Monday, August 24, 2009

Cornelius on Rye

Cornelius G. Hunter is a remarkably pretentious blogger over at Uncommon Descent. He drinks from the Discovery Institute troth, and makes his schtick the exposure of the "religion" of evolution.

A few examples of how this guy operates. Here is a recent post called "Robert Wright and the New Pragmatism":
In recent years evolutionists have been trying to pin down the theological implications of evolution. If evolution is true--and of course evolutionists believe it is true--then what does this tell us about god? From blogs to books to conferences at the Vatican, the "fact" of evolution is being integrated with our theology. The latest example of this science-informs-religion movement is Robert Wright's op-ed piece in today's New York Times which resurrects Charles Peirce's pragmatism. It is yet another example of evolution's abuse of science.
evolutionary psychologists have developed a plausible account of the moral sense. They say it is in large part natural selection's way of equipping people to play non-zero-sum games - games that can be win-win if the players cooperate or lose-lose if they don't.

So, for example, feelings of guilt over betraying a friend are with us because during evolution sustaining friendships brought benefits through the non-zero-sum logic of one hand washing the other ("reciprocal altruism"). Friendless people tend not to thrive.

Indeed, this dynamic of reciprocal altruism, as mediated by natural selection, seems to have inclined us toward belief in some fairly abstract principles, notably the idea that good deeds should be rewarded and bad deeds should be punished. ...

If evolution does tend to eventually "converge" on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules "out there" from the beginning, before humans became aware of them - that natural selection didn't "invent" human moral intuitions so much as "discover" them? That would be good news for any believers who want to preserve as much of the spirit of C. S. Lewis as Darwinism permits.

Something like this has been suggested by the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker - who, as a contented atheist, can't be accused of special pleading.

Mr. Pinker has noted how the interplay of evolved intuition and the dynamics of discourse tends to forge agreement on something like the golden rule - that you should treat people as you expect to be treated. He compares this natural apprehension of a moral principle to the depth perception humans have thanks to the evolution of stereo vision. Not all species (not even all two-eyed species) have stereo vision, Mr. Pinker says, but any species that has it is picking up on "real facts about the universe" that were true even before that species evolved - namely, the three-dimensional nature of reality and laws of optics.

Similarly, certain intuitions about reciprocal moral obligation are picking up on real facts about the logic of discourse and about generic social dynamics - on principles that were true even before humans came along and illustrated them. Including, in particular, the non-zero-sum dynamics that are part of our universe
The mistake here is at the beginning. Evolutionists have not discovered how the moral sense evolved any more than they have discovered how the brain arose on its own. Indeed, the theory of evolution has become increasingly bizarre in its attempt to reckon with behavior. The lesson here is that it behooves us to be suspicious when "science" just happens to produce theological truths we want to hear, regardless of how bad is the science.
This post gives a pretty good idea of how deranged poor Hunter is. He starts off with his villain, the evolutionists, and how they have been trying - yes, trying but not succeeding - to get the theological implications of evolution.

Immediately we see that Hunter is full of shit because he willy-nilly constructs a strawman - just pulls it out from the same place he gets his magic sky daddy and weepy baby-god. He conjures the shadowy cabal of the evolutionists, then he invokes the image of the secret meetings in smoke-filled backrooms where the evolutionist-in-chief pounds on a table and bellows, "Gentlemen, if we don't figure out the theological implications of evolution soon, all our plans will be ruined. Ruined, I say!" And of course, Hunter makes the "no true scotsman" pitch with his line about evolution abusing science. OK, Hunter, rest easy now. Shh. Yes, real scientists would never find any historical or scientific merit in the theory of evolution. Hush little baby....

Hunter loves to boldface quotes - I guess this allows him to wring his hands as he tells his friends "I'm using their own words against them. Heh, heh, heh." But then he misinterprets the quotes. For example, look above when he crows, "The mistake here is at the beginning. Evolutionists have not discovered how the moral sense evolved any more than they have discovered how the brain arose on its own."

No, there is no mistake at the beginning because in neither the highlighted nor non-highlighted parts does it say or imply the discovery of how the moral sense evolved. When someone interpreting the science for a lay audience says "evolutionary psychologists have developed a plausible account of the moral sense," this is a good way of saying, "they have some confidence that they are on the right track and think that they should continue on."

