Jul 08 2011

More on God of the Gaps

One of the things I like about blogging is that it is as much a dialogue as it is as it is a venue for one person’s opinions. Often the comments section becomes more interesting than the post itself. I also occasionally blog in response to someone else’s blog, and it is not uncommon for a blog conversation (or argument) to break out. Responding to someone else’s comments (even if they are from some random or anonymous blogger or commenter) can make a discussion more interesting.

For example, I have blogged numerous times in the past about the “god of the gaps” style of argument, and the philosophical nature of science. This has garnered the occasional response from creationists, which is always amusing. Recently a blogger named Mariano Grinbank wrote a response on examiner.com. His response is largely an exercise in naked assertion and ad hominem style arguments. Responding to my mind/brain discussion he writes:

Just how is it clearly established that the brain causes mind? It could actually be said to be much more clearly established that mind causes the brain.

It could be said – but it would be wrong. The question is disingenuous because I outline exactly how it is clearly established that the brain causes the mind, in numerous posts, including the one that Grinbank refers to (although does not link to – perhaps he was just relying on Egnor’s responses to my posts). I will outline the evidence yet again: The hypothesis that the brain causes the mind (and does not merely correlate with the mind) makes a number of specific predictions:

If the brain causes mind, then:

1- Brain states will correlate to mental and behavioral states.

2- Brain maturity will correlate with mental and emotional maturity.

3- Changing the brain’s function (with drugs, electrical or magnetic stimulation, or other methods) will change mental function.

4- Damaging the brain with damage the mind – producing specific deficits that correlate to the area of the brain damaged.

5- There will be no documentable mental phenomena in the absence of brain function.

6- When the brain dies, mental function ends.

Three through six are specific to the brain causes mind hypothesis and are not predicted by the mind causes brain hypothesis. There are now countless experiments and cases in which it is clearly demonstrated that doing something to the brain reliably results in a change of the mind. The arrow of causation is clear.

Grinbank continues:

The brain is a living physical organism. All life is based on information. The only known source of information is a mind. On the other hand, we do not know that matter causes mind, that non-living matter causes living matter, that matter causes specified and useful information, etc.

These are just assertions, not arguments. The statement “all life is based on information” is vague to the point of being useless. What does it mean to be “based” on information, and what definition of “information” is Grinbank using? I could just as easily say that all life is based on atoms – this is equally vague and pointless. He then goes on to claim that the only known source of information is a mind. This is both vague and wrong. Again – he does not define “information,” nor does he give any  indication that he knows the term needs to be defined.

His statement also begs the question – very common among the “intelligent design” style creationist arguments. Biology is also a source of information, and evolutionary theory provides a plausible and proven mechanism. Creationists want to assume their conclusion in their premise, however – if intelligence is the only source of information, then biological information must come from intelligence. But their very premise denies evolution, and therefore their logic is circular. Further, organic evolution is not the only natural (non-mind) source of “information” – nature is replete with information.

He then follows up with more naked assertions. We do know that matter causes mind, as I argued above. We do know that life comes from lifeless matter, and that the properties of matter can be a source of information.  Further, there is no need for any non-material hypothesis to explain life, mind, or information.

Next we get this tired canard:

The statement, “I am open to any hypothesis that is scientifically testable and is compatible with existing established scientific knowledge” is tricky because it can, deceptively, appear commonsensical although, it is not. Take, for example, the Big Bang theory: it is considered a scientific theory but is not testable. Also, what some mean by established scientific knowledge is that you are not allowed to upset the cart of orthodoxy (Darwinian orthodoxy, in this case).

It’s actually not that tricky – it’s a brief summary of scientific openness. Creationists try to make it seem tricky by implying a hidden agenda. First of all – there is no “orthodoxy” in science. There is knowledge that is established to such a high degree that any hypothesis that seeks to knock it down has an appropriately high burden of proof. If you are going to claim that a scientific fact is not true, then you should provide evidence that is at least as voluminous and compelling as the evidence you hope to overturn. This is just common sense.

It is common among creationists (and all deniers) to portray scientific confidence as dogma and orthodoxy. They have no choice – because they want to deny well-established science. They don’t have the evidence and logic, so they play rhetorical games.

The comment about the big bang theory is both a non sequitur and factually incorrect. Let’s say he substituted string theory for the big bang (and let’s set aside the controversy over whether or not string theory is testable and assume for the sake of argument that it isn’t). In order for string theory to qualify as a true scientific theory it has to be testable in some way. Until that time it may be elegant math, but it’s not science. This doesn’t make it wrong, however, unless it also conflicts with established science, which it doesn’t. String theory is more of a proto-scientific hypothesis, and researchers are trying to figure out a way to test it (Michio Kaku claims it is testable, but that’s another post).

String theory actually proves my point – the fact that it is not clearly testable calls into question its status as a true scientific theory.

The big bang theory, on the other hand, is testable, and has been tested numerous times. Grinbank needs to familiarize himself with the cosmic microwave background radiation and the expansion of the universe for starters.

His refutation of the god of the gaps criticism is as follows:

A “god of the gaps” argument—or, as it is put in common parlance, God’did’it—does not seek to fill gaps nor does it insert a final and untestable answer into a current gap in our scientific knowledge.
Does it insert a final and untestable answer into a current gap in our scientific knowledge to claim, as many do, that matter’did’it, chance’did’it, time’did’it, nothing’did’it, it’just’happened’did’it, coincidence’did’it, etc.?

The first sentence is, again, just an assertion. First – a god of the gaps argument by definition seeks to fill a gap in current knowledge with a final untestable answer. That’s the definition of the phrase. What he really means is that creationism is not a god of the gaps argument. I have already argued (I think convincingly) that it is. That a god created everything (regardless of how you think the creation unfolded) is inherently untestable – because there are no constraints on god. No matter what you find in nature you can simply declare (as creationists commonly do) that god simply chose to create life to look like that.

If Grinbank is going to claim that creation is not untestable – then please outline an observation or experiment that can prove creation wrong.

His attempts to equate “god-did-it” with “chance-did-it” etc is a false analogy. The various aspects of evolutionary theory are testable. They make predictions that can potentially falsify evolutionary theory. If he is talking about questions that are currently unanswered by science – science does not fill in those gaps with anything. We simply say – we don’t know. And then we try to figure our a way to fill in those gaps with scientific knowledge  – testable hypotheses. We further acknowledge that some gaps will remain forever empty, because science has its limits.

He finishes:

To appeal to God is not to stop the scientific process, which was intelligently designed in order to explore God’s creation, rather, it is a reference to that which philosophy and science infer from creation: that there is a personal cause.

This is a non sequitur – it does not address the claim that an appeal to god is a science stopper. Once you conclude that god created life, why explore naturalistic mechanisms? If god created the universe, why explore cosmological theories of the origin of the universe, like the big bang theory? Inferring a “personal cause” is a separate issue. Also, what does he mean by “creation?” Is he assuming creationism, or does he simply mean the natural world?

In any case – nothing of the sort can be inferred by science or philosophy from nature. What philosophers have come to understand is that the only method of understanding the natural world is through methodological naturalism. What is inferred from science and philosophy is that every material effect has a material cause, and these causes reliably follow natural laws. We can study nature to derive these laws, develop a model of how the universe works and the history of what has happened so far, and predict what is likely to happen in the future. We don’t need to appeal to magic, no matter how cleverly disguised the appeal is.

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