Elliott Sober responds to my challenge

A few days ago I did a post about philosopher Elliott Sober’s talk and paper about the logical possibility of God-guided mutations.  In that post I offered Sober a three-point challenge, to wit:

1. Can you demonstrate that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question?

2. Your argument about that logical compatibility would seem to extend not just to mutation and evolution, but to all of science. Is that correct? If so, why did you concentrate on mutation?

3.  If the answer to the first part of (2) is “yes,” then would it be equally important for philosophers to write papers and give talks about how we can’t rule out the logical possibility that God influences coin tosses to favor outcomes He wants (like a favorite football team winning)? If not, why not? After all, isn’t the coin-tossing argument basically identical to the one you were making for mutations?

Elliott has kindly responded to this by email, and with his permission I reproduce his response, unedited and without comment, below.  Readers may respond in the comments section, but please be polite and stick to the points at hand. Remember, Elliott did not have to respond, and I don’t want acrimony in the comments.

________________

Dear Jerry,

When people ask me about my theological convictions (not that you did), I reply by asking them what they mean by “God.”  If by “God” you mean a being who separately created species within the last 50,000 years, then I am an atheist.  But sometimes when people tell me what they mean by “God,” their answers makes me doubt that science could ever provide evidence about whether such a being exists.  In this case, I feel obliged to be an agnostic.  This is why I find statements like “there is strong scientific evidence that shows that God does not exist” unsatisfactory; the claim is correct for some concepts of God, but not for others.

The talk I gave at U of Chicago wasn’t about science in general, but about evolutionary biology in particular.  But you are right that my argument applies to probabilistic theories generally (setting aside for now the possibility that quantum mechanics is a special case).   I think that evolutionary theory is true, but this says nothing about whether it is causally complete.  I hope you’ll agree that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether determinism is true; the theory leaves open that there may be hidden variables.  It therefore leaves open that there may be supernatural hidden variables.  As I said in my talk, the same story applies to our conventional probabilistic understanding of how gambling devices work.

My point in saying this is not to suggest that we should believe in supernatural hidden variables.  The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this.  You ask why this is worth saying.  The reason is that many theistic opponents of evolutionary theory think that accepting the theory forces one to be an atheist. They hear biologists say “mutations are unguided” and think that the theory says that God plays no role in the evolutionary process.   I see no comparable reason to publish a paper about the possibility of supernatural interventions in gambling devices.

You ask why this is a “serious and important philosophical question.”  One reason is that many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between a theory’s being true and its being causally complete.  Theology aside, it is important to philosophy of science (and to science as well) to understand what scientific theories actually say.

You have said on your blog that the absence of evidence for God is evidence that there is no such being.  To me, that depends on what you mean by “God” (see above).  But perhaps more importantly, I think that your statement about absence of evidence isn’t a consequence of evolutionary theory; it is a philosophical thesis.  I trust you will agree. I mention this because I think it is important for atheists to make it clear that this or that argument for their position is not a consequence of evolutionary theory. Concerning your statement about evidence, you may be interested in my article “Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence

I think that you and I differ in two ways.  First, we disagree about what evolutionary theory properly includes – what its defensible scientific content actually is.  Second, we differ about what the best strategy is for protecting evolutionary biology and science more generally from religion.  Your strategy is to attack religion.  Mine is to try to persuade religious people that science and theism can be reconciled.  This probably won’t work for many fundamentalists, but I think it may have some chance of working for many other religious people.

Let me conclude by apologizing to Dan Dennett for the parenthetical remark I made in my paper “Evolution without Naturalism”, in which I say that he holds, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, that evolutionary theory “entails” that there is no God.  What I should have said is that he thinks that there is a conflict between evolutionary biology and theism. Dennett thinks that evolutionary theory shows that it is irrational to believe that God exists; he thinks that the theory has this consequence because he thinks that the Design Argument was the only remotely plausible argument for God’s existence and evolutionary theory destroyed that argument.  This interpretive error on my part doesn’t affect the points I was making in that paper.

Elliott

177 Comments

  1. Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    That’s actually a pretty good response.

    • eric
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

      Partially disagree. Prof. Sober spends a lot of time reiterating points from his talk unrelated to Jerry’s question. IMO his answers could be summarized as:

      1. The philosophical question is important because of the politics it impacts.

      2. Yes.

      3. No, because that coin flip example (and others) does not have the same political impact.

      Its an honest answer. Sober is sticking his neck out a bit here, as I suspect many theists who can read for comprehension will not be pleased with the implication that the only reason Yahweh’s role in biology is considered important by folk like Sober is because of politics.