Notice also that after using the it's-supposed-to-be-controversial term "theological," the idea of theology never surfaces again in any direct or obvious way. Hunter's a bait-and-switch guy, in other words. He starts off with his "now they're into theology" mock-outrage and just blusters himself out at the end of the post with a whiny, "They think they are SO great. Nyah!"

Hunter's real problem is that he sees (people he disparagingly calls) "evolutionists" as too proud or too confident. He says they disingenuously present evolution as if it were a fact. But this supposed pride and overconfidence are all in Hunter's head. In "The Water Strider: Evolution's Gratuitous Explanations" Hunter says:
New research is telling us more about how water striders, those bugs that walk on water, get such long legs. As usual the story is more complicated than evolution would have it. A regulatory gene that helps in the development of the water strider has opposite effects in different limbs, lengthening some and shortening others.

Incredibly, evolutionists were quick to add their gratuitous, scientifically meaningless, interpretation of the findings. As one evolutionist put it:
Many have marveled at the ability of water striders to walk on water, and we are excited to have discovered the gene that has affected this evolutionary change.
How cogent. This would be like entering an automobile manufacturing plant, finding the robot that installs the doors, and claiming to have discovered how the doors evolved.
Hunter thinks he's got a "gotcha" every time he quotes and boldfaces text. He's single-handedly talking down those haughty, dogmatic evolutionists one peg at a time. Of course - no surprise - although Hunter posts regularly, he does not allow comments on his blog. When UD carries his posts, comments are allowed. Over at UD, I myself responded to the water striders article by pointing out his mis-reading:
Sorry, but I don’t get your point. You quote and boldface for emphasis:
Many have marveled at the ability of water striders to walk on water, and we are excited to have discovered the gene that has affected this evolutionary change.
How cogent. This would be like entering an automobile manufacturing plant, finding the robot that installs the doors, and claiming to have discovered how the doors evolved.
To continue with your analogy, I am not sure I read anyone “claiming to have discovered how the doors evolved.” Rather, I read the excitement at discovering the robot (i.e., the gene) that has affected the change.

I can see that we want to know more about this gene and what “robot” installed it. Very interesting and important stuff.

Or have I missed the point completely?
Here is how Hunter responded:
Larry (1):
Sorry, but I don’t get your point.
Perhaps this is an example of what philosophers call incommensurability. Is it conceivable that this gene that causes (or helps to cause) the formation of the limbs is not the blind cause of the original appearance of the limbs, as the evolutionist so claims?

In other words, is it possible that the evolutionary account (which roughly is that there was this bug a long time ago which suffered some mutations which happened to result in a regulatory protein modifying the limb lengths just right so the bug could start to walk on water; it worked pretty well and some more mutations came along and made it work even better; and then some more mutations, and it worked really well) is not true?
The answer to Hunter is "yes" on both counts. Yes, it is conceivable that the gene is not the cause of the original appearance. If the evidence points against this gene being the cause then we need to see if we can do better. And yes, it is possible that the evolutionary account is not true. The question here becomes how much can we say is true and how much remains unknown? Then, how can we learn more about that which remains unknown?

Notice that Hunter's response to me glosses over the big point: that the analogy is poor. Because he jerry-rigs the analogy, the substance of his argument falls apart.

In the end, I think all that ID people like Hunter want is for a standard phrase (e.g., "but it could also have been an intelligent designer at some point") to be thrown in with every science story. So, every article would say something like, "Scientists think they have identified the gene controlling feature x, and they have considered whether an intelligent agent could have been involved at some indeterminate time in the distant past [but not more than 6000 years ago] to actually put together the machinery of the gene. Hallelujah." For them, everything, no matter what, points to gawd. Find a gene, don't find a gene. It's all the same: an elaborate attempt to convince people that they aren't stupid for thinking that their particular belief in a being who sustains it all is correct.

That's what this whole religious "war" on the so-called "new atheists" is, an emotionally driven sideshow rooted in their ultimate awareness of how silly their religious dogmas are.