Dawkins on Evolution

Dave Allen
Reply Sat 10 Oct, 2009 03:07 am
@Shostakovich phil,
Shostakovich;96466 wrote:
I ground my dismissal of evolutionary theory on the fact that it does not answer the question regarding 'why.'

Which highlights Aedes earlier point that you are dismissing it whilst not dismissing thermodynamics, or any other branch of science, which also doesn't explain "why".

So your reasons for "why" you dismiss evolution seem at odds with your willingness to accept other branches of scientific discovery. Because other branches of scientific discovery are also pretty much silent as to metaphysical issues such as "why" something is.

Unless of course the "why" is the first mover of a process. "Why" gravity -because of mass. "Why" evolution - because of selection of self-replicating molecules.

From what I glean from your post you seem to be claiming that evolution is an alternative to a metaphysical veiw of Life the Universe and Everything, when it isn't.

What it does do is answer some questions about, say, the development of the variety of life on Earth better than previous arguments that credited such acts to a diety alone.

So people who think the need for a "why" in itself is just an assumption based on metaphysical angst might veiw evolution as fulfilling the how and what, and see no need for anything else.

Your opinion clearly varies, based on a fancy for Kant it seems.
Shostakovich phil
Reply Sun 11 Oct, 2009 07:57 pm
@Dave Allen,
Dave Allen;96476 wrote:

Your opinion clearly varies, based on a fancy for Kant it seems.

No, my point of view does not vary. Thermodynamics is a particular of science, as are many other things. Evolutionary theory is a general theory, claiming to account for more than it actually does account for. I hold that the theory cannot be adequately explained and perhaps this is being unfair; for it is a complex process ... too complex to be defined by a simple formula. My understanding of it goes this far only: It states that simpler forms give rise to more complex forms through the processes of random mutations and natural selection. I don't disagree with this. I agree. You can't dismiss science. What I dismiss is the 'bloated' theory that evolution adequately answers all the questions. I don't think there is a serious evolutionist alive who would actually claim this, but I've heard as much from some people who think they understand the theory. In this regard, they are grounding their belief in the theory on faith, not on the evidence. I accept the evidence, and in as far as I cannot discount the evidence, I agree to the point that the evidence allows. This leaves me wanting. The 'why' is not a question for science. It's a question for philosophers. There is however, in some of the books in archaelogy that I've read, and that I appreciate, some speculation as to the underlying driving process of evolution, and at least the hint, that this question goes beyond the bounds of science. What I find repellent about some advocates who spout the theory of evolution as though it were a relition are absurd comments such as those from Richard Dawkins, that relegate human beings to mere machines who have no greater purpose in life than to be the mere transport machines for genes -the highest forms of life on Earth. The view is somewhat lopsided, and all because of a narrow and misguided viewpoint regarding evolution. When I see faith of any form in the guise of science, I reject it, just as adamantly as when I reject the misguided faith of Creationists claiming to prove the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

And my viewpoint on evolution has little to do with Kant. My rejection of evolution, in as far as it goes, is grounded upon what I see as faith, in the guise of science.

For an example of why I dismiss the theory read the following, quoted from Robert Shapiro's book 'Origins' [Bantam New Age Books, 1986] The section [pages 123-128] deals with the mathematical odds against the generation of life by random processes.

Shapiro uses a device to help us understand the odds. His device is a tower, called COSMEL. Each floor is a ten fold increase over each lower floor. He uses money as an example. Pennies are found on the first floor, dimes on the second, dollars on the third [it becomes progrossively harder to buy things the higher you go]. He uses atoms as an example as well.

"To get the components of life, we would have to climb higher up. On the first floor (10-99 atoms) we would find amino acids, nucleotides, and simple sugars. Most lipids would be available on the second floor, while enzymes and RNA molecules would be found on the third and fourth floors. If we wanted to obtain the DNA double helix which makes up the chromosome of a bacterium, we would have to climb to the eight floor, while a ribosome would be found slightly lower, on the seventh. The construction of an entire bacterium would require enough atoms to take us to the eleventh floor, while a trip up to the twenty-seventh floor would be needed to obtain a human being ...

