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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Intelligent design and popular culture: "More complex than thought" and "would have done" invade the English language

David DeWitt, a young earth creationist who heads creation studies at Liberty University, writes to comment on the ubiquitous use of the phrase, "more complex than thought" in science journalism:
Since we often hear the phrase "more complex than thought", I thought I would do a Google search for it. It turns up ~11,000 pages when used in quotes for the exact phrase. Some things that were "more complex than thought" from the first few pages:

Comet formation
Global warming
Fetal immune system
Malaria in pregnancy
Brain's visual processing
bat's social lives
Down's syndrome
solar flares
radio galaxies
bird flu
bird orientation
COX enzymes

Of course, only a materialist would ever have "thought" these things are simple. The phrase is classic social code: "We know that, at bottom, it is all very, very simple, so we are going to actually tell you about this complexity but DON'T waver in your faith."

(Note: DeWitt also draws my attention to his new textbook explicating young earth creationism. I don't see the point or have much use for the beleif that Earth is less than 10,000 years old, but I hope that people who are planning to trash young earth creationism will take the trouble to read his text rather than gossip about a marginal figure in that community like Kent Hovind. I hope for too much, but it's better to hope.)

Anyway, while I am here, I also want to draw attention to a peculiar grammatical form that has crept into the English language, first disgracing Biblical interpretation and now finding its true home in evolutionary psychology. I am referring to the use of "would have done" - in English, the past conditional tense. If grammar wasn't your best subject in school, don't despair. Bear with me.

Properly, the past conditional refers to an event that did not occur. For example, "Denyse would have blogged on that movie last week, but all Blockbusters' copies were already rented." (= Denyse did not blog on the movie last week. That is a verifiable historical fact.)

However, I have noticed over the years a tendency in questionable Bible interpretation to use "would have" in an entirely different sense, as follows: "Jesus would have said such-and-such to Peter because in John 3:16, he says, yada, yada ... "

In other words, we have no idea whether Jesus ever said anything of the kind to anyone. Any such comment is speculation thinly disguised as fact. It gets better in evolutionary psychology, because we actually don't have confirmation for the individual existence of the generic people discussed. So there isn't even anyone in particular to hang the nonsense on. For example, we might read - expressed in far more academic language than I can usually manage - some version of this thought: "Stone Age man would have whupped his squeeze pretty good if she had objected to his newly acquired reputation as a babe train."

Yuh? And how do we know? Maybe some male Stone Age fossil found smashed to pieces was the first guy who tried Stone Age woman's patience on the subject of trophy bimbos. Maybe a vengeful Willendorf Venus sat on him ...

You think that's just speculation? I agree. But so is the other stuff. And I didn't even use "would have" to try to fool you.

One minor suggestion for getting control of the nonsense factor is to banish that particular use of "would have". If you can't say "it happened", you don't have facts.

Update July 8, 2007: Thanks to reader dalibor (see combox below), I realized that I had not elucidated the nature of the "would have done" scam. He wrote to suggest (I think) how the past conditional tense might have originated.

I don't know when or where the tense originated. All the languages I have ever studied, including languages that are thousands of years old, have a past conditional tense.

I think we know why the past conditional tense originated. It got started because people felt the need to describe things that could have happened but did not, for reasons they thought they knew:
Denyse would have blogged on Tuesday, but she was out of town.

The "but" clause assigns the cause, that is, it identifies the events that precluded the event described.

Lately, however, the past conditional tense has frequently fallen into the hands of people who LEAVE OUT the "but" clause or any similar coordinate or subordinate clause. They use the tense to speculate on past events that "would have" happened - and present their speculations as fact.
Denyse would have blogged on Tuesday.

In normal English, the sentence implies that the event did not happen. But it invites a coordinate or subordinate clause that offers an explanation of why the event did not occur.
Subordinate clause example: Denyse would have blogged on Tuesday if the electricity had been restored. [But, the sentence implies, the electricity was not restored.]

Now, about my own life, or the life of any person in the present day, the speculator faces the difficulty that whether I blogged on Tuesday (and if not, why not) must be determined on evidence.

However - and this is my point - a person who chooses to transpose it all back to the ancient halls of the mute dead can waive evidence for the first part of the clause and simply insert another dependent clause without fear of contradiction:
Stone Age man would have banged his woman around good if she had objected to his trophy bimbos.

Well, would he, or wouldn't he? Do we know? How? By substituting a dependent clause, an if clause, for example, the speculator hopes to get around providing evidence for the primary proposition in the main clause. It's a neat trick if people fall for it. And some do.

The key question to ask is, do we have evidence for the primary statement? What evidence?

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