Monday, December 20, 2010

Civil Discourse, Sidelights, and Theistic Argumentation

Can we please get back to what we were talking about before?
The little kerfuffle documented in the post and comments of "The Creationist Is/Ought" deserves reflection. I won't shy away from the charge of being a bit of a troublemaker, but I also think that GEM is being a baby.

My observations on the key events:

(1) Perhaps I jumped the gun at calling "censorship" at Uncommon Descent. Who knows, if I had not reached out to GEM and/or mentioned that my post had been in moderation for between 36-48 hours to that point, then maybe my post would have been released anyway. Maybe not. Speculation is a waste on this.

(2) Did I "slander" GEM with the comment about Torquemada? No, I don't believe so. Here's what I said:
The Creationist Is/Ought is an argumentative bait-and-switch. You think you're getting a straightforward argument but what you're getting is evangelism. The evangelism can be of the soft-shoe variety, as with Dembski, or it can be more of the Torquemada sort, as with a character called "GEM of The Kairos Initiative," who describes himself as "A Caribbean-based applied scientist, educator and strategic change/ transformation advocate and facilitator."
Now, I admit that it's an asshole-ish comment, and deliberately so. The comment says that GEM has the argumentative and persuasive style of a grand inquisitor. It's no compliment, and it's more than snarky. But I also think the comment bears truth. GEM displays both dogmatism and fanaticism. His flailing rhetorical attacks can be off-putting. I won't psychoanalyze GEM, but I suspect his Torquemada tantrum is partially the result of his seeing that there's something to the comparison.

(3) I also exacerbated things by teasing GEM in a later comment:
But be honest, have you ever wanted to burn someone at the stake?
I suppose if I had placed a smiley emoticon at the end, the comment might have been taken in a more jocular spirit.

(4) Is the Torquemada reference offensive? Well, GEM certainly wasn't amused and wanted both an apology and a retraction.
You will observe that the slanderous association with Torquemada and the later vulgar reference are still there, as is an accusatory comment about whether I have wanted to burn people at the stake.

Now, I think you will also see that at no point des LT respond seriously to my pointing out thsat torquemada’s behaviour was not even reasonably typical of Spanish Catholics att he time, including how two leading sints in Spain at the time, objected seriously, and how Las Casas actually projected God’s destructive judgement on Spain for her crimes in the New World. And, discussion of comparative difficulties worldview issues is not at all even remotely associated with thumbscrews, racks, and bundles of dry branches.

LT has yet to seriously account for such an invidious comparison, but instead has tried to make light of it.
(5) As an apology, I offered the following to GEM:
You say I “owe” you an apology for the association with Torquemada. Let me first clarify that I did not call you “Torquemada” nor did I associate you personally with him. What I did was liken your style of argumentation and persuasion to that of an infamous Inquisitor.

To be sure, this was a deliberately over-the-top comparison designed to dramatize my perception of your approach. It was supposed to be humorous but also to seem close enough to truth to get you to tone it down a bit.

Now, upon reflection, I apologize for making a hurtful statement and will try to restrain myself better in the future.
But GEM found this unsatisfactory. Apparently, he won't be happy unless I perform a rhetorical auto-de-fé.

(6) Do I retract the comment? Sure, why not? I hereby retract any statements I have made here or at Uncommon Descent which directly or indirectly associate the Internet character known as "GEM of TKI (or Gordon)" and the historical individual Tomás de Torquemada.

(7) Will I remove anything I've posted? No. I don't see the need. If people think I'm a dick, so be it.

(8) On vanishing comments here at this blog: I gotta admit that I don't know where this is coming from. When people submit comments, I get an email notification. I know from experience that if a comment is too long Blogger will give a message on it, but I have had long comments still get posted. As far as I know, the only way for comments that have been posted to "vanish" is for either me or the original poster to delete the comment manually. I have not deleted any comments. I don't screen comments. I do, however, have moderation turned on for OPs that are older than 10 days.

(9) All this Torquemada business was an uninteresting sidelight to what I actually wanted to have GEM discuss, namely his specific reasoning behind the thesis --
We live as contingent creatures amidst a world of other contingent creatures, in an observed cosmos that is evidently finely balanced at an operating point that allows for C-chemistry cell based, intelligent life.