      • couchloc
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

        With all due respect, I don’t think this is a fair summary of Sober’s response. Your response to 1 was:

        “1. The philosophical question is important because of the politics it impacts.”

        That’s not really what he says. His reply was in two parts:

        “You ask why this is a ‘serious and important philosophical question.’ One reason is that many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between a theory’s being true and its being causally complete. Theology aside, it is important to philosophy of science (and to science as well) to understand what scientific theories actually say.”

        This is the important part for science. Sober’s trying to help us (scientists, others) understand the content of our theories, and, I take it, that’s a nontrivial concern we should all care about. Clarifying this issue may have political implications, but the concern is scientific, not political.

        Second, he says,

        “The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this. You ask why this is worth saying. The reason is that many theistic opponents of evolutionary theory think that accepting the theory forces one to be an atheist. They hear biologists say “mutations are unguided” and think that the theory says that God plays no role in the evolutionary process.”

        This is the important part for theism. Some people in the religion debates are confused, and this issue needs clarification. This maybe relates to your “politics” point, but this reason is separate from the first reason.

        • Christian
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

          No doubt, many are confused but I think it will confuse them even more or at least not lead to any clarification of the issue if it is not made unambiguously clear what kind of god Sober is talking about.
          For many of these believers (maybe even most of them) such a god is probably not much better than no god at all (i.e. atheism).

        • andreschuiteman
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

          Should scientists really be concerned about supernatural hidden variables? I shouldn’t think so.

          • Reginald Selkirk
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

            The casinos should be, but they aren’t. Go figure.

            • Christian
              Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

              Yeah, guess they just aren’t aware of Sober’s paper. Maybe he should give a presentation in Vegas and also include that point on gambling devices. ;)

            • Bob Johnson
              Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

              Casinos, like lotteries, are concerned. They love a big winner every now and then. If the supernatural beings can help them then all the better.

        • eric
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

          I think your first criticism (of me) is valid, I think the second one isn’t.

          On #1: I did ignore this argument and I shouldn’t have.*

          On #2: ‘opponents of evolutionary theory,’ is, I think, fairly read to refer to people who oppose it with social action, not people who just disagree with it in their own minds but are otherwise happy to see it taught to their kids in public schools. I could be wrong about that, but the US has a long history of socially active creationists; if Sober is not referring to such people, he certainly sounds like he is.

          *Aside: I’d be wary of pulling causal incompleteness in as a reason for science to accommodate God-belief. Its very god-of-the-gaps, and also relies a bit on giving exceptional treatment to standard, western monotheism. Would we accept that argument as a credible argument for, say, science to accommodate a belief in gremlins? Or should science just assign gremlims to the dustbin, without much thought, as nothing more than a fanciful gap-filler? Probably the latter, yes? So, why should we treat any other hypothethical entity any differently?

          • Notagod
            Posted May 17, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

            I think your *aside is very important and is something Sober fails to address. It isn’t just Sober either, I haven’t seen the subject addressed at all by the creators/supporter of tamed gods. They disregard the overwhelming evidential support for randomness very casually and then immediately jump to a non descriptive god as the answer, without any justification. In mathematics one must keep both sides of the equation balanced, Sober’s analysis is laughably skewed to a christianized calculation.

            Sober’s type of philosophy is the opposite of helpful, demanding unreasoned speculation of one aspect of this thoughts while demanding unreasonable rigor from an opposing side of his thoughts.

            Why isn’t sloppy thought considered detrimental to philosophical respect?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      I on the other hand find it a terrible response on so many levels.

      – If we are going to play the “meaning of gods” game, it is an empirical test for the non-existence of gods. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some 10 000 god concepts have been more or less rigorously stated in thousands of historical religions throughout history. They have all been rejected by internal incoherence or facts by now, including the explicit christian gods by the way. (Say, two origin stories respectively no Adam and Eve.)

      As a theoretical test the observed < 10^-4 frequency of magic and magic workers, no matter the underlying statistics, would be pretty conclusive. Remember, Sober is the one mentioning "science … evidence".

