Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Going Relativist to Save Creationism

From the NYT.

What the heck. There's really no more reason for a theist to eschew relativism than for anybody else to. Of course, there's extremely good reason for everyone to eschew it...but nevermind.

Quoth the Times:

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Ah, yes, just different paradigms--a true one and a false one.

Thing is, for Dr. Ross to go Kuhnian here (the obvious implication of deploying the term 'paradigm') he'd have to argue that creationism and paleontology are incommensurable. But they aren't. So far as anyone can tell, they're directly comparable, and the latter wins out. They're not different "paradigms," just different theories.

Oh, man. Creationism + Kuhnian antirealism. Two of the most annoying positions known to man, in each other's arms at last. I can't believe this didn't happen sooner.

[HT: Canis Major]


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

How orthodox of you, WS.

Not only must you become expert on the topic, but believe in it too? How antimulticultural. I don't see why you have to subscribe to Buddhism or Marxism to be a Ph.D. on it.

Ross is in a bit of a Catch-22---without his doctorate, he's just some uncredentialed shlub if he wants to challenge the conventional wisdom. If he challenges the conventional wisdom, some people want to withhold his doctorate. I can see the church not ordaining a priest who favors abortion, but the academy seems to have got some religion of its own.

But what really reminds of the flick Catch-22 is where Yossarian asks the brass what he has to do to get out of the war. "Like us," they say chillingly, and sickeningly. "Just like us." Ross doesn't, it appears, and well they know it. They want to blackball him from the club.

(BTW, I'm very good with evolution, but the actual physical evidence is scant. [Plenty of proof of speciation, but virtually none that makes a pig out of a shrew.] Dissenters like Ross would serve to apply rigor to a largely uncritical academy.)

9:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Russo said...

I hate hate hate Creationism and ID, and my head nearly hit the desk when I saw that this guy was a Young Earth Creationist, of all things, but I did have a similar reaction to Tom's when I got to the point in the article where Dini's attempt to impose ideological orthodoxy. I think it's true that Creationist attempts to puff up their erroneous theories in the public's eye by referring to lay credentials are contrary to the public good, but the solution has to be detailed rebuttal and public advocacy, rather than attempting to prevent their access to said credentials. If you can defend your thesis, showing that you can follow scientific methodology and contribute to our store of knowledge, you get a PhD, regardless of what you think; those are the rules, and they're very very good ones.

Of course, I don't read you to be saying anything different, WS -- simply complaining about the illogic of somebody who doesn't believe in the methodology and foundational premises of paleontology working for a degree in it. I share your confusion, but there are ways to reconcile the two systems -- the good old "Earth was created 10k years ago with dinosaur bones with pre-decayed carbon suggesting that they're millions of years old" chestnut is only the most obvious, and once one's opened to door to supernatural causation with only a very very loose tie to the Bible, all sorts of alternatives become possible. And people segment what they believe from what they do all the time (I'm a law student -- believe me, I know!), albeit usually not in such a dramatic way.

(I do disagree with your final parenthetical, though, Tom, if I'm understanding it correctly -- skepticism is a welcome tonic in general, but I really don't see that much scientific good would be done by focusing attention on the fossil record surrounding specific moments of speciation. That is, I don't think that finding a macroevolutionary "smoking gun" would not really tell us anything we didn't already know, even if it would be useful in certain political debates. Of course, my training's in astrophysics, not evolutionary biology, so I could be entirely wrong on that).

11:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, I suggest you go down to the La Brea Tar Pits so that you can see for yourself how 'scant' the fossil evidence is for evolution.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Aa said...

So, totally off topic, where's the annual VD rant?


4:05 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Been to the Tar Pits. Extinction doesn't prove evolution.

BTW, I'm taking the evolution side in a discussion in another forum (strangely, not fundies or Christians at all). It's interesting to examine the other side, the fossil gaps you can drive a mastadon through, etc. That we've been so programmed with the conventional wisdom that few of us our aware of the evidentiary holes is interesting*, I think. The sort of bland, unquestioning belief religionists are so often accused of.

