Monday, November 30, 2009

Prothero & Shermer vs Meyer & Sternberg in Beverly Hills

Shemer argues that we should reframe the ID/evolution debate from a scientific debate to a skirmish in the culture wars. He does a fairly good job of backing this up, but he is also careful not to commit the genetic fallacy and thereby conclude that his opponents arguments must be faulty because they have an vested ideological interest in fitting the data into a certain model. He also provides a couple of affirmative arguments for evolutionary theory.

Prothero characterizes the central argument from ID something like this:

  1. There are only two explanations for functional complexity: Evolution or intelligent design
  2. We found something functionally complex and we cannot imagine how it evolved naturally
  3. Therefore, it didn't evolve naturally (via argument from personal incredulity)
  4. Therefore, it must have been intelligently designed

He also does a fair bit of prebuttal, briefly addressing some of the common arguments for ID and alludes to arguments for evolutionarily driven abiogenesis.

Meyer starts off by attempting to reframe the debate, he desires not to discuss intelligent design theory, but only to address the question of whether neo-Darwinian theory (including natural selection acting on mutation-induced variations) adequately accounts for the observed pace of evolutionary change. He argues that the trilobite eyes, for example, arose too quickly (a few million years) to be explained by selection acting upon variation.

Sternberg expands on the argument from not enough millions of years, going on at some length about the number of morphological changes necessary to convert land mammals into cetaceans. He then asks “Was there enough mutational grist for the mill of natural selection?” He then does a few maths, waves his hands, and concludes that the answer must be in the negative. All in all this was a very solid presentation, but we cannot evaluate it without seeing the formulae themselves and (damn it) I only have an audio copy of the debate. Perhaps Sternberg published his results somewhere?

Meyer retakes stage and does the maths-heavy hand-waving about functional proteins, apparently assuming that proteins are created from scratch molecule-by-molecule via a uniform random process. It is hard to tell though, since he doesn’t show his work. My maths profs would have flunked him on this part. He does manage to sound smart, though, using hardcore jargon such as “combinatorial sequence space.” Maybe he is hoping to impress the nerdy girls.

Oddly enough, between Meyer and Sternberg I did not hear any arguments about the debate topic, that is, the “adequacy of Neo-Darwinian natural selection and mutation to explain the origin of life.” Perhaps they thought it was supposed to be about the biological origins of aquatic mammals in particular, though it is unclear how they could have made such a mistake.

The rebuttal periods get a bit haphazard, and here I'd like to pseudo-randomly quote from Margaret Atwood, “The chaos smells very bad.” Somewhat surprisingly (to me) the ID guys manage to hold their ground here, but only by first conceding a massive amount of ground to the evolutionists (ancient earth, speciation via by natural selection acting upon mutational variation, etc.) and staunchly defending the notion that one can squeeze God into the very tiny conceptual gap between plenty of mutations not nearly enough mutations. I mean, really, if that is all God has to do was toss in a lucky mutation every so often, why not give Him just a bit less credit? That is so weak tea, it makes Episcopalianism look like an uncompromising theological juggernaut by comparison.

Overall, though, I'd recommend this debate because it is one of the few in which I've heard cdesign proponentists intelligent design advocates giving nuanced arguments which clearly stake out a position between ordinary creationism and scientific theories.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dawkins & Grayling vs. Harries & Moore on whether Atheism is the new Fundamentalism

Talk about an all-star cast. This debate featured Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Richard Harries, and Charles Moore. Ok, so it's a 3/4 star cast, but still, that's a good panel.

Harries starts off for some reason by praising a certain flavor of atheism, one which in all my years of atheist activism I've yet to encounter in an actual living person, namely, the sort of nihilistic amoral atheism featured in works of fiction such as The Brothers Karamazov. Presumably, he does this so as to get the audience to think of unbelief as necessarily nihilistic and amoral. It is particularly ironic, then, when just a few moments later he criticizes atheists for "picking on the weakest points" of their opponents arguments. He closes by saying that the new atheism is too focused on an activist and interventionist god, unlike the god of the Anglicans who presumably hangs back and allows Engilshmen to run roughshod over indigeouns peoples in all corners of the globe. Okay, I'm paraphrasing just a bit on that last point.

Grayling leads off by noting that the new atheism came about in reaction to the rise of militant theism, both in terms of physical terrorist attacks and vituperative verbal attacks. He goes on to note that "atheist," like "afaeryist" or "apixieist" seems to load the dice by negating a particular view. He then makes an affirmative argument for secularism, which is essentially the view that religious groups should be given the same priviledges as other volutary organizations, no more or less. He closes with the absurdity of fundamentalist non-stamp-collecting, or fundamentalist non-doing-anything.

Moore leads off with a few harsh (dis)analogies, and goes on to draw a comparison between Iran's fundamentalism and that of Soviet Russia. I think this is an apt comparison, given the emphasis on conformity and thoughtcrime under both regimes, but it seems odd to compare either regime to the secular humanists there on the stage, all of whom line up firmly behind liberal democratic ideals such as religious tolerance and personal liberty.

Dawkins leads by doing what no one else has taken the opportunity to do yet in this debate: defining the terms of debate. Very good move, if you ask me. He characterizes fundamentalism in terms of two criteria: Authoritative scriptures and extremist actions. On both points, he points out the "new atheism" (for which he is a prominent spokesman) is clearly sorely lacking. The rest of his speech is similarly to the point and devastating.

