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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Uncommon Descent Contest 19: Spot the mistakes in bafflegab - winner declared

This contest seemed to have attracted a lot of discussion, with 148 entries, so I spent all yesterday getting through the entries. Its basis was a fawning review by David B. Hart, of Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth. We are informed - on the mag’s cover - that Dawkins “gets a gold star” for his book of that name (January 2010 Number 199).

Well, Darwinism is certainly one of the greater shows on Earth, and Dawkins is worthy a life membership in an illusionists' association.

The winner this time is Paul Giem at 111 (minor correction offered at 112 ), for
To come back to the point of this post, we were asked to critique the comment,

The best argument against ID theory, when all is said and done, is that it rests on a premise – irreducible complexity” – that may seem compelling at the purely intuitive level but that can never logically be demonstrated. At the end of the day, it is – as Francis Collins rightly remarks – an argument from personal incredulity. While it is true that very suggestive metaphysical arguments can be drawn from the reality of form, the intelligibility of the universe, consciousness, the laws of physics, or (most importantly) ontological contingency, the mere biological complexity of this or that organism can never amount to an irrefutable proof of anything other than the incalculable complexity of that organism’s phylogenic antecedents.

My reply:

There are several problems with this paragraph. For example, there is the idea that ID rests on the premise of irreducible complexity. In fact, the origin of life is a far stronger foundation for ID (see Signature in the Cell), and the Privileged Planet hypothesis does not need irreducible complexity.

Another problem is the difficulty with the last sentence. If the “biological complexity” of an organism is “an irrefutable proof” of the “incalculable complexity” of its progeniters, and their progenitors had it, and so forth, did the incalculable complexity come from an originally “Incalculably complex” organism which arose spontaneously, or was the “irrefutable proof” somehow violated somewhere, or multiple times? Or does the concession constitute a proof of ID, in spite of the author’s protestations?

But the part of the argument that stands out as the worst is the assertion that irreducible complexity “may seem compelling at the purely intuitive level but that can never logically be demonstrated.” At this point I feel like I’m watching a movie, where the villain has been tracked down by the detectives who have put the clues together, and suddenly switches from pretending innocence to saying, “You can’t prove a thing!” He has now lost the audience (including any remaining doubt in the detectives). All that remains is the power play and the legal maneuvering. We now know the truth of his villainy to a moral certainty.

Science has never been about proof, and those who expect to attack ID because it can’t be proved have committed a category error. The fact that they have to resort to this kind of argument suggests a fundamental weakness in their position.

Nor is the appeal to the supposed fallacy of “personal incredulity” helpful. What is the opposite? “Personal credulity?” If the contest is between faith and skepticism, it would seem that the proper scientific attitude would be skepticism.

There are other mistakes, but this belief that ID must be wrong until it can “logically be demonstrated” is obtained is the worst. If that’s the “best argument against ID theory”, then ID has it made.


I appreciated his point that science is about evidence, not "irrefutable proof". The latter is the domain of pure mathematics. (Why we cannot square a circle or meaningfully divide by zero.) But statistics and information theory are about the balance of evidence, and if the evidence does not support the idea that Darwinism creates much information, then it is not a good theory.

A free copy of Expelled goes to him, on condition of providing me with a working postal address, at oleary@sympatico.ca ]

I also appreciated Jerry's thoughtfulness in 137 through 139.

Further comments:

Just about everything Hart said about intelligent design theory, as quoted by Giem above, is wrong, and that is not an easy feat. It is hard to know where to begin, with stuff like this. For one thing, what is wrong with "purely intuitive level" and "personal incredulity"? If a landlady thinks that her drunken boarder will not pay his rent come Friday, though he swears up and down he will, that is a purely intuitive level of personal incredulity. She cannot predict the future because she is not God Almighty. But she is probably right anyway in her assessment and should act on it.

And the rest is just bafflegab. For more on "bafflegab" (a term I did NOT invent), see below.

Go here for more.

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