      – The philosophic invention of "causally complete" is neither here nor there for theories, and Sober confess as much when he notes that factually validated theories can be "true" anyway.

      It is, I think, an invention explicitly set up to beg for circularity, because only a Theory Of Everything would be expected to be causally complete. (The problem with supernatural hidden variables goes away with quantum mechanics being part of it. Predicting time isn't the usual scope of TOEs, but lets run with Sober's claims.)

      Which is empirically fine in the presence of observations but philosophically a stumbling block in the presence of assumptions. In short, an agnostic invention of NOMA class trying to insert doubt there none observably exist.

      Meanwhile it is implicitly allowing for accepting arguments from ignorance, as described below.

      – That mutations are unguided is a more serious problem for agnostics than Sober allows for. Only a relatively very fit mutation would have some likelihood to fixate in a population, drift strikes down many or most of them I think. So "guidance" is contingent environment and chance, needing repetitions at best and being impossible vs a set goal in other cases.

      • Notagod
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        Nicely done. Thank you!

  2. gbjames
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    One reason is that many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between a theory’s being true and its being causally complete.

    Zing !

    • Sajanas
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      At the same time, I can’t feel like that is being a point where philosophy and science cross swords. Science cannot exclude all possible little theories that God, or Odin are running around tweaking things undetectably, that is true, but at the same time, I think its bad science to make presumptions without evidence, and that is *exactly* what this is doing. And, to my mind, it is also rather cynical… trying to provide a balm for believers that don’t have any proof, just a theory that cannot be disproven. Sure, you can tell them that its not disprovable, but that is *all* you can tell them… and that people can come up with a nearly infinite number of other ideas, equally impossible to disprove, yet contradictory.

      • Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        This. And that’s after reading it twice and not remembering a thing he said by the time I finished reading it…

        The Internal Revenue Code and Regulations are easier to read and understand. Mostly, because while they’re complex and overly-specific in order to hem in the dishonest, they’re written to be understood.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        » Sajanas:
        I think its bad science to make presumptions without evidence

        Contrary to this empiricist notion, lots of presumptions are made without any precursors in evidence—at least when we are talking about explanatory theories, which is why it is profoundly misleading to look for ‘justification’ of them. Evidence’s main job is to test these presumptions, wherever they came from, which then doesn’t really matter as long as they are good explanations for some phenomenon.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        “Sure, you can tell them that its not disprovable, but that is *all* you can tell them …”

        You can always tell a believer (usually from the dull cast to the eyes) — you just can’t tell them much.

    • DV
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between an argument’s being favorable to ones beliefs and its being disingenuous.

      And Sober is counting on this. Zing!

    • Woody Tanaka
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      The problem with Sobel’s statement is that under the guidelines he set out here, nothing, let alone nothing in science, is “causally complete.”

      There is simply nothing, and no theory in science, for which one cannot imagine a near infinite number of mutually incompatible supernatural (whatever that means) agents which could fit the bill. But they all suffer from the fact that there is no actual evidence supporting their actual existance.

      As a consequence, in the sense Sober means it, nothing can be causally complete, so the idea of causal completeness (in the sense of gods and spooks and goblins and the Force or what have you) is, itself, meaningless.

      • Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        For an analogy, I thought the theory that a thermostat works via a negative feedback loop was causally complete. I don’t think that the possibility to argue that something causally unknow about sunspots or climatic change makes it causally incomplete, because cybernetics does not depend on these things.

        Likewise, the possibility imagined by Sober does not actually affect evolutionary theory.

        Seems absurd to rationally argue about matters of faith after having agreed that faith is irrational :-)

  4. newenglandbob
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    The reason is that many theistic opponents of evolutionary theory think that accepting the theory forces one to be an atheist. They hear biologists say “mutations are unguided” and think that the theory says that God plays no role in the evolutionary process.  

    Well, it doesn’t play any part. There is no evidence of any god anywhere, so trying to infer it could be part of the evolutionary process is unnecessary and misleading.

    Sober is still trying to reconcile religion and science based on extremely remote possibilities and is not thinking clearly, in my opinion. This is why I do not like most philosopher’s output. It confuses situations more than it can ever help.

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see. – George Berkeley.

  5. Andrew
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    That was a pretty terrible response.

    If he thinks that the possibility of supernatural causes leads to a theory not being causally complete, then there is nothing that is causally complete. It’s fairies that a pumping blood through my heart. Just because we’ve never seen evidence of fairies doesn’t mean they don’t exist!