(*Present company excepted, of course.)

4:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i dont know, i think that christianity and science are entirely different paradigms. christianity's claim about the creation of the earth 10,000 years ago is essentially superfluous....the real purpose of christianity lies in its role as a seat of value and significance for an individual's life. belief in the sinning nature of humanity, our need for a savior, and our pursuit of earning the love of that savior through selfless action seem to be the main part of christianity. that's what people are committed to (ideally) when they are christian, not the age of the earth. i think that any claim about the age of the earth is a myth formed by the jews thousands of years ago that sort of has to be accepted to be an evangelical christian

science is different because it doesnt offer purpose in and of itself. to me, science is a method that is performed by existing human beings who need value and purpose; the value of science lies in the purpose it gives the scientist. that ideal purpose could be something like complete understanding of the world. now compare that goal to what christianity holds......to me, it seems kind of empty if im going to die before we understand the world. hence, why would i accept an empty world of science and give up a rich explanation of the nature of humanity that gives me ethical commands (which i believe many people are willing to say are important)?

i think that what this comes down to is a division between purpose/value in the human life. science and religion each have their own incommensurable paradigms. the two fight it out where they overlap

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, this is twice that you've made the assertion without anything solid to back it up, and that you think that I meant extinction to equal evolution is pretty shoddy reasoning,

Although it was Darwin, above all others, who first marshaled convincing evidence for biological evolution, earlier scholars had recognized that organisms on Earth had changed systematically over long periods of time. For example, in 1799 an engineer named William Smith reported that, in undisrupted layers of rock, fossils occurred in a definite sequential order, with more modern-appearing ones closer to the top. Because bottom layers of rock logically were laid down earlier and thus are older than top layers, the sequence of fossils also could be given a chronology from oldest to youngest. His findings were confirmed and extended in the 1830s by the paleontologist William Lonsdale, who recognized that fossil remains of organisms from lower strata were more primitive than the ones above. Today, many thousands of ancient rock deposits have been identified that show corresponding successions of fossil organisms.

Thus, the general sequence of fossils had already been recognized before Darwin conceived of descent with modification. But the paleontologists and geologists before Darwin used the sequence of fossils in rocks not as proof of biological evolution, but as a basis for working out the original sequence of rock strata that had been structurally disturbed by earthquakes and other forces.

In Darwin's time, paleontology was still a rudimentary science. Large parts of the geological succession of stratified rocks were unknown or inadequately studied.

Darwin, therefore, worried about the rarity of intermediate forms between some major groups of organisms.

Today, many of the gaps in the paleontological record have been filled by the research of paleontologists. Hundreds of thousands of fossil organisms, found in well-dated rock sequences, represent successions of forms through time and manifest many evolutionary transitions. As mentioned earlier, microbial life of the simplest type was already in existence 3.5 billion years ago. The oldest evidence of more complex organisms (that is, eucaryotic cells, which are more complex than bacteria) has been discovered in fossils sealed in rocks approximately 2 billion years old. Multicellular organisms, which are the familiar fungi, plants, and animals, have been found only in younger geological strata.


So many intermediate forms have been discovered between fish and amphibians, between amphibians and reptiles, between reptiles and mammals, and along the primate lines of descent that it often is difficult to identify categorically when the transition occurs from one to another particular species. Actually, nearly all fossils can be regarded as intermediates in some sense; they are life forms that come between the forms that preceded them and those that followed.

The fossil record thus provides consistent evidence of systematic change through time--of descent with modification. From this huge body of evidence, it can be predicted that no reversals will be found in future paleontological studies. That is, amphibians will not appear before fishes, nor mammals before reptiles, and no complex life will occur in the geological record before the oldest eucaryotic cells. This prediction has been upheld by the evidence that has accumulated until now: no reversals have been found.