"We are now ready to handle the chances for the spontaneous generation of a bacterium. Using the Tower of Numbers to estimate trials rather than pennies or atoms, we can put the 'mind-boggling' numbers on its proper level. For our purposes, we will want to overestimate and select the largest number of random trials that might have been attempted on the early earth, as the actual number would be very difficult to determine.

"We need to know two items, the length of time needed for a single trial and the number of trials that can take place simultaneously. Under the most favorable conditions, an E. coli colony can double in about twenty minutes. In other words, it takes twenty minutes for a bacterium to assemble a replica of itself from simple chemicals. It is unlikely that a bacterium would come together more quickly by random processes. Let us presume, however, that a simpler bacterium than E. coli is involved and estimate one minute as the time for the trial. If we accept the evidence of the fossils and the usual age cited for the solar system, then a maximum of 1 billion years, or 5 X 10 to the power of 14 minutes, was available for the origin of life on earth.

"What about available space? As a maximum estimate, we can assume that the earth was covered by an ocean 10 kilometers deep, which was available for experiments. Further, we will allow that space to be divided into small compartments (1 milcrometer on each side) of bacterial size. We would then have 5 times 10 to the power of 36 separate reaction flasks. If a separate try was made in each flask every minute for 1 billion years, we would have 2.5 times 10 to the power of 51 tries available. We would be on the fifty-first floor of the tower.

"That is a very large number, and we are probably several floors too high in our estimate, but we will use it, to continue the argument. Is it large enough to justify any event whatsoever ...?

"Many scientists have attempted such calculations; we need cite only two of them to make the point. The first was provided by Sir Fred Hoyle ... He and his colleague, N.C. Wickramasinghe, first endorsed spontaneous generation, then abruptly reversed their positions. Why did they do this? Quite obviously, they calculated the odds.

"Rather than estimate the chances for an entire bacterium, they considered only the set of functioning enzymes present in one. Their starting point was not a complex mixture, but rather the set of twenty L-form amino acids that are used to construct biological enzymes. If amino acids were selected at random from this set one at a time and arranged in order, what would be the chances that this process would produce an actual bacterial product? For a typical enzyme of 200 amino acids, the odds would be obtained by multiplying the probability for each amino acid, 1 in 20, together 200 times. The result, 1 in 20 to the power of 120, places us on floor 120 of the Tower of Numbers, immensely higher than the level where we find the number of trials.

"Things need not be that bad, however. What matters is the function of the enzyme, rather than the exact order of amino acids within it. A large number of amino acid sequences might provide enzymes with the proper function. With this in mind, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe estimated that the chances of obtaining an enzyme of the appropriate type at random were 'only' 1 in 10 to the power of 20. To duplicate a bacterium, however, one would have to assemble 2,000 different functioning enzymes. The odds against this event would be 1 in 10 to the power of 20 multiplied together 2,000 times, or 1 in 10 to the power of 40,000. This particular item would then be available on floor 40,0000 of the Tower of Numbers. If we consider that the number of trials brought us only to the fifty-first floor, we can understand why Hoyle changed his mind. His estimate of the likelihood of the event was that it was comparable to the chance that 'a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.'

"In fact, things are much worse. A tidy set of twenty amino acids, all in the L-form, was not likely to be available on the early earth. This situation has not even been approached by the very best Miller-Urey experiments. Nor does a set of enzymes constitute a living bacterium. A more realistic estimate has been made by Harold Morowitz, a Yale University physicist. He has calculated the odds for the following case:

"Suppse we were to heat up a large batch of bacteria in a sealed container to several thousand degrees, so that every chemical bond within them was broken .... We then cooled this mixture slowly, in order to allow the atoms to form new bonds, until everything came to equilibrium. In this state, the most stable chemicals (those with the least energy) would dominate the mixture, while those with higher energy would be present to a lesser extent, in accordance with the laws of statistics. Morowitz asks, what fraction of the final product will consist of living bacteria? Or in other words, if a single bacterium was used to start the experiment (ensuring that the appropriate atoms, in proper amounts, were present) what would be the chances that a living bacterium would result in the end?