    This is nothing more than a prettied up version of the argument from ignorance. What bullshit.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:46 am | Permalink

      Indeed. What theory IS causally incomplete? One might as well say that there is always room for God to tinker with everything in the cosmos, so you can’t rule out subtle theistic interactions. But one can’t rule out fairies in your car engine, either.

      This is all designed to convince CHRISTIANS that their faith is compatible with science. But remember, it’s far more than just Sober’s “fundamentalists” who won’t be convinced: 29% of Catholics, for example, are straight ex nihilo creationists, despite the fact that even their own Vatican accepts evolution.

      And will the faithful read Sober’s papers on this? He should be going out in public and giving this message.

      • Christian
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:57 am | Permalink

        And especially spell out what kind of god he means and that it is quite different from the concept even some sophisticated believers hold.

        If he doesn’t stress this point repeatedly then most believers will just hear:

        blah blah.. God… mumblemumble.. compatible with science… blah…

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

          Like a dog in a Gary Larson cartoon?

      • Tulse
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:26 am | Permalink

        One might as well say that there is always room for God to tinker with everything in the cosmos, so you can’t rule out subtle theistic interactions. But one can’t rule out fairies in your car engine, either.

        Yep, this is why I think Sober’s argument is at best irrelevant, and at worse disingenuous. When the argument essentially covers all of science, and the supernatural entities it could involve are by no means limited to one particular sect, it is dishonest to say the argument is about evolution and the Christian God.

      • Andrew
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        But why limit god to simply tinkering with mutation rates. Why not suppose that god created all living things in their current form and then created all the ‘evidence’ for evolution in order to fool us? Why not suppose that god willed the universe into creation five minutes ago and created all the ‘evidence’ that it is 13 billion years old?

        The problem with his position is that when you introduce a omnipotent entity with limitless magical powers and the ability to completely fool and deceive us, our understanding of reality completely falls apart. There is nothing we can say to confidently describe a universe with such a being mucking around in it. This is different from science’s normal admission of ignorance, because we have a reliable method for lessening that ignorance: scientific skepticism. With god, there is no such hope.

        • Tulse
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          That’s the problem — once one allows miracles, at any level, the possibility of science pretty much goes out the door, since no empirical observation is then reliable.

        • Sajanas
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

          Which goes back to my main criticism for some strands of philosophy. If you can’t show that the world, as it is, exists at all, what good is it?

      • Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        I thought general relativity theory was causally complete.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:22 am | Permalink

          “Causally complete” is a philosophical invention, as Andrew notes exactly equivalent to allowing an argument from ignorance. Physics is causal in the special relativistic sense.

          General relativity is famous for _not_ being globally causal in itself. You can find solutions with wormholes that makes causally closed loops et cetera.

          If you put it into standard cosmology a lot of those problems disappear. You can’t have global energy in GR, so energy conditions doesn’t help you to remove unphysical solutions. Time machines are not locally causally forbidden in standard cosmology but globally forbidden. IIRC a physicist described it as [time machine works once] “and then the universe implodes”.

          Also, in Sober’s philosophy GR doesn’t tell you where particle mass comes from. He seem to want a circular Theory Of Everything. Perhaps because he knows that such doesn’t work in philosophy, so he can keep his gods in a plaint that it is (good empiricism but) bad philosophy.

          • Posted May 18, 2012 at 4:54 am | Permalink

            Dunno half as much physics than you do, but why not turn the problem into a law and claim an uncertainty principle for knowledge so that one cannot maximise scientific knowledge and ‘religious knowledge’ (=faith) at the same time?

            It’s a joke :-)

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

        Dr. Coyne:

        If I’m not mistaken, you wanted to begin your reply “Indeed. What theory IS *NOT* causally incomplete?

        I was going to mention Occam’s Razor here, but I see a couple of people beat me to it in the long thread that follows. I really think that “fairies in the car’s engine” is an apt response to the possibility of supernatural hidden variables.

    • couchloc
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      “If he thinks that the possibility of supernatural causes leads to a theory not being causally complete, then there is nothing that is causally complete.”

      You are not reading Sober carefully. This is not his point. He writes that

      “I hope you’ll agree that evolutionary theory says nothing about whether determinism is true; the theory leaves open that there may be hidden variables. It therefore leaves open that there may be supernatural hidden variables.”

