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May 31, 2007

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Nato

Brownback also presents an extremely false dichotomy, between evolution within species only and a globalized hard naturalism. There's a great deal of middle ground there, and while the latter is debatable, that vastly more than the former has been proven insofar as historical empiricism ever can is not in any scientific doubt.

This is classic Phillip Johnson rhetoric, keeping the anti-evolution camp unified by never quite clarifying what anyone really believes while attempting to portray all evolutionary stances in the hardest light possible so that the most people can see ways in which to dissent. For example, my old high school biology teacher would not sign on to Brownback's second option, but he was a thoroughgoing evolutionist. I don't think he would have raised his hand in the debate.

Thomas

I'd say there is as much evidence for macro-evolution as there is for the life of Jesus. Jesus performed all sorts of "well-documented" miracles, and likewise, the miracles of macro-evolution have also been as well-documented (I may be giving too much credit to Jesus on this account). One of the best arguments I've heard for macro-evolution comes from an analysis of the mitochondria of neanderthals compared with that of homo sapiens. There's a pretty good clip on YouTube that argues (persuasively?) from this evidence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKsMsz6dBac . It doesn't directly address most of Nathanael's problems with evolution, but I thought it might be enlightening nonetheless.

Nato

I think the narrator is pretty annoying, but I like the visual humor. Anyway, it's a nice set piece.

Nathan Smith

"I'd say there is as much evidence for macro-evolution as there is for the life of Jesus."

That sentence strikes me as meaningless. How do you measure evidence and say that there is "as much" evidence for one claim as for another? Maybe you can do that, rarely with precision but often with a sort of rough plausibility, when the claims, and the evidence for them, is similar in character. But the life of Jesus and macro-evolution are not at all comparable in this way. What does Tom mean as "evidence for the life of Jesus?" Evidence that Jesus lived? Evidence that he lived and performed all the miracles attributed to him in the Gospels? Evidence that his teachings were those attributed to him?

If it's simply a question of evidence that Jesus lived *at all,* that's pretty strong: eyewitness accounts from contemporaries, and a much wider range of stories spread orally and eventually turning into tradition, plus congruence with known historical facts from non-Christian sources. I think most non-Christians would agree that a person called Jesus probably lived in first-century Galilee and Palestine.

Whether the evidence that Jesus worked miracles is strong depends mainly on what your priors are about how improbable or impossible miracles are. If you have no prejudice against miraculous occurrences whatsoever (which, of course, would be very odd), then there seems to be little reason to distrust the Gospel accounts on this point. If you're an absolutely convinced materialist-determinist, then I suppose you must reject all miraculous events, though you might accept that some of the reported miracles actually occurred non-miraculously (i.e., faith healings were really cases of the placebo effect). But it still raises the issue: what are you to make of a story which is incompatible with your assumptions? If I believe that all good basketball players are black, and then I hear a story about a great white basketball players, do I (a) assume that he must actually have been black, (b) assume that he can't really have been a good basketball player, or (c) reject my previous belief that all good basketball players are black? It depends on the basis for my belief about the race of basketball players, as well as the reliability of the source of the story, but it's hard to come up with a simple algorithm for it.

Christians, of course, believe that miracles usually don't occur, but in this case they did. You probably can't form that belief based on the reports of the Evangelists, as historical sources, alone. Only in the context of a broader worldview does this belief become compelling.

"that vastly more than [evolution within species] has been proven insofar as historical empiricism ever can is not in any scientific doubt."

Does this just mean that "quite different species seem to have existed, and we can't think of any other way that that could have happened, other than through mutation and natural selection"? I'm certainly willing to accept that macro-evolution is the most convincing extant explanation for certain parts of the fossil record. But I'm wary of the word "proven." And what is "historical empiricism?" Does that include historiographical methods that rely on human verbal accounts of the past?

"classic Phillip Johnson rhetoric... attempting to portray all evolutionary stances in the hardest light possible so that the most people can see ways in which to dissent."

Well, Phillip Johnson is a fan of Karl Popper, and in Popperian fashion, he likes scientific theories to be "hard" enough to make predictions which render them falsifiable. I'm not sure Brownback deserves the compliment of being compared to Phillip Johnson, however.

Thomas

Why is the sentence meaningless? What evidence do you have about Jesus? Oral tradition and some written text. Well, what evidence do we have for macro-evolution? Fossil record, age of the Earth, DNA analysis, experiments on fruit flies and moths and the like, a theoretical mechanism (natural selection and descent with modification) that is consistent with observable phenomena, etc. The evidence for evolution is written on the Earth, much as the evidence for Jesus is written in a book. They are both historical artifacts, and both are equally valid, to various degrees. Atheists say that Jesus wasn't the son of God and didn't perform miracles. They don't believe in the testimony that vouches for that. Likewise, creationists don't believe that the evidence I just mentioned necessarily points to Darwinism. Fair enough. But you still have to account for the evidence somehow, and until you come up with something more explanatory than Darwinism, that's what the scientific community will continue to "preach".