Such a contingent cosmos implies a necessary being as its ultimate ground. That necessary being would be the ultimate reality. (emphasis added)
(10) Eventually, however, GEM gives the following as the chain of reasoning for his God conclusion:
a – The genetic code (yes, CODE, as in, LANGUAGE) based DNA [right arrow] mRNA [right arrow] Ribosome + tRNAs [right arrow] protein chaining process is precisely a case of discrete-state, code-based information system processing, i.e. instantiation not metaphor or analogy. (This, at length, LT had to concede.)
Let me point out that code and language are not necessarily equivalent, at least linguistically. To a linguist, and this is partially my training, codes typically represent languages and have no syntax or structure of their own.

True language, on the other hand, meets all of the following conditions: (i) it is a mode of communication; (ii) it has semanticity, in that its signals have meaning; (iii) it has a pragmatic function; (iv) it has interchangeability, which is the ability of participants to both send and receive messages; (v) it has cultural transmission, in that users can learn the language system from other users; (vi) it has arbitrariness, in that the form of the signals is not logically related to their meaning; (vii) it has discreteness, which is the property of having complex messages built up out of smaller parts; (viii) it has displacement, which is the ability of users to communicate about things not present in space or time; and (ix) it has productivity, which is the ability of users to produce and understand any number of messages, including messages never expressed before and expressing novel ideas.

GEM's use of code and language requires serious justification. Are these terms denotatively appropriate or are they human convention for nicely approximating a conception of how genetic processes function?

But if we are using the language of communication, then we need to ask what specifically acts as sender, what as message, what as receiver. GEM is trying to set up the idea that because we have a coded or linguistic process, then we must have a sentient being to conceive of the (coded or linguistic) message and input it into the sending source. But I tend to think the receiving source is more important in functional communication. Thus, we people can look at the top of a mountain and believe it resembles a human face (e.g., the Old Man of the Mountain), yet we need not consider it a non-human communication with representational status.

Now, however, we can address what many of us know: that there is such a thing as genetic code that performs real functions within living organisms. Yet the presence and function of a code is only part of the story. There is a historical dimension, and there is a biological dimension related to the receiving "decoder" that is related to that history. When we consider the parts, history, and functionality of genetic code processing in living organisms, I think that what we can trace back in time remains squarely in the natural. We don't need to imagine a "programmer" at some point in the dawn of life; we need to imagine a simple interaction where a second organelle emerges as a replication of the first, then replication with a difference, then structured replication, and phased replication. Of course, I'm neither a biologist nor a geneticist, but my point is that I find it much harder to imagine a scenario where God just poofs one or more life forms into existence. The God scenario short-circuits history and biology, and just leaves us to marvel at the code.

GEM continues:
b – Moreover, this digital information system is a key part of a self-replicating entity that also interacts with and acts on its environment, i.e the cell indeed instantiates the generic von Neumann type self-replicator.

c – Given the implied complexity and the fact that even so small a set of digital, coded, functionally specific information as 1,000 bits sits in a configuration space of 2^1,000 ~ 10^301, the whole observed cosmos of ~10^80 atoms across its lifespan and changing state every Planck time could not credibly undergo enough states to sample 1 in 10^150 of that space. That is, a random walk search of that config space rounds down to no search.
GEM's argument in Item C seems to amount to COMPLEXITY, therefore NO EVOLUTION. It appears to be an argument from personal incredulity based on the idea of teleology. That is, the result of the process is really unlikely and the chances of getting to that specific result are almost infinitesimal. Yet, this is post hoc thinking, if I've represented GEM correctly. And if so, notice how we are skipping over history, functionality, and the very real environmental ecology within which any cell must fight to exist. Item C also seems to switch venues from the biological (Items A and B) to the cosmos at a quantum level.

