Occam’s Shaving Kit

Jerry Coyne’s first chapter of Why Evolution Is True begins with something of a patronizing quotation from Jacques Monod. “A curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it” (p. 1) Well, excuse us.

But after that, he starts at the right place, which is the appearance of design. Coyne quotes Paley’s form of the argument from design, which he then calls “both commonsensical and ancient” (p. 2). Beginning this way, Coyne acknowledges that evolutionists must walk up something of an incline until we all come out on the sunny uplands of enlightenment. That incline is the fact that the appearance of design is all around us. Coyne believes, however, that if we just define our terms properly, the problem evaporates.

Let me begin with his definition of evolution, followed by a brief definition of the six constituent elements of it.

“Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species — perhaps a self-replicating molecule — that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection” (p. 3).

The six components of this are as follows — evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and evolutionary change by nonselective means (p. 3). Evolution means that genetic changes occur over time. Gradualism means that the time involved is a long time. Speciation means that different groups split, and go their separate ways, developing in different directions over time. Common ancestry is the “flip side of speciation” (p. 8), pointing out that all these variegated species didn’t used to be variegated — they came from a common source. Natural selection is what accounts for the appearance of design. It is that when there are genetic mutations in a group, and some of those differences provide a survival advantage, then those helpful differences will be passed on down the line. Survival-friendly genes have a “unfair” advantage. The last tenet is that some events may help out with evolution without using natural selection, as, for example, when different groups have differing numbers of offspring. This means that some changes “have nothing to do with adaptation” (p. 13).

Okay, so back to Paley. When we find a watch in the woods, we may infer a watchmaker. Not so fast, Coyne says, and then provides us with an alternative way of getting to the watch. Now most creationist critiques at this point show that it is not quite so simple as all that, and argue with the alternative way of getting to the watch. I am entirely on board with all of that, but want to make another point. But before getting to my different point, however, let me just tip my hat to the traditional critiques — which I will no doubt be offering myself later on in this book review. For one example, the chasm between inorganic and organic is enormous, and it is a gap for which Coyne’s six component parts of evolution have absolutely no relevance. So what happened there? For another example, why should any of the genetic changes confer any survival advantage at all? And so forth.

But here is the different point, one that grants, for the sake of the argument, that Coyne has offered us a way of getting to a watch without a watchmaker. That still doesn’t prove that there was no watchmaker . . . but Coyne thinks it does.

Once the mechanism of natural selection was pointed out, Coyne thinks the discussion is over.

“The more one learns about plants and animals, the more one marvels at how well their designs fit their ways of life. What could be more natural than inferring that this fit reflects conscious design? Yet Darwin looked beyond the obvious, suggesting — and supporting with copious evidence — two ideas that forever dispelled the idea of deliberate design. Those ideas were evolution and natural selection” (p. 3).

Now look at what he does here. There are two possible explanations for something, one kind of obvious, and the other far-fetched. Darwin, and Coyne after him, show that the far-fetched option is a possibility, yay, and Coyne therefore thinks this “forever dispelled” the other option. But to show that something with the appearance of design might have been the result of an impersonal process does not show that it had to have been the result of an impersonal process. How could that follow? To go from the possibility of no God to the certainty of no God is an exercise in wish fulfillment.

If Paley’s companion, arguing with him, showed (with copious evidence) that the watch could have assembled itself, why can Paley not still reply that he thinks it is simpler to surmise that somebody lost his watch. “Look. There is a name inscribed on the back of it. William of Occam. And here’s his shaving kit. It has a razor in it.”

This is to argue, in effect, that if there is the slightest possibility that there is no God, then we must conclude decisively that there is no God. But to go from “there might not be a designer” to “there must not be a designer” is a great leap — almost as great as the leap from inorganic to organic, and like that earlier chasm, there is no natural selection to help you get across it.

This is because bad arguments, being inorganic, don’t have any genetic material.

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Andrew Wilson
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Interesting that you can tell the watch(designed) apart from those things around it. If both were designed you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Roger Biehn
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Roger Biehn

I am so looking forward to this. I just read this book and
found it more convincing than most on the subject of evolution. It
is convincing in a very focused and limited scope, and tries to use
its more convincing first chapters to sell the less proven
propositions at the end. It also doesn’t spend a lot of time with
creationist or intelligent design-type arguments, which is not
surprising, given the proposition that evolution is a “fact” and is
“obvious”. I look forward to your take on this whole
thing.