Thomas

I should point out that there is one huge difference between the evidence for Jesus and the evidence for evolution: people can lie or be mistaken in their testimony, but the evidence used to justify Darwinism is a truth set in stone; the interpretations of the evidence for Darwinism may be dishonest or mistaken, but the evidence itself cannot lie.

Thomas

This is unrelated, but I kind of like Ron Paul, though I don't really like isolationism as a foreign policy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEkjPkXHSEw

Nato

"I'm certainly willing to accept that macro-evolution is the most convincing extant explanation for certain parts of the fossil record"

...and comparative genomics, and modern homologies and analogies, and the geological record apart from fossils, and...

It's not 1965 and we're not only talking about the fossil record, which is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Nathan Smith

"I should point out that there is one huge difference between the evidence for Jesus and the evidence for evolution: people can lie or be mistaken in their testimony, but the evidence used to justify Darwinism is a truth set in stone; the interpretations of the evidence for Darwinism may be dishonest or mistaken, but the evidence itself cannot lie."

This is certainly not a valid dichotomy. The fossil record is set in stone but-- and this is just an aside, I'm not trying to prove an anti-evolution point here, just to protect logic-- it might be misleading. With people, too, the fact that they are saying things has some sort of cause: their words are still evidence of a sort even if they are lies. What humans can do is *tell the truth,* a higher level of meaning that the mere crude clue-reading one has to resort to in reading artefacts, or in trying to guess the truth from the words of liars.

Tom wants to privilege archeological evidence over human verbal evidence. It's the other way around.

Nathan Smith

"...and comparative genomics, and modern homologies and analogies, and the geological record apart from fossils, and..."

These are all evidence for evolution only with the help of considerable inferential elasticity. Not that inference is invalid, but it requires a different kind of epistemology. And this is where the distorted intellectual division of labor gets us in trouble: scientists tend to jump to a lot of conclusions when they step outside the hypothesis-experiment scientific method.

Thomas

It is impossible to determine whether or not testimony is true, regardless of how honest the testimony is or seems to be, unless, of course, you have physical evidence to back it up. Physical evidence, on the other hand, might imply all sorts of things that are untrue, but the evidence itself could never be deemed to be untrue. Physical evidence is always true, though the interpretations of it may not be, whereas testimony is most often false, even when people are trying to be honest. People have over and over again claimed to see the magician saw the girl in half, but the truth of the matter is that the girl was never sawed in half, it was all an illusion. If the physical evidence actually showed you two halves of a girl, you would have true evidence of something. Perhaps she wasn't sawed in half, perhaps she was born that way or something. But the evidence of the two halves of the girl is irrefutable.

Nathan Smith

Okay, so there's fact X about the world.

Fact X might be words spoken by a person, or they might be an arrowhead on the ground, or some other physical evidence.

We can try to guess what the causes of Fact X are, and draw inferences. We may infer truths or falsehoods of Fact X. Fact X is not itself evidence of anything, it's just there. We turn it into evidence by using it as a launching pad for inferences. It's true that Fact X, simply as a fact, cannot tell lies. "The evidence cannot be deemed untrue..." No. The letter may be full of lies but it itself is real. The cigarette butt on the roof may lead the police to false conclusions but it itself is real.

Now, in the case of spoken words, they are *not only* evidence in the "Fact X" sense, facts which can be the basis for attempts to make inferences, but *also* have meaning. The meanings can of course be false, and since in this case there is an intentional speaker we attribute the untruth to the speaker rather than merely to our process of inferences and call it a lie, though from an evidential point of view it is no worse than evidence that leads you to false inference. On the other hand, spoken words are far more effective in conveying information.

When Tom walks into his room and sees a broken window, or a new sofa, and his wife is there and starts to tell him how it happened, does Tom say, "Quiet! I'm going to try to figure out for myself what happened, based on the physical evidence. The evidence can't be untrue, whereas the story you tell me might be."? Of course not. In normal life he knows perfectly well the superiority of verbal evidence to mere physical artefacts. He should apply this commonsense insight to his approach to the past.

Nato

One might say that the two halves of the girl were "clues" that we can read.