However, I must admit that I am not quite certain about what GEM is saying in Item C. The numbers and terms like "configuration space" are out of my daily ken. Moving on:
d – So, chance, the other source of highly contingent outcomes [natural selection filters simply cut off lower or non-functioning sub populations so, it does not create configurations] is not a credible explanation for such an information system. Intelligence routinely produces objects and systems that exceed this threshold, e.g. this post.
The suggestion in this item is that if chance (coded here as natural selection) is not a credible explanation, then creationism wins by default. Of course, natural selection is not at all the whole of evolutionary processes, and I give an overview of evolution here. GEM then says:
e – Credibly, life is designed. [And by an intelligence, and in a cosmos that sits at a finely and complexly balanced operating point that facilitates such C-chemistry cell based life, i.e the cosmos is also credibly designed. Something very much like God is credible.]
Whoa, GEM has leaped far into "ought" territory here in Item E. What does "designed" mean; that is, what are the defining and the attendant properties of design? Can things be ordered and patterned without being designed? How did we get from the idea of very complex in Item C to the idea of "designed" here? GEM needs to show his math now: what else besides apparent complexity indicates (not implies) design? We are in no position at this point to deal with other terms such as "intelligence" and "God."
f – Of course, I raised the issue of an implication above. It turns out that LT up to the point where I corrected him, seems to have conflated the act of inferring — which is subjective — with the fact of implication. But, once we have some claim P, that cannot be true and another claim Q is false, then P = > Q, i.e. IF P is so, THEN Q must also be so. (For instance, if I am typing this post then I must be alive, intelligent, purposeful and able to speak and write English.)
GEM misses my point, I think. Implications rely on assumptions about P and Q, and these assumptions need to be examined along with the premise of implication. GEM's example, for instance, doesn't imagine that GEM actually may not know not a lick of English at all and is instead typing from an English exemplar. If GEM is merely copying a sheet of paper from another source, then a critical element of the implication is flawed. Similarly, GEM's claim that a contingent universe implies an intelligent creator cannot simply be accepted at face value. I'm not accepting the implication just yet because I'd like to "peek under the covers," as it were. And when we peek, we find some serious gaps and flaws, as I have already demonstrated above.

We go forward with GEM:
g – Of course, there is an “I” — a subject — who makes the inference just above; but, once it is well warranted, it is a fact that stands on its own merits. It is objectively true.
I'm not sure what these assertions of the "I" and objective truth are supposed to mean or do. It seems as though GEM is trying to suggest that his implication of a creator (or a credible creator) is objectively true. But the implication is unsupported and the assumption of objectivity is nonsensical at this point. In other words, GEM's inference is not "well warranted." He's trying to sneak in his inference as an objective truth, but it just doesn't work and he needs to accept this.
h – And, chains of thousands or millions of such implications are routinely used in math, science and technology, as well as management and daily life, so we just as routinely hang a lot more than our hats on implications and well-warranted inferences to such implications.
This unsupported assertion glosses over the fact that sitting around dreaming whether life is designed has little resemblance to the practical application of reasoning and implication. This item provides no support for the main argument.
i – To object to an implication because it is an implication or because a subject infers it — because one does not like where it points, is thus selective hyperskepticism: making a question-begging and inconsistent objection that would not be made in a materially similar case of comparable warrant where one agrees with the conclusion.
Sigh: Actually, I question the implication more than object to it. You, GEM, have the burden to show the implication is both valid and sound. So far your points have failed to meet this burden; this, unfortunately for you, is a fact.
j – Of course, the context of the objection was the inference from a contingent cosmos to a cause of that cosmos, and onward to the existence of a non-contingent, necessary being as the ultimate ground for the observed credibly contingent cosmos.

k – This brings to bear a now common objection to reasoning on cause and contingency. To that the classic, simple example of a fire is a sufficient counter:
1: A fire has a beginning, it needs to be sustained in existence [it needs fuel heat and oxidiser in an exothermic chain reaction], and it may go out.

2: A fire is contingent, i.e its beginning and existence depend on things beyond it. (There are circumstances on which it can and will exist, and there are circumstances where it cannot exist.)

3: That is it is caused, has sufficient factors that allow it to spring into existence, and has necessary factors that if absent will block its beginning or cut off its existence.

4: Such factors are termed: CAUSES.

5: A sufficient cluster of causal factors will trigger and sustain a fire, and absence or removal of a necessary factor will prevent its beginning or make it go out.

6: Just so, our observed cosmos credibly had a beginning, and has been sustained in existence to today. It is contingent, was caused, and is caused.

