeks to prohibit an organization from “discriminating” against homosexuals and others, it “discriminates” against those who believe homosexuality is wrong.  So the public school erred on the side of freedom of sexual activity over freedom of religion and conscience.  Such is the result of the sexual revolution.  And that is a scary progression, from dedication to conscience to dedication to sex.

We can only hope the Supreme Court doesn’t make it worse.

This week, President Obama’s speech at West Point (announcing a renewed war effort) preempted the annual broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas on national television.  It’s a real shame, so I must post a link to the traditional cartoon.  Please click here and it’ll take you directly to the full 25-minute episode:

http://www.fanpop.com/spots/christmas/videos/12319/title/charlie-brown-christmas

If you’re pressed for time, fast forward to the 20:00 mark and watch to the end.  That’s the best part.  If you’re even more pressed for time, here’s a taste:

Merry Christmas everyone.

If God commanded you directly by voice from heaven to vote to make wearing red t-shirts illegal (say it’s on the ballot, California referendum style), and you became convinced that God had actually given you such a command, would you vote accordingly?  Just to secure the hypothetical, let’s say that you were with your closest friends and family, including the ones you trust most and the ones who are most skeptical in character, and each of them affirms that he/she heard God give you the command, and you are provided whatever other forms of proof you need to be certain that it was actually the Creator of the Universe who gave you the command (dew on the grass but not on the blanket, a staff turning into a snake, burning bush, water into wine, and whatever else you want).  Again, would you vote according to the command?  (You need not assume that it’s the Christian God giving you the command; just some ultimate creator.)

If your answer to the question is “yes,” it seems to me that you are therefore willing to enforce your religious convictions in a political manner upon others, consistent with your (practically undeniable) belief in God and His command, regardless of whether anybody else had any insight into your knowledge of the command obtained through direct revelation.  It probably wouldn’t much matter to you that others happen to disagree about whether you had been given the command, or even if they thought you were crazy.  You were given a direct insight from God and a command, and you chose to obey.  (Note: this is only because God hypothetically commanded you to, and I am not setting forth the argument–at least not in this post–that in reality, God has in fact commanded you to vote in any particular way on red t-shirts or any other issue.  That’s for another post.)

If your answer to the question is “no”, then it seems you aren’t really all that willing to obey God (or else you doubt your sanity).  You place your politics or personal judgments ahead of God Himself, which is to say that you are ultimately faithful not to God, but to the state and/or your own fallible judgment.  In short, you are deliberately and knowingly unfaithful.

Now replace “red t-shirts” with abortion.  Maybe God has commanded people to oppose abortion, or maybe He hasn’t, but if a person in good conscience believes that God wants him or her to politically oppose abortion, he or she is perfectly entitled (perhaps even obligated) to do so, even on religious grounds.  The appropriate response to that position for the pro-choice person is not to spit on the freedom of religious conviction and the free exercise thereof by demanding that people keep their religion to themselves, but rather to discuss whether God actually does require them to oppose abortion.  And that will bring us squarely to a religious discussion about politics.  Suddenly the lines don’t seem so clear. 

I came up with this little hypothetical at one minute shy of midnight, which is rather late for me.  Perhaps I’ve committed some fallacy.  But I’m very curious how one would respond to my brief argument (one conclusion being that if your religion requires certain political action and you reject, even oppose, that political action, you deny your faith).