While the IQ2 debates are typically lacking in rebuttals and cross-ex, they have one very useful feature, that is, polling the audience before and after. After the effective speeches of Grayling and Dawkins, I was not at all surprised to find that the audience was moved against the motion "Atheism is the new Fundamentalism" and presumably towards a more tolerant view of unbelief.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Ehrman vs. D’Souza at UNC

I purchased this debate so that you will never have to do so. Seriously, don't bother, there are far better debates available entirely for free online, many of which include video.

Ehman does a fine job of unpacking the problem of suffering, just as he has done in plenty of other debates. D'Souza, to his credit, dose a fine job of muddling the issues by bringing in a few facially plausible analogies to childrearing and parenting, along with the bizarre idea that a decent respect for human free will obliges one to stand back and allow rapists and murderers to act as they will. He makes it sound better than that, of course.

The rebuttal period was lamentably short, such that no one really digs into the problems of whether the free-will defense is soundly grounded upon facts about the world, although Ehrman runs a clever rebuttal based on the putative nature of the Christian afterlife. Moreover, the soul-building theodicy is put forth but never really examined. There just wasn't enough time to do so.

Overall, both speakers do a decent job, given severe time constraints, but they never really get beyond the first level arguments and hinting at a few possible theodicies. Best take a pass on this one and find another one of Ehrman's several debates on this topic.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Barker vs. D'Souza in Plano, TX

Both debaters give pretty standard arguments here, fine-tuning and first-cause from D'Souza, and prebuttal attempts at scientific and philosophical rigor from Barker. For example, if we have a gap in scientific knowledge, it is okay to fill that gap with the God of Abraham? They also dwell a bit on the historical problem of how to evaluate and accept the Jesus narratives. The back-and-forth between the two speakers after the rebuttals was particularly muddled, because Dan less articulate but more up-to-date on the science, while Dinesh articulately expresses outdated cosmological ideas.

It's a good introduction to these ideas, but I've seen both men do better than this on other occasions. This one is not particularly worth watching, unless you've never seen these guys in action before.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dennett, Harris, Hitchens vs. Boteach, D'Souza, Taleb

I don't usually outsource my reviews to other (better) bloggers than myself, but I'll make an exception in this case and direct you to PZ's review of this debate. I have very little to add to that review, except to contest the idea that Hitchens successfully "[r]efutes the fine-tuning argument" and to say that I found Robert Wright's perspective refreshingly novel rather than muddled. I'd argue (presumably contrary to PZ) that we need more agnosticism and deism in God debates.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ayala vs. Craig at Indiana University

Luckily enough, I spent a memorable fraction of my early childhood in my Puerto Rican grandparent’s home, which means that I’m somewhat used to hearing English spoken with a strong Spanish accent. That said, I’m guessing that many people will find Dr. Ayala hard to follow on account of his accent, and that despite the relatively high quality of the audio recording.

Ayala leads off by drawing a distinction between designed artifacts and non-designed objects. He notes that organisms were left out of the original scientific revolution (which posited that the rules of nature are universal) because of the kind of thinking put forth by Paley and other intelligent design theorists. Ayala claims that Darwin’s great advance was to show how purposeful complexity may arise naturally, thus bringing life finally within the penumbra of a scientific revolution which had begun much earlier. He goes on to adduce several common evidences of evolution by natural selection operating over geological time. Ayala believes (as I do) that the most convincing evidence for common descent is that we find from a branch of sciences unavailable to Darwin’s contemporaries, that is, the evidence of molecular biology.

Craig leads off by defining intelligent design as a set of theories for inferring design from evidence. He briefly alludes to Bill Dembski’s argument from highly improbable complex patterns, and argues that the inference to design is justified on those grounds alone. Craig does not contest common descent (for which Ayala had argued) focuses his efforts entirely on the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection. He makes an interesting argument that studies of the HIV genotype over a couple decades can give us any idea of what mutation is capable of producing over a time span very many orders of magnitude longer. He also argues that evolutionists must show definitively that mutation plus natural selection is powerful enough to get everything done in only a few billion years.

Ayala, on rebuttal, seems at first to ignore Craig’s opening statement, but he is actually trying to give an example of the power of mutation and selection in practice. He refers to a test tube experiment in which low-probability mutations can be made to take over an entire tube merely by changing the environment in which the bacteria breed. He then goes on to reiterate some of the evidence for common descent.

Craig picks apart Ayala’s opening statement and rebuttal, quote-mining from various fringe scientists to show that mutation plus selection doesn’t drive the creation of new biological mechanisms in under a hundred years or two. Funnily enough, Craig accuses his opponent of undue extrapolation, even as he stretches timelines from 10^2 to 10^9 in attempt to show that Darwinian mechanisms just cannot get the job done in the time available. Craig seems to conclude that while the universe is impressively fine-tuned for intelligent life, it is not fine-tuned enough to expect intelligent life to arise more than once.

Overall impressions
This debate demonstrates amply that expertise in public debating and debate prep can overcome expertise in the topic under debate. Ayala clearly knows more about the subject matter, but he seems overwhelmed by Craig's relentless focus on the problem of how often mutations arise within a given population. I'd be interested in hearing a debate focused on that paritcular issue, but to my knowledge that's never been done.