      It is the possibility of *physical* hidden variables that leads to the theory not being causally complete. This point is independent of the issue of supernatural variables.

      • Tulse
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        Is there any scientific theory that, in principle, has no possibility of hidden variables? Isn’t Sober’s point true of all of science, and thus trivial?

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

          Yes, and Sober admits as much in his reply. He says he only referred to evolution because there are so many “theistic opponents of evolutionary theory”, while other fields of knowledge tend to be less obviously opposed by believers in this or that fantasy.

          • Tulse
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

            If that’s true, and Sober knows it, he is being profoundly intellectually disingenuous, irresponsible, and dishonest.

          • gluonspring
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

            And this is the real story, isn’t it? Lots of people ARE opposed to evolution and not general relativity. Why is that? Sober seems to believe it’s because they think that evolution rules out the mere logical possibility of God. I doubt if there is a single believer who holds this view. Not even one. People oppose evolution not because it logically rules out some kind of vague Deism. People oppose evolution for very obvious and non-subtle reasons: evolution contradicts the Bible narrative on the history of life, on our special place. The surface story of Darwinian evolution, one of vast time, gradual change, and colossal waste of life, not the deep philosophy of science of it, is a threat to most ordinary Christian beliefs.

            There is a pretty big con afoot here too, an attempt to redefine what evolution means for biologists. It is the very essence of modern evolutionary theory that the changes that happen are, in fact, goal-less. Sober raises the possibility of hidden goals, but that would be a different theory about what is happening, one that biologists do not accept. The Catholic church has perpetuated this con to. “The church accepts evolution”, except that they don’t. They accept some kind of theistic evolution, at least as regards to man, and so reject the theory as it is understood by science. We should not play along and give them so much credit. I think it is false to say the Catholic church “accepts evolution”, and we shouldn’t give them the credit.

            • ivo
              Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

              Agree. Well said.

        • couchloc
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

          Sober is making a point about probabilistic theories like evolution (and putting aside quantum mechanics). If there are true, deterministic theories they are not affected by his arguments.

          “But you are right that my argument applies to probabilistic theories generally (setting aside for now the possibility that quantum mechanics is a special case).”

          • Tulse
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

            Sober is making a point about probabilistic theories [...] deterministic theories they are not affected by his arguments

            Why not? Why is the claim about hidden variables limited to probabilistic theories?

            And, to be clear, the “probabilistic/deterministic” distinction is merely a matter of degree, not kind. We think of computers as being deterministic, but their operation can be influenced by outside sources (such as gamma rays randomly flipping the bits in a register). Likewise, evolutionary theory is only “probabilistic” because of our current epistemic limitations — in principle it is as deterministic as chemistry (which, essentially, it ultimately is).

            In other words, Sober’s argument is no more than a restatement of the god of the gaps.

      • Tom
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:46 am | Permalink

        There is always a possibility of *physical* hidden variables. It is only Occam’s Razor that means we do not consider them.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

          Occam’s Razor is only one reason we might not want to consider them, another is that they are bad explanations.

        • Kevin
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

          If there were a hidden variable, then you have to look at it this way. Evolution is either:

          1) Genetic changes that lead to phenotypic variation in a population which is then sorted according to the differential survivability of one or more of those variants within a specific population.

          or

          2) Genetic changes that lead to phenotypic variation in a population which is then sorted according to the differential survivability of one or more of those variants within a specific population. Because god wanted it that way.

          The hidden variable is superfluous. It adds nothing to the explanation that isn’t already there.

          In addition, in this case, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is true.

          I will again point out that the vitamin C pseudogene is proof positive against an interventionist god with an intention to “tweak” evolution in order to arrive at humans.

          • gillt
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

            I will again point out that the vitamin C pseudogene is proof positive against an interventionist god with an intention to “tweak” evolution in order to arrive at humans.

            Unless there was adaptive advantage among genuine pigs and primates to lose the ability to metabolize ascorbic acid. Hypotheses have been advanced.

            Johnson RJ, Andrews P, Benner SA, Oliver W (2010). “Theodore E. Woodward award. The evolution of obesity: insights from the mid-Miocene

            • gluonspring
              Posted May 17, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

              Ha! So many things are possible!