7: But, an actualised infinite regress of causes (as was pointed out above, cf 44) is absurd, so the chain of causes that led to our cosmos terminates.

8: Once we have a contingent cosmos, we have a root cause that is self-sufficient, i.e it is not contingent, does not depend on other causes, and cannot go out of existence due to want of a necessary causal factor.

9: We have just described what philosophers call, a necessary being.

10: The real issue is which candidate for this is the best, e.g. a wider deeper material cosmos out of which sub-cosmi bubble up from time to time at random, or an intelligent, purposeful designer.
The reasoning here is flawed when GEM tries to get from a fire on Earth to the very beginning of space-time in our universe. I think the points I make to tgpeeler are relevant as a response here to GEM's 10-point scenario:
Let me ask, though, whether you find terms such as “past,” “cause,” and “first” problematic in the context of the origins of the universe. Are these terms, as we are using them here, appropriate and applicable to the origins of the universe?

When it comes to our universe, we have a scientific case for claiming that we can explain it without having to go outside of it. For a very high-level, 101, explanation of what I’m saying see Sean Carroll’s video at

One of the arguments I’ve made to Kairos is that when going “outside” our universe, we are hard-pressed to extrapolate from the present (e.g., as you say, “things are changing in the present”) to a past as far back as the very origins of our universe.

So, I think most everything that you or I could possibly say about a “first cause” would not only be uncertain, but I might wager it would be wrong (including this statement I just made). But now I’m speculating wildly, too.

I said before that we have a scientific case for the universe creating itself from nothing (I think this is close enough to the famous statement from Hawking’s recent book). I’m not saying it’s a great or even a good case; I’m only asserting that there is a case. This much I think is indisputable.

So, I have your case and I have Hawking’s case. I think the question at this point is how should reasonable people evaluate the two cases against each other (and other cases, as may be appropriate). Taking a neutral stance toward both cases, we need to know what criteria to apply in determining the quality of cases and the comparative evaluation.

My intuition is that this is as far as any of us can go.
GEM's banking on the infinite regress problem as a way to smuggle in the need for a designer (i.e., God). Most everything GEM talks about, from DNA codes to chains of implications, address what appears to be his need to posit a first cause.

GEM continues:
l – But already, we have reason to believe our cosmos is designed, so a designer is plainly the more credible cause; unpalatable though that may be to LT and ilk.
Unfortunately, we don't really have such reason to believe our cosmos is designed. GEM has given no definition of design and he has not really addressed competing theories in any detail, so how could they possibly be undercut?
m - Similarly, once we see that we are morally governed creatures, it is credible that we are under moral law and a Lawgiver
Assuming that we see and understand what "morally governed" means. Paley would be proud to see the watchmaker analogy coming in here. It's also credible, I think more credible, that as a matter of human convention we understand ourselves as morally governed creatures. GEM finishes with the expected claim:
n - The best overall candidate is a Creator-God who as to his character is good.
I disagree, and I don't think GEM or anyone else has shown it.

Ultimately, this whole mess amounts to this, an argument made by GEM:
The aggregate complexity and specific, functional organisation of that system scream design to all but those who are deafened by a priori commitments to denying what would overturn their comfortable, amoral materialism.
Design, he says, is obvious...except to people like me who are prejudiced against the idea. Surely, I have no good reason to doubt or question his conclusion of design. Certainly, I must maintain my skepticism because otherwise I would have to submit to God as my moral authority and thereby become a Christian practitioner.

This is, of course, hogwash. Whatever the case for design, it is speculative and only partially helpful. Mainly, design is an answer to a question we are not asking. GEM's argument has no persuasive force toward design. The argument is undoubtedly sensible, and that may be enough for some to set themselves in the design camp, but it's not really backed very well by data. GEM's best argument is the analogy with the fire in Item K. Finally, I bristle at GEM's use of the Argument from Psychology.

Look, I have no problem with living as commanded in the Torah if it's all true. I have no problem in principle with being a prayer guy, or a kippah guy, or a mitzvah guy. I don't even have a problem with accepting Jesus as my personal savior. Just make me forget everything I know about reasoning, history, language, and the way the universe works.

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