"The answer computed by Morowitz reduces the odds of Hoyle to utter insignificance: 1 chance in 10 to the power of 100,000,000,000. We are on the 100 billionth floor of our tower! This number is so large that to write it in conventional form we would require several hundred thousand blank books. We would enter '1' on the first page of the first book, and then fill in the rest of the book and the remainder of the books, with zeros. If, by some unimaginable method, we were to obtain enough trials to ascend in our tower to floor 99,999,960,000 then we would face 'only' the odds cited by Hoyle."

The question for those who think evolution can generate life is: How do they account in their thinking for such a defiance of the odds?

There are presently quite a few mathematicians using the same arguments to criticise the theory as fatally, if not critically flawed.

In short, the odds simply do not compute.

Why not accept any one of an abundance of alternative religious superstitions to account for the generation of life on earth?

Faith is faith.

And this is where I finally split off, and chosse Kant's method. He knew that the asnwers to the most difficult questions could only come from pure philosophical speculation, and left the ultimate questions to metaphysicians, but he asked for a different approach; and that's where my thinking (which has no room for blind faith, either in the guise of science, or religion) is directed.
Dave Allen
Reply Mon 12 Oct, 2009 02:53 am
@Shostakovich phil,
Thermodynamics is a particular of science, as are many other things.

No it isn't.

It might be a bit simpler to explain the basic of current understanding of thermodynamics than something like the ramifications of evolution, but new ideas and new discoveries about thermodynamics are being made all the time. It is not "a particular".

My understanding of it goes this far only: It states that simpler forms give rise to more complex forms through the processes of random mutations and natural selection.

Your understanding is misleading, or misled.

The theory of evolutuon does not claim that simpler forms inevitably become more complex - we still have firmicute bacteria on the Earth, for example, the same sort as were found in rocks dated to be 4.5 billion years old.

If the theory of evolution did state that things get more complex then how would it account for the existence of relative simplicity throughout the fossil record?

It doesn't.

What does appear through the fossil record is an ever-increasing (mass extinctions aside) variety of life - some of which is more complex.

What I find repellent about some advocates who spout the theory of evolution as though it were a relition are absurd comments such as those from Richard Dawkins, that relegate human beings to mere machines who have no greater purpose in life than to be the mere transport machines for genes -the highest forms of life on Earth.

It's an assumption, an egotistic one, to assume we are 'higher' than anything else.

Now, I'm not claiming that Richard Dawkins doesn't make assumptions himself, and the veiw that science is the only method of inquiry that there is, and that the supernatural is simply a myth is such an assumption.

However, it's no better or worse an assumption than the assumptions leapt to by those who find it "repellent".

An end result of an atheist worldveiw can be that there is nothing easily quantifiable about what makes Homo sapiens special.

Er - this is a given, right? I mean, why wouldn't an atheist wonder along along such lines and what's repellent about it?

The task for such people, as I see it, would be to justify what reasons we have to want to preserve humanity over and above anything else (or give up and become hardcore nihilists - which hardly anyone seems to do, by the way).

And Dawkins and Dan Dennet have both spoken at some length (on UK TV last night as it happens) about what it is that makes the human experience a unique one, and one worth preserving.

Evolution is not a religion - but it can inform someone's theological veiw. It can also provide a sense of awe which is religious in scope (the huge vistas of time, the mass extinctions, the boggling unliklihood that a particular individual should live) and even strong messages of universal brotherhood (every living thing is related, everyone is the offspring of a line of survivors who reached adulthood, survival of the most cooperative in terms of human success).