              Personally, I think God is working on the Beetles, He is so obviously fond of them, and he’s tinkered with our lineage only to set us on a self-destruct path to clear out more space for them. The plan seems to be working!

              Sometimes when I watch people react to the evidence for evolution, they seem like the frogger video game character. Ohhh… here comes a big damning piece of evidence… hop hop hop… ohhh.. now you’re in the path of a different damning piece of evidence… hop hop hop…

              Surely, I think, the little frog must know he’s going to get smushed eventually. ;-)

      • DV
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        You’re reading Sober unduly charitably. His main point was supernatural hidden variables.

        >>My point in saying this is not to suggest that we should believe in supernatural hidden variables. The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this.

        [...]

        You ask why this is a “serious and important philosophical question.” One reason is that many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between a theory’s being true and its being causally complete”

        By “this” he clearly means “supernatural hidden variables”.

        • couchloc
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:00 am | Permalink

          Um, I think you’re quoting Sober out of context here. Go back and look at Jerry’s previous post where he said he sent a letter to Sober. In that context (which is what Sober is replying to) there is no mention in Jerry’s paragraph about supernatural hidden variables. The “this” Sober is referring to refers to the statement in Jerry’s earlier post.

          The statement Andrew attributes to Sober (and which Jerry approves of) is nowhere in Sober’s article (let’s see evidence of this if you think so). Nowhere does Sober state “the possibility of supernatural causes leads to a theory not being causally complete.” Everyone here is criticizing Sober for a view he’s never defended, which doesn’t seem very productive to me, but you’re free to do this if you want I guess (!??). Sober has clearly stated that *physically* hidden variables are sufficient to make a theory causally incomplete and that this issue is independent of supernatural hidden variables. The problem of hidden variables is not itself a supernatural thesis I take it.

          • DV
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

            This was Jerry’s question:

            >>1. Can you demonstrate that the logical compatibility of a rarely-acting God with evolutionary biology is a serious and important philosophical question?<>You ask why this is a “serious and important philosophical question.” <>One reason is that many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between a theory’s being true and its being causally complete.<>Sober has clearly stated that *physically* hidden variables are sufficient to make a theory causally incomplete and that this issue is independent of supernatural hidden variables.<<

            you are being unduly charitable. I maintain that his main point is the supernatural.

            • DV
              Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

              oh crap. my attempt at quote inlining messed up my response – portions were left out.

              oh well, not inclined to re-type. i’ll leave it as is.

          • Dan L.
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

            From the paper:

            The theory is
            consistent with there being hidden variables, natural or supernatural.

            You said:

            Sober has clearly stated that *physically* hidden variables are sufficient to make a theory causally incomplete and that this issue is independent of supernatural hidden variables.

            I’m not arguing, but I’d appreciate if you would post the exact quote you’re referring to.

            • Dan L.
              Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

              Incidentally, I don’t see what the big deal is. Can you even describe to me the difference between supernatural and natural hidden variables?

            • couchloc
              Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

              You can just reread my first reply to Andrew above for the text. If we interpret Sober as claiming (with Andrew) that supernatural causes lead to a theory’s not being causally complete, we’re back to the “familiar point” that scientific theories are always compatible with the existence of God, which Sober explicitly mentions in the paper and then *puts aside* to focus on other concerns around probabilistic theories and evolution. People here are arguing against a general thesis which is not really Sober’s concern.

              • Notagod
                Posted May 17, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

                we’re back to the “familiar point” that scientific theories are always compatible with the existence of God

                No they aren’t. Almost all god-ideas (God) aren’t compatible with scientific theories, as an example all christian gods are incompatible.

      • eric
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

        Science can certainly conclude that the variables we know about causally explain the vast majority of the phenomena we observe. In this case; mutations are overwhelmingly unguided (as far as we can detect), so God’s role – or some hidden physical variable’s role – in the evolutionary process must be incredibly small.

        So I think the theists who are concerned (that evolutionary theory leaves no role for God) have a right to be. Prof. Sober wants to view causal completeness as a sort of binary trait, and point out that the TOE isn’t causally complete. Okay. But a better description of causal completeness is as a scale; a binary description doesn’t really capture the different amounts of completeness a theory may have. On that scale, the TOE seems mostly complete, and the “God’s role” marker is, as best we can tell, pretty damn close to zero.