Matthias
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Matthias

Sounds like a reverse Ontological Argument.

Jonathan
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Jonathan

I will definitely agree with the main premise of this post. So many atheist evolutionists jump from “evolution removes one argument for the necessity to believe in God!” to “evolution proves their is no God!”, which I find a completely illogical leap. One issue with your statement: “the chasm between inorganic and organic is enormous, and it is a gap for which Coyne’s six component parts of evolution have absolutely no relevance. So what happened there?” I’m not sure if the issue is that you misunderstand the meaning of “organic” or if you are just unaware of the science. First… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

“The famous Miller-Urey experiment produced a multitude of organic compounds (amino acids, amines, and sugars) from nothing more than electricity applied to simple inorganic gases – carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and sugars.”

Sorry, when I said “sugars” at the end, I meant to say “hydrogen”.

The more recent experiments have also included nitrogen, as well as some of the metals present in the rocks of the ground.

Arwen B
Guest
Arwen B

Jonathan Franzone:

I think the disconnect comes in the leap from disassociated amino acids and sugars to functional cellular organisms.

Strictly speaking, the Miller-Urey experiment proved only that you can synthesize amino acids and sugars by running current though a mix of gases.

It does not even begin to explain how those products gathered into the form of a cell and began reproducing identical cellular members.

Doug Shuffield
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Doug Shuffield

Jonathan,
One more correction. You said, “from nothing more than electricity applied to simple inorganic gases – carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and sugars.”

Methane is an organic gas.

– Doug

Nathan
Guest
Nathan

I interpret the distinction between organic and inorganic to be between self-educating organisms and their chemical constituents. This is meant to include the metainformation of the interprative framework whereby DNA codes are taken to correspond to specific proteins etc. The information represented by the code is independent of the chemicals used to convey the information.

Nathan
Guest
Nathan

Auto correct got me. Self-replicating.

Klasie Kraalogies
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Klasie Kraalogies

We can get from carbon dioxide, methane etc to amino acids. Also, we can make a good guess as to where this evolution of life could have occurred – between sheets of mica (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20558181). What I’m trying to say is that the gaps are shrinking – I’d be very careful to make theological claims based on gaps in scientific knowledge – what you’ll get is an ever-shrinking “God-of-the-gaps”. “Design” turns out to be much more of a philosophical argument. And often, very poorly constructed arguments follow – like Douglas Adams’ famous quip “This is rather as if you imagine a… Read more »

Ricardo
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Ricardo

@ Jonathan

I suspect “organic” is meant in the biology rather than chemistry sense — i.e.: of or relating to an organism. I too look forward to elaboration of this point from DW.

Thanks for the helpful post, Doug.

Arwen B.
Guest
Arwen B.

Andrew Wilson wrote “Interesting that you can tell the watch(designed) apart from those things around it. If both were designed you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

Are you able to tell the difference between a watch and a chair? Or between a watch and a pile of couch cushions? It’s not at all difficult to distinguish one designed thing from another.

The same principle holds true even when the designed things are a watch and bunch of ferns on a mossy rock.

slance
Guest
slance

I found this comment strange: “Interesting that you can tell the watch(designed) apart from those things around it. If both were designed you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.” Tell what difference? Are you suggesting that we couldn’t tell a difference between a designed watch and a genetically engineered tree, if both are designed? That’s a bit like saying that you wouldn’t notice a pocket watch laying in a manicured formal garden. Are you suggesting that a pocket watch found in an ancient Egyptian tomb would go unnoticed because both were designed? William Paley’s argument isn’t about “how can… Read more »

slance
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slance

Klasie wrote, “We can get from carbon dioxide, methane etc to amino acids. Also, we can make a good guess as to where this evolution of life could have occurred – between sheets of mica” Clearly, all of the magic happens between the sheets, of mica. If only “good guesses” were the same as historical arguments. Wilson’s (apparently overlooked) point is that a postulation that doesn’t require intelligent agency is not the same as an argument precluding God’s acts in the history we actually live in. I think the positive case for God leaves everyone without excuse, but I just… Read more »

Arwen B
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Arwen B

Klasie Kraalogieson Monday, June 10, 2013 at 1:35 pm said:

“We can get from carbon dioxide, methane etc to amino acids. Also, we can make a good guess as to where this evolution of life could have occurred – between sheets of mica”

That’s nice… but how does one go from random amino acids to fully functional and self-replicating cell bodies?

The evolutionary arguments are being questioned purely on the merit of their own assertions..