If such ideas cheapen existence for you, well, I don't understand how. To me such things seem life affirming, a call to understand and protect our environment, and to cooperate with one another.

Such beliefs and goals are a negation of nihilism.

In that sense such thoughts have a religious/philosophical flavour because they address grand designs and plans but that isn't the theory itself - it's just thoughts on what the upshot of the possible truth of the theory means to me as an existential subject.

Suggesting, as you seem to do, that evolution is equal to the personal beliefs of those who think it happened (to a certain degree) is wrong.

Richard Dawkins thinks evolution happened.
The last Pope John Paul also thought it happened.

Yet these two people are able to have very different metaphysical points of view despite reckoning that monkeys like us came from fish.

He knew that the asnwers to the most difficult questions could only come from pure philosophical speculation

He assumed the answers to the most difficult questions could only come from pure philosophical speculation.

In practice, these answers remain as elusive to philosophers today as they were in prehistory.
0 Replies
Reply Mon 12 Oct, 2009 04:09 am
As it happens, the Western cultural identity, rightly or wrongly, is grounded in the Judeo-Christian mythos. To be told, well no, none of it actually does mean anything, it was all a delusion, your presence here is an accident, the whole thing is a fluke, get over it - this is just extraordinarily infuriating.

But then, learning not to be indignant about it is a valuable discipline. After all, the people who think that dinosaurs were on Noah's Ark and that the Bible is literally true really are a fringe group; and maybe those who think life is all a fluke with no reason and no purpose are a fringe group on the other side. I do think they define each other, in some ways. You can be intelligently religious, and intelligently scientific, and seek out the spiritual significance of why we evolved (which we undoubtedly did), and leave Dawkins to slug it out with Ken Ham in the Alabama Creation Museum.

Dawkins is, I think, at the ideological extreme of the argument. He is - I don't think anyone can argue with this - very anti-religion. I do understand the historical circumstances of anti-religion, but I don't know if Dawkins is really able to be objective about it (or is even really critically aware of the historical background to it).

This is a very interesting insight on the matter of anti-religion from a leading non-religious philosopher, Thomas Nagel:

"I believe that this is one manifestation of a fear of religion which has large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life.

In speaking of the fear of religion, I don't mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper-namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and wellinformed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world."

Thomas Nagel, The Last Word.

Meanwhile, however, there are some very interesting philosophical questions to be asked about the nature of causation and how anything comes to be. I don't believe that 'neo-darwinism' is anything like a finished science or a complete philosophy - but then, neither do a great number of scientists either. I think chance and natural selection by adaption are being asked to bear far too great a burden, mainly because of what they are thought to be replacing.

But it is possible to conjecture alternatives to either creationism or scientism. I favour a version of the anthropic principle whereby the parameters for development of conscious life are, along with various physical ratios and constants, imprinted on the fabric of the cosmos at the moment of creation and will inevitablty give rise to consciousness wherever the circumstances are favourable. There is no requirement for a deity to be concerned with designing eyes and organs of various kinds which I think is a completely anthropomorphic fantasy. Instead consider the neo-platonist view:

"The world of Forms is animated by a single Life: a constant movement which engenders the different forms. It is like a single organism, which finds its raison d'etre within itself, and differentiates itself into living parts. The Forms become complex and subdivide from the original Plant to the different kinds of plants, and from the original Animal to various kinds of animals. Each Form develops that which it implies: the form "human" requires reason, but also feet and fingers.... Each form, that is to say, wills itself to be complete and perfect in its own way, according to its own theme. The World of Forms does not carry a program or plan above and beyond itself. It is...'a melody that sings itself'. It is an immediate wisdom, "which is not acquired by calculations, since it has always been present as a whole; because it lacks nothing, it does not need to be sought after. (comment: this implies the 'plenitude' of The One.) This wisdom does not need to be constructed out of theorems; it is complete, and it is a unity,....it does not derive from anything else, nor is it in anything else....

