February 5, 2016

Denton: “Evolution: still a theory in crisis” — a review

by Neil Rickert

Michael Denton has a new book, “Evolution: still a theory in crisis“.  So I picked up a copy, and will review it in this post.  I actually purchased the Kindle version of the book.

Structuralism vs functionalism

Denton outlines the main gist of his argument in chapter 1, where he explains that he is a structuralist rather than a functionalist.  He expands on that in later chapters.

Denton seems to be using “functionalism” to describe what I would call “pan-selectionism” or “pan-adaptationism”.  So he would see Dawkins, and probably Jerry Coyne, as functionalists.  Denton himself prefers structuralism, which is an emphasis on the forms or body plans (he uses the term “bauplan”) of organisms (or groups or organisms).

I’m inclined to say “a pox on both of their houses”.  I am not a pan-selectionist.  I usually say that I am not a Darwinist, for I see Darwinism as an over-emphasis on natural selection.  To me, Denton’s preference for structuralism seems strange.  Surely the structural features are their because of their functional role.

In section 1.1, Denton writes:

It is hard to imagine two scientific frameworks as diametrically opposed as structuralism and functionalism.  Whereas functionalism  suggests that function is prior and determines structure, structuralism suggests that structure is prior and constrains function.

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January 19, 2016

Understanding and the Chinese Room

by Neil Rickert

Coel has a recent post

about Searle’s “Chinese Room” argument.  My response is a bit long for a comment, so I’ll respond here.

Understanding

Here’s how Coel frames the issue:

You’ve just bought the latest in personal-assistant robots. You say to it: “Please put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then hoover the lounge, and then take the dog for a walk”. The robot is equipped with a microphone, speech-recognition software, and extensive programming on how to do tasks. It responds to your speech by doing exactly as requested, and ends up taking hold of the dog’s leash and setting off out of the house. All of this is well within current technological capability.

Did the robot understand the instructions?

My answer would be “obviously not.”  So, according to Coel, that makes me a Searlite.  If I had agreed that the robot understood, then he would say that I’m a Dennettite.

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January 10, 2016

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

by Neil Rickert

In the recent events at Wheaton College (see previous post), action toward possibly firing Hawkins is said to be based on her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  Apparently, the Wheaton College president does not agree.

The view that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, is a rather curious position for Wheaton to take.  I’ll readily grant that many conservative Christians agree with that position, but that does not alter its strangeness.

The God of Abraham

Both Christians and Muslims claim to worship the God of Abraham.  So, on the face if it, one would think that they worship the same God.

There is no doubt that the way Christians characterize and describe God is very different from the way that Muslims characterize and describe God.  For example, Christians claim that there God is a triune God, a unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Muslims reject that view of God.  But so do Jewish people.  Yet conservative Christians do believe that they worship the same God as is worshiped by the Jewish people.

It would be easy to understand Christians saying that Muslims mischaracterize God, and it would be easy to understand Muslims claiming that Christians mischaracterize God.  But to say that the Muslim God is a different entity from the Christian God — that’s what is hard to understand.

The atheist view

To say Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, seems to imply that there is nothing more to the Christian God than the way that he is described and characterized by Christians.  But this is pretty much the atheist view — namely that man created God, rather than God creating man.

One wonders whether the president of Wheaton has thought his position through.

January 7, 2016

Wheaton College — shame on you

by Neil Rickert

Wheaton College is around a 30 minute drive from where I live.  I have long respected it as a religious college which did a pretty good job of living up to the expectation of academia.  Many years ago, as a graduate student in mathematics, one of my classmates had graduated from Wheaton, and that’s probably where I first learned something about this school.

Unfortunately, recent events at Wheaton have been disquieting.  I have lost my former respect for that school.

It is almost a month since I first heard of the problems, with a blog post by Fred Clark:

In the last couple of days, there have been many reaction to the move by Wheaton, toward firing Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor.  Here are some of the posts that I have seen:

What’s this all about?

The “problem” started when Larycia Hawkins said that she would start wearing a hijab, in support of her muslim  neighbors.  This was a reaction to the negative statements that we have been hearing about muslims from politicians (particularly in the Republican primary race) and from some evangelical Christian leaders.

To me, what Dr. Hawkins did seemed like a wonderful example the Christian teaching to “love thy neighbor”.  For Hawkins, this was not just a theoretical principle, but was something to be put into practice.

To me, the reaction of the Wheaton College administration seems very anti-Christian.  I am left wondering whether there is anything Christian about American conservative Christianity.

