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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Recent events in the intelligent design controversy

■ A friend tells me that atheist neuroscience grad student grad student Sam Harris was trashed on YouTube by Scott Atran at the Beyond Belief conference for showing a normal level of tolerance for other people's views and for understanding that neuroscience does not necessarily support crass, vulgar materialism. Having listened, I can only say that Harris comes off way better than Atran - until he starts to defend human embryonic stem cell research because, hey, younger healthy people don't count compared to older sick people. Then I lose the thread.

But essentially, on the main point, here's the deal, as I told my friend:
If you are talking about laboratory psi research (greater than chance awareness of remote information), Harris is following the evidence.

As Mario Beauregard and I set out in our upcoming book, The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007), the laboratory evidence does confirm psi as a LOW level effect. It may be a logical consequence of quantum entanglement (?).

Psi may not be important. And it doesn't prove anything, one way or the other, about theistic religion.

But it has been a thorn in the side of unidirectional skeptics for many years because its existence warns that radical materialism is simply not true.

Therefore, it's not surprising if Harris admits to grudging acceptance of psi. He should.

This has nothing to do with the show biz psi claims properly debunked by Mr. Amazing Randi.


If Harris has any sense, he will get away from the professional atheists ... soon. But here is a non-atheist who doesn't like Harris either. Some cats need nine lives.

■ An interesting paper has just come out arguing that non-human animals do not really have a theory of mind:

On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a 'theory of mind' Derek C. Penn and Daniel J. Povinelli in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, FirstCite Early Online Publishing, DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2006.2023

Abstract: After decades of effort by some of our brightest human and non-human minds, there is still little consensus on whether or not non-human animals understand anything about the unobservable mental states of other animals or even what it would mean for a non-verbal animal to understand the concept of a 'mental state'. In the present paper, we confront four related and contentious questions head-on: (i) What exactly would it mean for a non-verbal organism to have an 'understanding' or a 'representation' of another animal's mental state? (ii) What should (and should not) count as compelling empirical evidence that a non-verbal cognitive agent has a system for understanding or forming representations about mental states in a functionally adaptive manner? (iii) Why have the kind of experimental protocols that are currently in vogue failed to produce compelling evidence that non-human animals possess anything even remotely resembling a theory of mind? (iv) What kind of experiments could, at least in principle, provide compelling evidence for such a system in a non-verbal organism?


I've often wondered if my cats have a theory of mind and have come to the conclusion that, in general, they take very precise note of what other creatures do, but they do not concern themselves with what other creatures think.

■ British biologist David Tyler is now blogging at Access Research Network, and I recommend his useful insights, for example on altruism. The human tendency to do a lot of stuff without any rational hope of reward apparently poses a huge problem for biology, according to Darwinists:

Here's the problem:
“In every human society, people cooperate with many unrelated individuals. Division of labor, trade, and large-scale conflict are common. The sick, hungry, and disabled are cared for, and social life is regulated by commonly held moral systems that are enforced, albeit imperfectly, by third-party sanctions. In contrast, in other primate species, cooperation is limited to relatives and small groups of reciprocators. There is little division of labor or trade, and no large-scale conflict. No one cares for the sick, or feeds the hungry or disabled. The strong take from the weak without fear of sanctions by third parties.”

As Tyler explains,
The explanations that appear to work for insects (kin selection, direct reciprocity) do not explain the indiscriminate altruism exhibited by humans. For that, the theoreticians have invoked additional mechanisms based on distinctively human traits. So, for example, indirect reciprocity linked to the human longing for reputation is highlighted as significant.

So, like, if you give a handful of change to the wino holding out his hat on the street corner, it's just so that your neighbours will think better of you - even though you know perfectly well that the neighbours will actually be mad at you for encouraging that guy to beg there. But then Darwinism is unfalsifiable, right? Good thing for the Darwinists, too.

Oh, and while we are here, Brit Richard Buggs of Truth in Science (see blogroll at right) argues reasonably that if Darwinists distinguished between science and their religious beliefs, we'd all be wiser. Yes, but then we wouldn't be Darwinists, let alone Darwoids or Dazis. We would not rely on Darwn's theory alone to tell us the history of life or the universe.

■ Here's a fascinating article that argues for a decline in violence, due to alleged improvements in human cognitive and moral development. How I wish. The factors that the article attributes to an improvement in morals are more likely due to an increase in control over what people are allowed to do. I'm not saying that that is all bad, but it is not the same thing as an improvement in morals.

■ This from a Science Daily news release abut a study of bat flight:
Swartz, an associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, and longtime collaborator with Breuer, is particularly interested in how bats evolved their capabilities. "The assumption has always been that bats evolved from some sort of flying squirrel-type animals," says Swartz. "Gliding has evolved in mammals seven times. That tells us that it's really easy for an animal with skin to evolve into a glider, but going from a square gliding wing to a long, skinny flapping wing has not happened seven times. It might have happened once. And now it doesn't look like bats have any relationship to these gliding things."

It doesn't look to me that we have any idea how evolution happens at all.