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Good catch Doug Shuffield. @Arwen: “I think the disconnect comes in the leap from disassociated amino acids and sugars to functional cellular organisms.” I agree, Arwen. And that leap has nothing to do with “inorganic” to “organic”. But that’s the sort of thing that leads me to question this whole exercise – someone who doesn’t understand the science is criticizing someone who does understand the science by trying to parrot things he’s heard from others, gets it wrong, and yet will probably have his wrong statements repeated by others. There are lots of legitimate scientific questions to ask of evolution.… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

Krasie Kraalogies – I am in high agreement with your post. Back when I studied it (which, admittedly, was almost 15 years ago), I thought that clay-based life was a good candidate, though there are still several other viable possibilities. But the point is, the more we learn about science, the more we learn about how it is possible. As you say, this “God of the gaps” position is destined for failure. The really annoying thing is that creationists appear to think that evolutionists have gotten the theology right (“evolution must disprove God!”) and the science wrong. It appears much… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Jonathan wrote: But that’s the sort of thing that leads me to question this whole exercise – someone who doesn’t understand the science is criticizing someone who does understand the science by trying to parrot things he’s heard from others, gets it wrong, and yet will probably have his wrong statements repeated by others. First Jonathan would need to show that Doug got it wrong. I’ve learned not to take Jonathan’s assertions at face value. Even the wiki page for inorganic compounds says this: Inorganic compounds are traditionally viewed as being synthesized by the agency of geological systems. In contrast,… Read more »

Katecho
Member

This is from the same wiki article on “inorganic compounds”: The distinction between inorganic and organic compounds is not always clear. Some scientists, for example, view the open environment (i.e., the ecosphere) as an extension of life and from this perspective may consider atmospheric CO2 as an organic compound. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, an agency widely recognized for defining chemical terms, does not offer definitions of inorganic or organic. Hence, the definition for an inorganic versus an organic compound in a multidisciplinary context spans the division between living (or animate) and non-living (or inanimate) matter and… Read more »

jonathan
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jonathan

katecho – the important fact you’re trying to obscure is that there is no definition for “inorganic” and “organic” compounds for which the “chasm” between them is enormous or insurmountable. You state: “Inorganic compounds are traditionally viewed as being synthesized by the agency of geological systems. In contrast, organic compounds are found in biological systems.” And the problem for you is that those organic compounds found in biological systems, such as amino acids and amines and sugars, have been shown to also be synthesized by non-biological systems. There’s just no chasm there. As has already been pointed out by multiple… Read more »

Klasie Kraalogies
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Klasie Kraalogies

Slance, Arwen – you missed my point quite spectacularly – namely that a “proof for God” that relies on the gaps in the evidence / understanding / theory are only good for as long as those gaps remained unfulfilled.

Furthermore, as I said, the ID argument is a philosophical one, and one that is very inadequate. As per my “post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy” comment.

Tony from Pandora
Guest
Tony from Pandora

So… Anyone feed any poor people, or aid elderly widows recently? Just curious

Kimberley
Guest
Kimberley

Oooorrr…Genesis 1:1-31 ;)

Katecho
Member

Jonathan wrote: katecho – the important fact you’re trying to obscure is that there is no definition for “inorganic” and “organic” compounds for which the “chasm” between them is enormous or insurmountable. Is science done by observation or by definition? Jonathan is now simply asserting his faith commitment that all obstacles and gaps will be overcome. Just dandy. The venture capitalist feels exactly the same way about the perpetual motion machine he’s been investing in. Now what? Is it open season to shoot ad hominems at Doug in the meantime? Faith is a valid means to knowledge (when the object… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Jonathan wrote: And the problem for you is that those organic compounds found in biological systems, such as amino acids and amines and sugars, have been shown to also be synthesized by non-biological systems. There’s just no chasm there. Jonathan’s sentence parses as if he is saying that amino acids are examples of biological systems in their own right. I’m not sure where that notion comes from. Amino acids are referred to as the “building blocks” or “alphabet” of protein construction. Amino acids are simple molecules that have a structure that facilitates combination with other amino acids into peptide chains… Read more »

Giovanni Maresia
Member
Giovanni Maresia

Wilson’s point is that methodological naturalism is tacitly assumed at the outset by evolutionists, when it’s the very thing which should be open to question. This is the missing step, the hidden premise, the “leap of logic”. This is why if a naturalistic explanation is found to be merely possible, any explanation, no matter how unlikely, it is seen by these people as ruling out the creationist alternative. But methodological naturalism rules out in principle, for all they know, the true explanation. That is, methodological naturalism is not a friend of science: it destroys science. Suppose there’s a murder, and… Read more »

Matthias
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Matthias

Tony from Pandora,

First of all, lol, nice troll.

