A detailed response to Jim Manzi

I originally wrote this as a comment in response to Jim Manzi’s questions about my criticism of his essay “Science and Religion in The New Republic” rebutting Jerry Coyne’s article (got that?), but it’s far too long for that, so I am posting it as a post-it.
Hallo Jim,
I wrote: “Manzi essentially tries to define ‘random’ as being ‘not governed by
physical laws.'” You replied:

I don’t think I ever said anything like that. What I said is that the
evolutionary operators of crossover, selection and mutation do not add
incremental randomness beyond that embedded in quantum-mechanistic
physical laws.

There are serious problems with this, as I believe biologists will again see you battling a straw man by talking about processes well downstream of the brand of randomness you suggest isn’t there. But I’ll let others deal with that and quote rather than paraphrase you this time:

“even the “random” elements of evolution — for example, mutation and crossover — are really pseudo-random. For example, if a specific mutation is caused by radiation hitting a nucleotide, both the radiation and its effect on the nucleotide are governed by normal physical laws.”

To state that events in the observable universe are governed by normal physical laws is (to a scientist, at least) trivially true, no matter how we classify these events based on their predictability. With your introduction of QM, photons, etc. into the discussion, you are setting the bar for what constitutes “random” well out of useful range. Events for which there are no discernible conscious underpinnings are random; calling these, or anything, “pseudo-random” adds a meaningless distinction, unless you can adequately define the difference between something with an outcome that is unpredictable and one that is perhaps predictably unpredictable, or something. To a biologist, UV rays that strike a strand of DNA just so because of an organism’s chance physical orientation, and thereby ultimately change protein synthesis in a significant way, are random. That’s it.
I wrote that you said, in so many words, that “…just because we have no reason to think [intelligence] was inevitable does mean we know it was not.” You responded:

Why is this false?

Of course it’s not false, any more than it’s false to say that no one knows if there are really microscopic purple cows orbiting Neptune. But is it useful or necessary? We have no reason to believe that God created the universe as is one hour ago and planted old-looking evidence around and memories in our heads just to mess with us–so we don’t. True, we don’t know for a fact that this proposition is wrong, but why act on this and not far more likely scenarios?
As Coyne explains in what I acknowledge is a lot of words, to claim that human-like intelligence is evolutionarily inevitable is not only unsupported, but problematic in that there are niches that would be expected to show this trait but do not, and, more tellingly. other traits that could just as strongly be termed inevitable (e.g., the elephant’s trunk) but aren’t–because the pathos, the pre-existing need created by faith, is not there. To claim that anthropoid traits we deem in advance to be cosmically special or desirable are evolutionarily, uniquely “inevitable” is simply special pleading.
Does this mean we will not learn differently someday? Not necessarily–but if new findings arise, this will not occur through prayer or revelation.
I wrote that you “play[ed] word games with “truth,” “false,” and “falsifiability’.” You replied:

The possibility of falsity and falsifiability are very different concepts. How is this a word game?

Okay, “word game” is not the best choice of words. I acknowledge the functional difference between logical falsifiability and falsifiability in practice.
But when Coyne and others speak of gods and their alleged interactions with the world being “not falsifiable,” he is, with a sharp gaze focused directly on how religion is actually practiced and discussions of theism coudicted, correct. Gods are, depending on the religion and the source, claimed to have all sorts of means of interacting with the physical world–through “miracles,” the creation of huge storms, what have you. Upon challenge, sophisticated theists like Miller speak of subtler influences on subatomic particles and whatnot, thereby withdrawing God into the shadows and conveniently rendering its supposed traits beyond observation and therefore non-falsifiable. In the event QM becomes more a science of cataloguing observations than theorizing, the answers of poeple out to protect the gods idea at all costs will simply shift accordingly.
The point is that if religious practitioners are forever tweaking the definiton of gods in order to explain their ineffability–really a silly idea given gods’ alleged supremacy and more–then they are guaranteeing that the existence of gods can never be ruled out, both functionally and logically. They are assuring falsifiability in terms of its relevance to how we gather and evaluate knowledge or define “truth.” Hell, ask a theist what evidence would be required to convince hm or her that gods are a false construct, a predictable outcropping of the human psyche; these very discussions and essays and postings demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that nothing could be sufficient for a committed believer–and the same is not true of nonbelievers.
So, Jim, your entire essay strikes me as an exercise in semantics and vague apologetics, not in the the sense of arguing for gods but in the vein of having not met Coyne’s argument anywhere near its heart. I fail to see how it rebuts Coyne’s points of, for that matter, fails to add to them, but in your defense I honestly can’t conceive of a coherent essay that would; I’d have to see it to know it, I guess.

  1. #1 by Jim Manzi on February 4, 2009 - 11:18 am

    You say that:
    Events for which there are no discernible conscious underpinnings are random; calling these, or anything, “pseudo-random” adds a meaningless distinction, unless you can adequately define the difference between something with an outcome that is unpredictable and one that is perhaps predictably unpredictable, or something.
    But consider the path of a cannonball fired in europe in the year 1350. The general path was known, but where the ball would fall within a very large path of ground was unkown. It appeared to be random. That path of that same cannonball if fired in the same spot in the year 1900 was highly predictable within a tight engineering tolerance. Did the process go from being “random” in 1350 to “not random” in 1900? What changed was our understanding, due to Newton and various other advances.

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