ID in the UK: This promises to be an interesting debate:

Invitation to a Debate on Evolution and Intelligent Design
The Department of Psychology and School of Biological Sciences invite staff and students to a debate between two leading academics on the following proposition:

"Intelligent Design and Evolution have the same status as scientific theories"

Prof. Lewis Wolpert (UCL) will argue against the proposition. Prof. Steve Fuller (Warwick University) will defend it. Each speaker will put their own case, and will then cross-examine the other. Following this members of the audience will be invited to participate.

Venue: Windsor Lecture Theatre (Royal Holloway University of London)
Date: 21st February 2007
Time: 5.00pm – 6.30pm


Personally, I think that's about right, actually. Without getting any more specific than "evolution" and "intelligent design", they should have the same status as theories. I remember rrespondingt o someone on my designorchance Yahoo list who demanded to know what would falsify ID. I recall replying something like this: There are specific ID hypotheses like irreducible complexity and complex specified information. These could presumably be falsified. But if you are asking me whether an unspecified hypothesis can be falsified by unspecified means, all I can ask is that you kindly specify the hypothesis."

■ An important new academic, Dr. Terry Tommyrot, has come up with convincing evidence that the long running atheist bore Richard Dawkins does not exist. Sort of a disappointment to me, actually, because if I had a friend who was wavering between atheism and theism, I could say, "Do you want to end up like Dawkins?" But Dr. Tommyrot has a point in what has to be one of the funniest audios I have ever heard on the ID controversy. The Brit accents are great, too.

■ An ID buff friend who frequents more bookstores than I do writes to say how the growth in public interest in ID has resulted in changes to bookstore science sections. Apparently, he went to a big US chain store with a friend and decided to check out the science sectin. This is what he found:
... there were Behe, Wells, Johnson, Dembski, along with an even greater array of books responding to Behe et al. Some of the books (e.g., Turner's new Harvard book The Tinkerer's Accomplice) were drafting, so to speak, in the safe space created by the ID guys. But ID and its critics were all over the science section. The same is true in bookstores I've visited in Europe.

He tells me that 15 years ago, there would have been nothing of the kind in the science section. He adds,
If I had to pick a metaphor for the current situation, it would be this: teenaged idea (ID) leaves home, goes to school out of state, has to find its first job to pay the rent. The teenage idea soaked in friendly adulation in high school. But now the world looks cold, mean, bleak. No more easy adulation. The rent is due. So is the term paper. But they PASSED. Going through late adolescence, as long as one doesn't take one's own life, doesn't last forever.

As a cynical old hack with a lifetime in publishing, the metaphor I would pick is, they are being mainstreamed.

■ Recently, the atheist minority has launched a war on certainty. Anybody's certainty except theirs, one guesses. As Jonah Goldberg writes, referencing examples like an "eggheady book review, an essay in Time magazine, or listen to a thumb-suck session on National Public Radio,"
Whenever I hear people say such things, I like to ask them, “Are you sure about that?” When they say yes, which they always do, I follow up by asking, “No, no: Are you really, really certain that certainty is bad?” At some point even the irony-deficient get the joke.

But they still don’t understand that the joke is on them. Virtually every hero in human history has been driven by certainty, by the courage of their convictions. Sir Thomas More and Socrates chose certain death, pun intended, over uncertain life. Martin Luther King Jr. - to pick liberalism’s most iconic hero - was hardly plagued with doubt about the rightness of his cause.

My own opinion is that the atheists should all try going to church as adults for a year and attempting to live as Christians. Then they can come back and write up their experiences. Should be interesting. (Okay, okay, they can be Orthodox Jews if they want, or Buddhists or Muslims or Sikhs - they just better make sure they don't get involved with any messed-head group that won't let them leave ...)

University tries hard to make you stupid Here's the site for the mandatory anti-ID video that University of California, San Diego students were forced to watch. Now, honestly, if anyone had ever wondered why materialism and Darwinism were history, you only have to know that. No wonder ID books now dot the science sections. Like, how could they not?

ID and popular culture: Apparently, there is a board game now, Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, by Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort. Cameron I remember because I interviewed him years ago, when he starred in the Left Behind flop - but the flop wasn't Cameron's fault. You just shouldn't try to do an apocalypse without boffo special effects. Anyway, Cameron says,
“Intelligent Design Versus Evolution is unique in that the playing pieces are small rubber brains. We used the brains because want players to use their brains. The incentive is to play for ‘brain’ cards, and the team or individual with the most brains wins. There are brains all over the game, because we want to make people think deeply about what they believe.
Cameron should meet my lead author neuroscientist Mario Beauregard of the upcoming book (Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, The Spiritual Brain, Harper, March 2007). I can't comment on the board game, as I have never tried it, but the little brains do sound cute.

■ Here's a podcast of a PBS interview with Steve Meyer, the author of the paper in a Smithsonian journal that touched off the 2004 witch hunt against editor Rick Sternberg. Other relevant links here also. The paper suggested that intelligent design might be the best explanation of the explosion of virtually all the phyla of life forms in the Cambrian period abut 525 million years ago. Maybe and maybe not, but I still get letters from despicable people arguing that Sternberg - who had followed all the rules and was vindicated by employee rights hearings - deserved to be persecuted.

And to think - people wonder why there is an intelligent design controversy.

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God , my backgrounder about peer review issues, or the evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin and of academic ID publications.

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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