        Put another way, these hypothetical theists who are disturbed by the thought that God might have “no role” in evolution, are very likely using the term “no role” in a colloquial sense, to mean “no significant role.” They aren’t using the term to in the formal logical sense of “exactly and only zero role.” In the colloquial sense, they are arguably right, and Sober is arguably wrong.

      • Dan L.
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        couchloc, DV pointed out a quote from Sober which pretty clearly contradicts you here:

        My point in saying this is not to suggest that we should believe in supernatural hidden variables. The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this.

        • couchloc
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

          I reply to DV above.

  6. Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    An abject lesson in how to deftly/daftly side-step three crystal-clear and vital enquiries.

    Scientists: 1
    Philosphers: nil

  7. Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    I agree with Sober on the God/theism distinction, but when believers see reports from philosophers that evolution does not disprove god, they interpret that as evolution doesn’t disprove their god, so care is needed when making these accommodationist statements.

    Mine is to try to persuade religious people that science and theism can be reconciled. This probably won’t work for many fundamentalists, but I think it may have some chance of working for many other religious people.

    This really doesn’t seem sensible to me, because reconciling science and theism is surely impossible. Why? For a start, which theism? Next, when would this reconciliation stop? Science continues on apace with more new discoveries closing down the space for each theism every year. There would have to be a constant back-tracking reconciliation going on, which is impractical as well as sily. Then, what does reconciling science and theism mean to a liberal theist? Such theists are still open to the possibility that a god is tinkering with the world around us. Where does that belief in the tinkering stop? Well, it’s arbitrary where it stops, so one may just as well be a fundamental theist as a liberal theist.

    No, much the easier, more sensible and more efficient method in the long run, in my opinion, is surely to admit that they do not reconcile, because one is about narrowing down on what is true, for the benefit of all, and the other is about widening out what is true, to the detriment of all.

    • J
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      I think this is an important point. By using the term ‘God’ (with a capital G) this automatically associates the concept with the Judeo-Christian deity, with all the supposed character qualities that come with it. Evolutionary theory may well be compatible with an impartial tinker god (or perhaps even not impartial if it nudged outcomes towards the emergence of humans, which raises all sorts of questions about why it took such a strange route…), but is this a god that would provide any meaning in people’s lives? I would imagine that many theistic evolutionists would be hoping for more from a god, but if that type of ‘meaningful’ deity is not the one that Sober claims to reconcile with evolutionary theory on behalf of theistic evolutionists then Jerry’s 1st point has not received a satisfactory answer in my opinion.

      • Tulse
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

        Evolutionary theory may also not rule out Osiris, or yazata, or Dažbog, or Shub-Niggurath.

        It is a rhetorical cheat by Sober to label the entity/s covered by the argument “God”. And I’m inclined to believe this is an intentional cheat, given his emphasis on the political and propagandistic nature of the argument.

        • Christian
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

          No way! When Einstein or Hawking used the word “God” everyone knew exactly what they meant. [/sarc]

      • gluonspring
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        Indeed, it is a glaring cheat and highlights that the paper is intended as a kind of propaganda rather than as scholarship.

        Any serious philosophy paper about the “logical possibility” of a supernatural entity intervening in natural circumstances should be required to use either varied names for this entity (YHWH, Ahura Mazda, Allah, Baal, Cthulhu, Tinker Bell) to highlight the arbitrary nature of such a supposition, or they should perhaps coin a technical term for the “generic, unknown, supernatural supposition”. Using the heavily loaded “God” should be grounds for automatic rejection of such a paper as a philosophy contribution, though it might find a home in a theology journal.

        • eric
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

          IOW, they should instead be arguing about the existence of GUS. :)

  8. Brad
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    I think this is an interesting response, but only insofar as one is debating what can be included within “evolutionary theory” per se.

    However, evolutionary theory is just one way of carving nature at its joints. For example, organic chemistry is a branch of physical science of which natural selection is a very small part, and at the molecular atomic level, *completely indistinguishable* from other organic processes that have nothing to do with evolution as we know it.

    In other words, if one could somehow look “up” at the physical world from the chemical level, there would be no way to distinguish the evolution of DNA from the spatio-temporal activity of other molecules.

    My sense is that evolution by natural selection is intelligible only to those creatures capable of understanding what “information” is. Otherwise, the replication of DNA seems completely random.