"Life is, for [Plotinus], is a formative, simple and immediate activity, irreducible to all our analyses. It is a totality present all at once, within itself; a Form which forms itself'. (my emphasis and comment).

From Plotinus: or The Simplicity of Vision; by Pierre Hadot; University of Chicago Press, Pp 40-41.

This suggests a model where evolution occurs because life is mind, through and through. Mind is not 'something that thinks' but this kind of latent intelligence which is embedded in everything. This is completely different to the traditional image of the 'great architect and the grand design'. Instead you have embedded the principle in every single thing so it can more or less create itself. And it evolves towards greater and greater levels of awareness - it is the process of the universe coming to know itself.

The idea that I love about this model, which is traditional to Platonism, is the Plenitude, the free overflowing of creative power by which everything is effortlessly thought into creation. Beats the hell out of Chance and Necessity in my view.
Shostakovich phil
Reply Mon 12 Oct, 2009 11:26 am

I like the viewpoint expressed above by you, over anything else I've read here; at least it appears balanced more than a great deal of nihilistic viewpoints.

My own is not so anti-evolutionary as it may seem. From my experience, the theory is simply tauted by so many of its adherents as the negation of God ... God is no longer necessary ... (whatever we might mean by God). I still have yet to run across a theist who has given an adequate definition of who/what God is.

The only definition I think worthwhile is the one I read myself in the Bible ... which I have read and studied ... and I can even say, I understand most of it, except for the most difficult and boring sections.

In not a creationist. I find their manner of thinking as repellent as those who taut evolution as the answer to everything (ie: Dawkins, et. al). I find a balance between Biblical exposition and science. I do not take everything I read literally. For instance: There's the gap theory, which I subscribe to, which states that there is a vast prehistory for the earth that is allowed for between the first two lines of Genesis. Those who overtly criticise theists however never bother to refer to the gap theory, which theists have at their disposal should they ever need to refer to it. It dismisses as entirely misleading both the creationist viewpoint and the viewpoints of anti-religious anti-God scientists such as Dawkins.

Creationists of course, dismiss the gap theory. But there is in fact no mention of the amount of time that elapsed between what took place between the first and second verse. The gap between these versus allows for a vast prehistory, and that prehistory is best explained to us by archaelogists. Going even further, the prehistory of the universe is best told to us by cosmologists/physicists.

Originally, as well, the Bible was written with no verse headings and no punctuation. The mere placement of a common in the wrong spot can give rise to two entirely different interpretations of a single verse, so I find much of the criticism leveled against this written text, as being slanted, perhaps due to a negative viewpoint of God -no one wants a Supreme Being looking over their shoulder every time they sneeze. [I agree entirely, and I don't believe in such a nosey Being myself ... I think of God entirely differently.]

All that aside, I cannot dismiss what I feel in my innermost being and with all my mind and all the understanding I can gather from my experience of being alive, and that is that there is a Supreme Mind in the universe, and if I'm right that there is this Universal Mind, I think it is that Mind that is the root cause behind all of creation.

Also, there has to be a reason for this Mind to stay behind the scene. That reason perhaps may partly be explained in this: To be creative ourselves, and partake in the act of creation, we need to act on our own with our free will. The Mind behind the scene does not want automotons. It/He/She wants individuals, with character, and the freedom to chose. What's not important so much are our beliefs, but the choices we make in life. We're all free to disagree with one another. No two people will have the very same beliefs. But we can all agree on certain fundamentally important issues, that have more serious consequences should we disagree. The legal systems of our nations are the result of a collective effort at stability and are meant to guarantee certain individual freedoms as well as safety. The concensus is that without such laws, we'd quickly descend into anarchy, which is bad news for everyone. Given such more fundamentally important concerns, debates over evolution, and rational explanations for the origin of the universe, are not really all that important. One does not need to be a theist to decide between right and wrong. One does not need to be a theist to produce great works of art/architecture/music or be productive in any other number of ways.
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