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Some time ago, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron debated with the Rational Response Squad on the existence of God. Comfort promised us a proof of God, so while many of us in the atheist community were dubious about whether these two twits had even the brain power to come up with something new, we held our breath and actually hoped we wouldn’t see one of the tired, old, pathetic apologetics we’ve be subjected to for the past thousand years. Verdict? We risked hypoxia for nothing. Not really a surprise when these two clowns are involved.

The argument? Ray Comfort held up a picture of a painting of the Mona Lisa and told us that it is obvious that the object must have been made by a painter, a designer if you will. By analogy, then, the universe must have had a creator. This creator they call ‘God’. Sound familiar? It’s hardly original. William Paley used this argument more than two hundred years ago.

On the surface, this argument seems powerful and compelling. Something that has the complexity contained in a painting must have been designed. But this argument’s strength is in fact its fatal flaw. Once the question ‘how do we know the painting was designed?’ is asked, the argument is dead. We know that a painting was produced through a willful and conscious act of an agent (the painter) because we understand how a painting is made, even if we hadn’t seen the artist create this particular work. Indeed, we do not even need to know who the painter was. This is an example of making a conclusion based on an understanding of the mechanism by which a painting can be made. This is good Science and this part of Paley’s argument from design is so far legitimate.

The flip side of the argument is that like the painting, the universe and it’s contents is so complex that it must also have had a designer. The problem with this analogy is that ‘God did it’ does not suffice as a mechanism by which anything can be explained. In point of fact, not only does this response ‘beg the question’ (I would say ‘questions’), but never answered the original question in the first place. Genesis tells us that God said ‘Let there be light, and there was light’. In essence, ‘God did it.’ If I say to my coffee maker ,’Let there be coffee’, I think its easily predicted that I must go without caffeine, a terrible fate indeed. Generation of coffee requires that I use hot water to extract flavorful compounds and caffeine from coffee beans. In other words, a mechanism must exist for creating a cup of coffee from a handful of beans. Genesis is just another example of bad Science, an attempt without supporting data to explain the universe’s existence in the absence of a plausible mechanism. This is a very different animal from the creation of the painting.

Mechanism is an extremely important concept in Science. Saying the universe is here because God created it tells us nothing. We gain no knowledge from it, and it is therefor valueless. Tell me how God created the universe and then I’ll have a listen. Evolution is a fact. We see a progression of speciation in the fossil record for which the only known plausible mechanism is natural selection. Show me a fossil rabbit in Paleozoic rock and then natural selection would fail as a plausible mechanism for speciation. But we never see such out-of-order lineages.

Observable gene mutations are predicted by Evolutionary Theory. For instance, have you ever wondered why dogs and cats do not need to eat fruit in order to maintain their vitamin C levels? The group of primates to which we belong have a mutation in the gene encoding L-gulonolactone oxidase (a PZ Myers favorite) which catalyzes the reaction producing ascorbic acid (vitamin C). Why would a designer include a broken gene in the design? Such a designer is a failure at its work. Natural selection explains the existence of such inoperable pseudogenes beautifully. In fruit bats, an ancestor common to bats making fruit a significant part of their diet incurred a mutation in this gene. For fruit-eating bats, this was not a problem since they were taking in ascorbic acid. This is very similar to what is thought to have occurred in primates. The NANOG pseudogenes are considered a slam-dunk in favor of evolution, and I have written extensively about this elsewhere. Molecular genetics has also provided us with a molecular clock that is in very good agreement with the fossil record, greatly strengthening the argument. 

The universe is old. We know this from the measurements of the intensities of a special type of supernova. Their red shifts tell us that the universe is not only expanding, but that this expansion is actually accelerating. The mechanism for this is so-called ‘dark energy’. We know what happened from the very earliest moments following the Big Bang, though we may never know what happened before this, at least not until Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are reconciled. The theory is continually tested against the results of particle accelerator experiments. As the maximum energy to which particles can be made to go increases, the further back we push in time. We know more about the sun than our own planet, even though we can never go there, because its relatively simple structure can be modeled and that model compared to experimental observations.

Our home planet is quite old as well. We know from various methods of radiometric dating that the Earth is ca. 4.5 billion years old. The fact that numerous different methods point to the same age makes this estimate very strong. Computer modeling has shown us how our solar system formed, verified by observation of protoplanetary systems in various stages of formation using the Hubble telescope. All of these theories provide mechanisms to explain the observed data.

The argument from design really shows its inadequacy when the knowledge of mechanism is removed. Let’s take a scene from the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, a movie I highly recommend. In this scene, a Coke bottle is discarded from an airplane flying over the African savanna and is picked up by a Bushman (followed by a series of incidents which force the poor sop to conclude that the gods are nuts, hence the movie’s title). Having never seen a bottle before, and never having known how a bottle is made, the Bushman makes the perfectly human (and just as perfectly incorrect) conclusion that the bottle was made by the gods.

Was the Bushman’s conclusion made on the basis that the bottle is so complex? No. The Bushman jumped to the conclusion without a plausible mechanism. Complexity is just a nebulous buzzword used by the IDiots. When you can quantitate complexity and also determine how much complexity is too much for a conscious agent to NOT have created the universe, then we’ll talk some more. But this idea that the chances of a cell spontaneously forming are about the same as a tornado moving through a junkyard and spontaneously creating a Boeing 747 does not cut it as an argument against evolution, especially when Evolutionary Theory actually agrees.

Sure, The Gods Must Be Crazy is a work of fiction (and a bit inaccurate of its depiction of Bushmen). Does this happen in real life? Indeed it has – one need only consider how the cargo cults came into existence during World War II. Cargo cults are a fascinating study in how religious beliefs can originate.

We humans are predisposed to jumping to conclusions in the absence of data or a plausible mechanism – a trait Daniel Dennett has termed “premature curiosity satisfaction”. Michael Shermer has written about this extensively in his book Why People Believe Weird Things. Invoking the supernatural as an explanation is an example of bad Science. The scientifically-correct conclusion the Bushman should have made is that he simply can not know the source of the Coke bottle or how it was made without more information. While this is an unsatisfactory answer to any human being (I am no different), jumping to the conclusion that the supernatural is responsible for the Coke bottle’s existence, while understandable, is illogical and unscientific.

This is exactly the problem with Paley’s argument. On the one hand, we know how a painting can be made from the application of pigments to a canvas in a concerted fashion by a conscious agent. A plausible mechanism is available (good Science). In Paley’s time, no plausible mechanism for the creation of the universe was available to draw any conclusion – indeed, we still do not know how it came to be – yet he concluded that it must have had a creator (bad Science). The scientifically-correct conclusion is that there is no conclusion without more information. No scientist, myself included, is satisfied by such an unsatisfying answer (ok, so that’s a tautology – sue me). But the difference is that we atheists don’t find retreating to the supernatural any more satisfying.

Of course, the final joke of the debate was that Ray Comfort was not holding up a painting as he asserted, but a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. The inaccuracy of this fits exceptionally well with his, or rather Paley’s, ‘argument’. Neither jumping to conclusions without supporting data nor superstition, alone or in concert, can ever be considered ‘good Science’.

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  1. By weird science experiments | Digg hot tags on 27 Dec 2008 at 7:00 pm

    […] Vote The Value of Mechanism in Science … […]

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