Second, in the amount of time it took you to comment on this post you could have sent the Red Cross multiple texts donating $10 to whomever. Why do you think arguing with people was more beneficial than that?

Arwen B
Guest
Arwen B

Klasie Kraalogieson Monday, June 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm said:

“Slance, Arwen – you missed my point quite spectacularly – namely that a “proof for God” that relies on the gaps in the evidence / understanding / theory are only good for as long as those gaps remained unfulfilled. ”

It is possible that I missed the point of your post. But since your post missed the entire point of the current discussion, I’m willing to call it even if you are.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

katecho, all I can say is that your posts are still riddled with errors, and if I corrected all of them you’d just reply with more stuff you cut-and-paste from the internet riddled with errors, and we’d just go around in that loop over and over like we did when you tried to claim that the fact that the Mayans could build pyramids disproved all of evolution.

So I’m just going to end it here. You will reply in the 3rd person with some snarky comment, and then at least it will be done.

Tony from Pandora
Guest
Tony from Pandora

Matthias,

Didn’t mean to offend… just a tongue-in-cheek way to put this discussion in perspective. I’ve followed several forums on this topic and they never fail to follow the same pattern… I just couldn’ resist… my apologies….

I prefer Compassion International to the Red Cross…

Matthias
Guest
Matthias

Tony,

No offense taken. I’ll just file this exchange under “Irony” and thank you for your tone in response :)

jay niemeyer
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jay niemeyer

Klasie, if the design inference is essentially a “post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy”, how is it that the omni-Darwinian argument is not?

jay niemeyer
Guest
jay niemeyer

By “omni-Darwinian I mean, of course, the argument that says that all – or nearly – all of the APPARENT purposive design inherent in biological organisms are merely the product of Darwinian processes.

Klasie Kraalogies
Guest
Klasie Kraalogies

Jay – because the “Darwinian processes” are blind, ie, it could have ended in any number of ways – or not happen at all. The fallacy implies “Since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one.”. There is no “must have been” in Darwinian terms. If you really want to understand this, I’d actually recommend 3 popular-level books that have very little to do with evolution by themselves, but sheds light into cause, effect and the nature of natural processes: Two are by the same renowned author, James Gleick: “Chaos”, and “The Information: A… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Jonathan wrote: katecho, all I can say is that your posts are still riddled with errors, and if I corrected all of them you’d just reply with more stuff you cut-and-paste from the internet riddled with errors, and we’d just go around in that loop over and over like we did when you tried to claim that the fact that the Mayans could build pyramids disproved all of evolution. Speaking of errors and fallacies, I’ve never stated or implied that building pyramids disproved all of evolution. I don’t recall ever even mentioning Mayans on Wilson’s blog. Apparently Jonathan has graduated… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

As far as I can tell, Coyne doesn’t actually think that Darwin showed that an undesigned world is merely possible, but rather that it is by far the most plausible option if one doesn’t assume a deity or some other supernatural force. Even if one does assume a deity, it is not unreasonable to say that it would have interacted with the world via natural forces (“natural forces” here being a kind of extension of divine will), rather than winking everything into existence magically. It also isn’t unreasonable to say that e.g. Jewish myths were not intended to nor could… Read more »

Reuben K.
Guest
Reuben K.

Dear Merciful Savior, please make them all stop it. Nobody should be allowed to voice their opinion or thoughts or perspective on or arguments relating to organic evolution. Nobody. Ever. Anywhere. Except me. I think the indicative point here is that the fellow writing this book thinks that Darwin came up with the idea of evolution. Laughable. Darwin’s Grandfather didn’t even come up with the idea of evolution. (Although Erasmus Darwin was an acquaintance of Lamarck, who did largely construct the widely accepted model of evolution that stood until the days of Darwin and Wallace.) Pastor Wilson, please stop reading… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Since we are talking about what is or isn’t reasonable, I thought the standard naturalistic mythology was that everything (including “natural forces”) did wink into existence magically at the big bang.

The naturalistic mythology sees the universe we live in as the kind of magical place where explosions produce debris that argues amongst itself about its origin, and who should be the next American Idol.