12:40 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Just quickly:

The evidence that evolution occurs is not scant, but overwhelmingly strong.

Questions about the actual mechanism of evolution...well, those are probably a wee bit more open than some biologists admit.

As for denying the guy a degree merely b/c he believes something crazy...well, I'm not necessarily on board with that. Wasn't really interested in that aspect of it, but should have been.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you for the conventional wisdom, Mr. Avenger. I quote from it often myself, and I'm sure your link will be helpful in the future. But it's deductive, which is my only point. We don't have a pig minus one, only a pig.

But please, let's spare each other from a neo-theological debate. Who knows? Mebbe the nascent life on earth mixed with some panspermia. We don't know if the received wisdom is correct, that it all evolved from the very first spark of life. (Which would be more consistent with a biblical interpretation, BTW.)

Best to keep an open mind, and altho the newly minted Dr. Ross will, we'd agree, be useless re his alternative theory, his skepticism may be valuable to the academy.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Should we worry that his skepticism is highly selective? Turned all the way down to zero in the one case, up to eleven in the other...

5:20 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Incidentally, Tom raises an interesting question: do you have to believe the orthodoxy of your discipline in order to be an expert?

My guess as to what's really going on here: Creationists are almost uniformly ignorant about the relevant science, and almost uniformly intellectually dishonest about the relevant arguments. Consequently, when someone claims to be a creationist, it's a fair bet that they've got those intellectual defects.

So along comes our man Ross. He's a creationist. That immediately puts him on the Idiot Watch List.

Now, it MAY be *possible* to be an intellectually honest, scientifically well-informed young-Eart creationist...but for any YEC you meet, the odds of him being like that are very low. Hence the suspicion of Ross.

On the other hand, some of the scientists I've met don't seem to be all that brilliant or intellectually autonomous. More to the point, my guess is that many of *them* believe what they believe for less-than-stellar reasons. Much of it's just a kind of go-along, get-along view about the orthodoxy.

But what we look for is technical competence. If you can talk the talk and walk the walk, then we don't need to know whether you believe the beliefs.


On the other other hand, I'm currently pretty interested in Peirce's claim that the one truly essential characteristic a scientist must have is a genuine love of truth and, consequently, a real desire to know what is true.

That's exactly what we find missing in most creationists. But is that the kind of requirement we would want to enforce for, say, all Ph.D.s?

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We don't have a pig minus one, only a pig.

OTOH, if I couldn't dig up your great-grandfathers' body, would it therefore be proof that you aren't real?

Here's the phylogeny tree for the branches that include pigs and other hoofed mammals.

It's not received wisdom, TVD, it's the use of tools of modern science as outlined in a sister page to the above:

This last work was based on the analysis of both nuclear and mitochondrial genes and verifies mammalian groupings suggested by previous molecular analysis.

So I have a choice to listen you, or pay attention to the lying molecular analysis.

12:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh, and BTW:

TVD, I can't remember the exact wording, but there is a passage in Origin of the Species where Darwin states that the idea of evolution cannot explain the occurance of life in the first place, that is, how it started.

If you're conflating the two, please stop now before you hurt yourself.

as for panspermia:

Francis Crick suggested that since molybdenum is an essential trace element that plays an important role in many enzymatic reactions, despite being less abundant than the more common elements, such as chromium and nickel, that perhaps this fact is indictative of "Panspermia." Crick theorized that if it could be shown that the elements represented in terrestrial living organisms correlate closely with those that are abundant in some class of star - molybdenum stars, for example, that this would provide evidence of such Directed Panspermia.

From the wikipedia article on Molybdenum

1:09 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm not conflating the two.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Eh, nothing all that crazy about panspermia...though it just delays/defers questions about the origin of life, it doesn't answer them.

Any view that doesn't involve a big magic ghost in the sky blasting up the universe pretty much on the table as far as I'm concerned.

11:16 AM  

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