Archive for ‘evolution’

February 26, 2014

Coming out of the woodworks

by Neil Rickert

The title refers to creationists.

Checking the comment moderation queue today, I found a message waiting for approval.  It was a comment on an older post about Newton.  The comment seemed off topic.  But, to be fair, there was another comment rating Darwin as more important than Newton.  So I suppose the creationist comment was a reaction to that.

I thought it was worth a laugh.  But, I wouldn’t want to have all the fun myself, so I decided to share that comment.  So here it is:


I “X”ed out the name, though you can find it at the actual comment.

So there we have it.  All capitals, and pretty much fact free.

March 31, 2013

Animal consciousness and evolution

by Neil Rickert

According to a post at ENV, recent evidence for the consciousness of other animals is bad news for evolution.  This seems to be a strange viewpoint, but perhaps it is simply a case of ID proponents managing to see everything as refuting evolution.

I suppose it is possible that David Klinghoffer, the author of that post, really did intend to only criticize Darwinists, and not evolution in general.  However, my experience is that ID proponents such as Klinghoffer tend to use the term “Darwinist” to refer to any proponent of evolution, including those who have explicitly said that their view is not Darwinian.

Klinghoffer does acknowledge the strangeness of the view he expresses in that post:

According to this style of anti-Darwinian thinking that I’ve backed away from, which prefers to draw a super-sharp distinction between people and other creatures, more scientific evidence of how much we share with animals should be good news for the Darwin side in the evolution debate, and bad news for us.

read more »

October 5, 2012

The primrose path

by Neil Rickert

Wikipedia, in its definition of “primrose path” says:

Not to be confused with “led up the ‘garden path'”, which is an idiom suggesting that one is being deceived or led astray.

Strictly speaking, I am making that confusion.  For this is about a blog post by Cornelius Hunter, where he unwittingly shows that he has led himself up the garden path.  His blog post is, in part, about primroses and that is the basis for the title that I chose.

read more »

August 10, 2012

I am a behaviorist

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I said something about what I am not.  Now it is time to say something about what I am.

Psychologists tend to divide themselves into cognitivists and behaviorists.  The behaviorists study behavior of people or of experimental animals.  Cognitivists tend to study beliefs, thoughts, and the like.  It sometimes seems as if those two groups are at war.  Cognitivists are often pointing out what they see as flaws in behaviorism, while behaviorists are often pointing out what they see as follies in cognitivism.  It sometimes seems to me that each side is about right in its criticism of the other side.

The terminology from psychology has been carried over into philosophy, so that some philosophers consider themselves behaviorists and others consider themselves cognitivists or mentalists.  For example, Quine is sometimes said to be a behaviorist.  The term “behaviorism” seems to be rather broader as used in philosophy than its counterpart in psychology.

read more »

January 17, 2012

James Shapiro on ID

by Neil Rickert

From time to time, ID proponents mention James Shapiro as someone who offers an alternative to the Darwinism that they much ridicule.  But they have never been sure where Shapiro stands on the question of ID.  Shapiro has now given a response.  And it is the kind of response that we might expect from a scientist at University of Chicago:

These statements are confusing. Is Dembski saying that he abandons the supernatural as a component of ID? If so, then we can start a real scientific dialogue about the possible natures of intelligence, teleology and design in biology and how to investigate them both theoretically and experimentally. However, if he does not want to abandon the supernatural (as Michael Behe has repeatedly told me he does not) and if he wishes always to have recourse to a literal Deus ex Machina, then we cannot have a serious scientific discussion. Doing that requires respecting the naturalistic limits of science. I think it would be a very positive development for ID proponents to give up on all theological crutches and engage in a strictly naturalistic inquiry, independent of whatever their beliefs in final causes may be. Is Bill Dembski willing to do that?

It is worth reading the full Shapiro post.  There’s also a reaction at Uncommon Descent, though there isn’t much to the reaction yet.  Perhaps more will follow in the comments.

November 3, 2011

The hard problem; why is it hard?

by Neil Rickert

In a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Barash asks what is The Hardest Problem in Science?  Barash is, of course, talking about what Chalmers has dubbed “the hard problem of consciousness.”  Or, in the words of Barash, it is the problem of “how the brain generates awareness, thought, perceptions, emotions, and so forth.”

So why is this problem so hard?  I think it is not merely hard — it is impossible.  It’s not that there is anything mystical or magical involved.  Rather, the problem is being framed in a way that makes it unsolvable.  In discussing the problem, Barash says:

After all, it’s the brain that does the thinking and experiencing, so how difficult could it be to ask that brain simply to look at itself and report back to my mind?

Well, no, it isn’t the brain that does the thinking and experiencing.  It is the person that thinks and experience.  For sure, the brain is used in that thinking and experiencing, but it involves the whole person, not just the brain.  That probably came across as a petty quibble about the use of words.  But I think it is more than that, and I see the difference as important.

The hard problem is usually being looked at as a design problem.  We think we know how to design a robot that behaves in ways somewhat similar to humans.  So how do we design in the ability for that agent to have subjective experience?  From that design perspective, people tend to think of the brain as the component that has to solve the “experience and thought” part.   But it is that “intelligent design” way of looking at things that leads us astray.  We are not the products of intelligent design.  We are the products of evolution.  And it is unlikely that there was ever a stage in our evolutionary history where our ancestors had the behavior but not the experience.

If we want to understand human cognition, we need to drop that design perspective, and start thinking about how behavior and experience might have evolved.