That explosion debris should have conversations with other debris about what is or isn’t reasonable is what any self-respecting explosion debris would reasonably do in this situation. Right?

Katecho
Member

Klasie wrote: “Design” turns out to be much more of a philosophical argument. And often, very poorly constructed arguments follow – like Douglas Adams’ famous quip “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” (from the Salmon of Doubt). The arguments hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of process – ie, it is a… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Reuben K. wrote:
At least I won’t inflate my pompous, delusional attempts at intellectual competence with specious historical claims, pseudoscientific myths, and heavy-handed, obtuse dismissals of superior philosophies.

It’s a bit hard to follow, but I think Reuben just acknowledged that naturalistic evolution is a philosophy.
About time we moved it over to the philosophy department then.

jay niemeyer
Guest
jay niemeyer

Klasie, you are correct that the inference to design cannot be strictly proven logically given the nature of the argument itself. However, you should also admit that the inference to design is a possibility – at least if you are going to be logically consistent. The non-ID theory says basically that we observe some natural selection, the rare survival/reproductive benefits of DNA/RNA transcription errors, Gene Shift phenomena, etc. (so-called “blind processes”) and extrapolate from these that all the astounding complexity we find today results from the historical accumulation of these sorts of phenomena – and are not the result of… Read more »

Reuben K.
Guest
Reuben K.

Katecho: I will readily and gladly profess that naturalistic evolution is a scientific theory (and therefore philosophical theory) that attempts to cram organic life into the biscuit tin of Naturalism. I will even more readily and eagerly profess that this biscuit tin of Naturalism is a philosophy, albeit an ultimately self-defeating, essentially anti-rational, exceedingly mystical, and even superstitious philosophy, when it is not being used simply as a mantra for meditating on the mystical doctrine of cosmic ego-centrism. The most disappointing thing about this biscuit tin is, of course, that very little fits into it, especially organic life. But that… Read more »

Matthias
Guest
Matthias

If the notion of Design is circumvented by the prospect of Natural Selection and natural processes alone (which gave rise to nature, of which we are merely another part given evolution), then in what sense can we say that we humans are capable of “designing,” without conferring onto ourselves some super-natural status not afforded the rest of nature? Wishful thinking? Special pleading? Behold, the abdication of intelligibility!

jay niemeyer
Guest
jay niemeyer

It is astounding that design theories and theorists are utterly ridiculed as pre-Cambrian proto vertebrates; but what is truly dumbfounding is the vigorous acceptance that blind undirected NON LIVING processes (that “could have ended in any number of ways – or not happen at all”) just so happened to assemble themselves into…
A. A molecular instruction construction/maintenance/replication manual with coherent instructions (DNA)
and
B. A system that can interpret and apply the instructions (RNA)
and
C. The readily accessible necessary materials, systems, tools, and “workers” for building, maintaining, and reproducing organisms.

Klasie Kraalogies
Guest
Klasie Kraalogies

Jay – maybe you should read and study a bit more… see my previous suggestion.

Katecho
Member

Ye of little faith.

Klasie Kraalogies
Guest
Klasie Kraalogies

Jay et al – try this general paper for instance: http://www.cs.mun.ca/~banzhaf/papers/article3.pdf

jay niemeyer
Guest
jay niemeyer

I’ve read more than smattering of science, Klasie. (You’re right that Gleick is a good writer, BTW. “Faster” was one of my favorite pop science books back in the day. “Chaos” was also pretty interesting from what I remember.) Anyhoo… Self organization is a phenomena of nature. Complexity can be created from natural causes, reactions, etc. Chaos Theory might hold some explanatory power… – Well, if we laud and shout amen, so what? The stretch from the theory (with the admitted problems) as espoused in the paper to the SPECIFIED complexity of the sort we find in molecular language/interpretation/application systems… Read more »

Klasie Kraalogies
Guest
Klasie Kraalogies

Incredulity is not generally accepted as a stopgap in an otherwise (hopefully) logical argument.

Katecho
Member

Klasie wrote: “Incredulity is not generally accepted as a stopgap in an otherwise (hopefully) logical argument.” It is if you are referring to science (and not some other field of knowledge such as history, theology, ethics, politics, art, etc). The scientific method is a show-me-the-money methodology. That’s what makes it science, and not politics. If someone has a testable theory about a blind undirected process that leads from non-life to life, or cold fusion, or perpetual motion, then show us the money. Otherwise scientific incredulity is rational. If one wishes to step into the scientific kitchen and wield scientific persuasiveness,… Read more »