"scientists tend to jump to a lot of conclusions when they step outside the hypothesis-experiment scientific method"

When they were sequencing and performing comparisons, they were *absolutely* intending to test theories. Long-bubbling disputes have been so settled and the overthrow of a few presumed near-certainties. Ditto to a lesser extent further excavations, botanizing, and so on, but them being lesser has more to do with how *little* inferential flexibility one needs to see how comparative genomics/microbiology works. There's limits to its resolution (and complications to its practice), just as there is with radioisotope dating, but the overall idea is so obvious it probably wouldn't occur to many people as an inference at all. Bioinformatics has become a basic tool of the trade for researchers in a number of fields far flung from strict evolutionary biology and it would be an astonishing blow indeed to find all discoveries so far were coincidental and that there's enough fault in the inferences to invalidate the present body of findings.

Want some examples of disconfirmation? How about if we discovered that killer whales and sharks had more DNA in common than between mice and killer whales? How about Tasmanian Devils turning out to be genetically more similar to wolverines than to kangaroos? Nothing like that happened, of course. I suppose the penalty for well-supported hypotheses is failing to enjoy refutation by further evidence.

As for the evidence of Jesus' existence, well, there's a number of curious things about the non-Christian histories of the era. Philo of Alexandria wrote a biography of Pilate that was never cited as proof of Jesus' life, and Justus of Tiberias wrote a history (lost) of Jesus' era and area which bishop Photius found no mention of Jesus. In fact there's extremely little contemporary evidence of Jesus' existence that doesn't come from early Christians who had something of a vested interest. Of course, this is a long time ago and maybe it just wasn't considered enough of a big deal to record until a couple generations later.

The critical matter is that when it comes down to it, it would seem that Christians who are clear of the chronology of what became the Bible regard the registry between the accounts of the bible and, say, spiritual truths or other non-testimonial evidence to validate the Jesus hypothesis. That is to say, the ultimate proof of the past isn't testimony, it's other kinds of (putative) facts.

Nato

Certainly testimony is faster, but if physical evidence soundly contradicts the story Tom's wife tells him, then he must believe it rather than her, no matter how much he would ordinarily trust her testimony.

Thomas

My wife tells me things all the time that I don't believe at face value, not because I think she's being dishonest, but because I think she's most likely mistaken. Occasionally she's not mistaken, and yet I still had the doubt. For instance, she tells me to look for something in a particular location and I can't find it there, so the first thing that occurs to me is not that I didn't search hard enough but that Nicole was mistaken. Of course, frequently she's right, but occasionally she's wrong. However, if I had the evidence of the thing she wanted, I wouldn't need her testimony at all, and in fact, I could probably find a great many things without her testimony, which incidentally has mislead me on occasion.

Nathan Smith

"there's extremely little contemporary evidence of Jesus' existence that doesn't come from early Christians who had something of a vested interest."

Wow. Now this is very odd. What is the alternative hypothesis that Nato is proposing? That a group of first-century Jews got together one day and decided, "Hey, let's found a religion! Let's invent a leader, and think up some teachings and doctrines, and start spreading the word! It might be fun!" And they never revealed the fraud, preferring to go to their death and be crucified up-side-down and go through all manner of ignominious torment rather than deny it. And they were able to persuade thousands of others to go along with it. This is very odd behavior, but at least Nato should have the decency to admit that the bizarre enterprise was disinterested. If you're about to die for your belief, your "vested interests" are in denying it, not insisting to the bitter end that it's true!

Yes, there is probably no first-hand evidence of Jesus other than that of early Christians. Is that surprising? Not many sources survive from that era. Jesus would not have been a person of great importance to a non-Christian. To Pontius Pilate's court he was just another rascally rabble-rouser to be eliminated... or part of a sordid deal with Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, furious about blasphemy. Why write that down? Why should historians take an interest?

Yet we know that within thirty years of Jesus's death there were enough Christians in Rome for Nero to scapegoat them for the fire. And this is what sets Jesus Christ apart from the dying-god myths of ancient paganism: the chronology of the latter was vaguer and tended to be set in the remote past. It's easy to spin tales about what happened long before anyone alive remembers. But the Christian message was blazing its way through the Roman empire when Jesus's life and ministry were still well within living memory. If you want to say that Jesus was just a wandering charismatic whose disciples later proved over-excitable and extremely brave and diligent, the events are still not entirely easy to account for. But the conspiracy-theory version in which Jesus was simply invented really stretches plausibility.

Nato

"What is the alternative hypothesis that Nato is proposing?"

I'm not actually proposing one. I think most scholars agree that some sort of Jesus is the most likely explanation for the various subsequent events, taken in aggregate. Nonetheless the evidence is piecemeal and a product of a great deal of inference.

Nato

To clarify: I mean 1) "some sort of Jesus" to reference an individual who took a central founding role and be in opposition to 2) a fabrication from whole cloth or, more likely, 3) a synthesis of several messianic figures and doctrines of the day that refers to no single person. 1) is most likely, 3) is unlikely but (from my limited knowledge) plausible, and 2) seems implausible (again from my limited knowledge).

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