September 30, 2011

Teleology and evolution

by Neil Rickert

A review of James Shapiro: “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century”

I recently “purchased” a copy of the Kindle version of Shapiro’s book, at a time when the price was zero.  My interest in this book has been piqued by claims from creationists and ID proponents, that Shapiro’s work supports their views.  In my opinion, the creationists and ID proponents are mistaken about this, though Shapiro does say things that make him sound open to ID.  When mentioning this Amazon offer, Jerry Coyne said “Jim Shapiro is heterodox in his views and opposed to much of modern evolutionary theory, so this may be a strange book.  Weigh in if you’ve read it.”  This review is my weighing in.

read more »

June 23, 2011

The evolution of vision

by Neil Rickert

Recently, Scientific American came out with an article on the history of the evolution of the eye.  Intelligent Design proponents have used that as the basis for renewing old creationist arguments against the idea that the eye evolved.  See here and here.

The Scientific American article is about the evolution of the physical eye, rather than about the evolution of the visual system.  The ID response, too, is about the physical eye.  But it is the usual argument about irreducible complexity.  According to that argument, a change in the physical eye would have to have a corresponding change in the entire visual processing system, before there could be any benefit.  And this is part of why ID proponents and creationists see it as irreducibly complex.

read more »

January 5, 2011

The Model T and the Cadillac

by Neil Rickert

Whenever farmer Brown drove his old model T into town, the manager of the general store would make fun of it, pointing out its deficiencies.  It was noisy; the exhaust was smoky; the seats were uncomfortable; the ride was harsh; its fuel efficiency was poor.  But farmer Brown always shrugged it off.  After all, he needed that model T to get into town.  One day, when farmer Brown arrived in town, the store manager offered him a Cadillac as a replacement for the old model T.  Farmer Brown was not too sure about that.  The Cadillac handled differently, so he would have to learn how to drive all over again.  And it was a lot more complicated, so it would be harder to keep the Cadillac in good mechanical condition.  But, after experimenting with it for a while, farmer Brown recognized that the Cadillac offered him a number of advantages over his model T.  So he set nostalgia aside, and went with the newer car.

In a recent post at the Uncommon Descent blog, Barry Arrington comments that Newton’s theory of gravity has been replaced by Einstein’s general relativity, while Darwin’s theory of evolution continues to be accepted.  I’m not at all sure that’s a correct conclusion, for the modern theory of evolution is significantly different from what Darwin originally proposed.  However, even ignoring that, there’s another important point that is being missed.  Einstein gave us his general relativity as the Cadillac to replace the older Newtonian model T.  By contrast, the critics of evolution are just criticizing Darwin’s model T, but they have failed to provide a Cadillac that could replace it.

December 18, 2010

Demarcation; defending Larry Laudan

by Neil Rickert

Since John Pieret informed us about an issue of Synthese on topics related to the evolution vs. creation debate, there have been several blog posts commenting on the article by Robert T. Pennock, and critical of Larry Laudan for what he has said about the McLean v. Arkansas case.  In particular, there are posts at Thoughts in a Haystack and at Panda’s Thumb.

I have never met nor communicated with Larry Laudan, though I have read some of his work.  I am guessing that I probably disagree with him more than I would agree.  One of the reasons that I setup this blog was to express disagreement with much of philosophy of science.  But, that said, in this case Laudan appears to be the victim of a bum rap.  According to the Panda’s Thumb critique:

After that case, a fairly famous philosopher of science, Larry Laudan, criticized the court, and one of the experts who testified, Michael Ruse, for (allegedly) relying on naive and long-discredited attempts to “demarcate” science from pseudoscience and from religion.

I am not seeing that in what Laudan wrote.  I see him criticizing the arguments used, but I don’t see him criticizing the decision itself.  His disagreement is with how the conclusion was reached, not with the conclusion.  Laudan sums up in his last paragraph, with:

We can raise that question anew, with the added irony that, this time, the pro-science forces are defending a philosophy of science which is, in its way, every bit as outmoded as the “science” of the creationists.

And Laudan has that right.

Pennock frames the issue as one of demarcation, with his title “Can’t philosophers tell the difference between science and religion?: Demarcation revisited.”  But that is not the issue that Laudan raised.  I often see evolutionists asserting that creationism is not science because it is not falsifiable.  The point Laudan was making was that not only is creationism falsifiable, but it has indeed been falsified.  And therefore evolutionists should not be making that kind of argument.  I agree with Laudan.

When you look at the question, as Pennock worded it, then it at first looks easy to distinguish between science and religion.  For example, the difference between a scientific theory and a theology is huge.  But Pennock’s title expresses the question very broadly.  Science and religion are both very broad phenomena.  If there is any overlap at all, then it will be hard to distinguish science from religion in those areas of overlap.  Take the study of human cognition as an example.  There are hypotheses of quantum consciousness, and there are computationalist hypotheses based on the AI assumption that the brain is a computer. They can’t both be right.  Both are usually considered to be part of science.  Neither one of them has sufficient supporting empirical evidence to settle the case.  There’s a long tradition of such speculative hypothesizing in science.  It won’t be easy to distinguish that from some of the speculative hypothesizing by creationists and ID proponents?

It shouldn’t matter that there are parts of science that are hard to objectively characterize in a way that distinguishes them from parts of theology.  Those parts of science don’t belong in the classroom either, except perhaps as a special topics class at graduate school.  The distinctions that should matter are those that are significant for government mandated classes in the public schools.  And at that level, the distinction is clear enough.  We don’t have to solve the most general demarcation problem in order to decide what belongs in the school curriculum.  And we should make those curriculum distinctions on clear unambiguous criteria (which falsification is not).  I see Laudan as standing for exactly that point, that we should stick to clear unambiguous criteria that are appropriate for the curricula issues, and not muddy the question by calling on outdated ideas from philosophy of science.