January 6, 2016

Respect for churches

by Neil Rickert

A recent report from Pew research shows that respect for churches is declining among millennials.  The report also suggests a decline is respect for the news media, but that seems to affect all generations.

I’ve seen comments on this by Jerry Coyne and by Hemant Mehta.  But I wanted to add my own.

What’s going on here?

It’s hard to read people’s minds.  So I’ll guess.  The millennials are very aware of global warming, and they surely realize that their lives will be significantly impacted.  Too many churches and other religious institutions are still in denial about global warming.

Respect is something that has to be earned.  And many of the churches seem to be failing at that.  Not only are they in denial about global warming, they are also far too tolerant of racism and other social ills.

It’s good to see that younger folk are noticing these failings and acting on them.

December 22, 2015

The news about Christmas — maybe not so sad after all

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post:

Jerry Coyne bemoans the fact that a high percentage of Americans believe such things as that baby Jesus was laid in a manger (81%).

But here’s the thing.  If I were asked in a poll, whether Professor Moriarty were the arch rival of Sherlock Holmes, I would assent to that belief.  I would assent even though I am fully aware that both are fictional characters.  And I suspect that many Sherlock Holmes fans would do likewise.  If you hear people talking about popular movies, you will hear them expressing beliefs that are true only in the context of the movie plot.

What we believe, and what we hold to be true, is sensitive to context.  And we often pick up the context from the way the question is asked or from earlier parts of the conversation.

I think Jerry is taking that Pew poll too seriously.  Given the time of the year, I’m inclined to see it as a “feel good about Christmas” poll.

October 9, 2015

Love, pain and chemistry

by Neil Rickert

We sometimes hear people saying that love is just chemistry.  Apparently Zach Weinersmith, the SMBC cartoonist, doesn’t agree.  He gives his ironic reaction in one of his cartoons.  I agree with the cartoonist, though I would not react in the suggested way.

Jerry Coyne thinks the cartoonist is profoundly misguided.  So I’ll have to disagree with Coyne.

Computation as an analogy

I’ll use computation as an analogy, to illustrate why I disagree with Coyne.

If you see somebody doing computation, you may see them making pencil marks on paper.  But it would be a serious mistake to say that computation is just making pencil marks on paper.

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October 5, 2015

My appendectomy

by Neil Rickert

I haven’t posted for a while.  I was thinking of some more topics, when reality intruded.  This post is related to how I have been spending my time over the last week or so.

Colonoscopy

Let’s start at the beginning.  Almost 2 months ago, I had what was supposed to be a routine colonoscopy.  That’s where they push a camera up one’s rear, and look around.

For the most part, a colonoscopy isn’t too bad, if only because you are under an anesthetic for most of the time.  The really unpleasant part is the “bowel prep” on the previous day.  That’s when you take some heavy laxatives to clean yourself out and make room for the equipment.

The colonoscopy itself came out okay.  There were three small polyps, which were removed and biopsied.  The test showed that they were not cancerous.

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September 12, 2015

Recommending a podcast

by Neil Rickert

I follow the blog “Godless in Dixie”.  This morning there was a post about a podcast with the blog author on Aron Ra’s podcast site.

I rarely listen to atheist or religious podcasts.  When I do, too often they are the same old arguments.  But this one was different.  It gave me an insight in the mind of the YEC (young earth creationist).  So I’m recommending it.

Here’s a paragraph from the associated post:

We discussed how faith can make you accept intellectual defeat while thinking through doubts and questions, and we also covered how people can rationalize irrational things in order to preserve the beliefs they were taught to embrace (Hint: It has to do with inheriting a very low view of human nature).

I’ll note that when I check a short while ago, this episode did not show in the podcast index.  However, the youtube video on the linked blog post does work.

September 1, 2015

The “Random Genetic Drift” Fallacy — a review

by Neil Rickert

I often see suggestions that random genetic drift drives speciation.  I’m a bit skeptical of that idea.  In any case, a discussion developed elsewhere, and Will Provine’s recent book on the topic was suggested as reading.  I found the book interesting, though perhaps not decisive on the issues.  So I am still at the same point of skepticism as where I started.  But I at least have a better grasp of some of the issues.

I should add that I am not a biologist, though I have taken an interest in evolutionary biology.

What is random drift?

Let’s start by looking at the main issue.  The proponents of random drift seem to be suggesting that

  • there are near neutral mutations (neither benefiicial nor deleterious)
  • by random chance, some of those neutral mutations take over the population (the new genes become fixed).

That is the sort of drift that Provine is discussing.

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