    If we can accept the idea that evolution is a mere twig of a much much larger physical reality, and that it is not necessarily the only way of thinking about biochemistry, then the philosopher *does* have to necessarily extend the logical possibility of God influencing **every** molecular-chemical-atomic process. Evolution isn’t special.

    • Posted May 17, 2012 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      Right. Organic chemists know that under conditions thus and so, reactions of such and such a form produce such and such proportions of products. Sober is committed to saying it is “logically possible” that something modifies these proportions to favour keytones over aldehydes (say) in one reaction scheme or other. But this not being self-contradictorially described is pretty weak gruel.

      Alternatively, one could play this at the nuclear physics level – which I take it is the bull surrounding “fine tuning” of the (say) triple alpha process.

      But notice there we have a curious asymmetry. Nuclear physics sounds fundamental, and life sounds important, so people put in gods of the gaps in those places. Yet, since nobody much worries about the proportions of aldehydes and keytones …

  9. Christian
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    But are these religious people aware what kind of god they end up with?
    If this deity exists and isn’t just a deistic god but interacts with the universe, then he does this so subtly that he can safely hide below the noise floor.
    In other words, this god doesn’t want to reveal himself so there is no rational reason to assume his existence.

    It seems the only way believers can “detect” such a god is with their “hyperactive agency detector” antenna plugged into their “promiscuous teleology” amplifier.

    I think if Sober spells out more clearly what kind of god these theists have to settle with and if he emphasizes this point more forcefully then I’m sure the chance that it works for many of these other religious people would decrease dramatically.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      A terrific post!

  10. Chris
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    We’re still missing any mechanism, which is a fairly important aspect to the whole issue…

    • Christian
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      Midichlorians ;)

      • mandrellian
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

        The farce is strong in this one.

  11. Tim
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Several commenters on the previous thread pointed out that the incompleteness of which Sober appears to be little more than fodder for theistic special pleading. I still see no reason why saying ‘we can’t rule out mutations being caused by god’ is any more philosophically respectable or important than saying that we can’t rule out that some lightening storms are caused by Thor and that lightening strikes that cause forest fires were those which were maliciously misdirected by Loki.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      That’s another important observation. The point is that we shouldn’t even be concerned with the question of whether we can rule something out (which, logically, we never can), but whether we should want to rule it out because it is a bad explanation that cannot contribute to the growth of knowledge anyway (see the same link).

      All your fantasies are fine, as long as you use them to generate beautiful language, scholastic mental exercise, or just hilarity (intentional or otherwise). But as soon as you pretend to a certain explanatory power, or a connection to objective knowledge, your fantasies are most likely shit out of luck and science takes over.

      • eric
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        Fantasies can enter into legitimate science as hypothesis-generators. Its perfectly fine to generate a hypothesis from a dream about a snake, or an apple hitting you on the head, or while sitting in a bathtub….or from some holy book.

        What you can’t (or shouldn’t) do, however, is mistake your hypothesis-generator for either evidence or a test of that hypothesis. Its neither. (And just to be clear, this is an aside and has nothing to do with Sober’s claims)

  12. Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    again, it seems that those who want to think that there is some magical force in the universe, must resort to trying to redefine the term god so it isn’t so ridiculous. Thus we have Sober insisting that there really could be somethign that does nothing and has no evidenec for it but oh golly it really could be there. Just one more teapot to add to the collection.

    There is no way to reconcile science which requires evidence and hard work; and theism which requires one to redefine things until they have no meaning and which has no evidence to support it at all.

  13. Steve Smith
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    you are right that my argument applies to probabilistic theories generally (setting aside for now the possibility that quantum mechanics is a special case) … many smart people apparently don’t understand the difference between a theory’s being true and its being causally complete.

    This is a confused response. Every fact and observation about evolution is rooted in physics, specifically quantum electrodynamics. You cannot bring hidden variables into evolution and then pretend you haven’t also brought them into QED, with all the technical challenges this presents. Sober’s response is an transparenty unsuccessful attempt to shift the goalpost.

  14. Sigmund
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    “setting aside for now the possibility that quantum mechanics is a special case”
    I don’t think it is acceptable to distinguish quantum mechanics from the physics of biological evolution. Many mutations, the driving force for producing new variety, come from DNA damage caused by radioisotopic decay. This renders individual base changes entirely unpredictable.

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      If you want to believe that God is (historically at least) tweaking evolution there is no need to get involved in the physics of mutations. God could just appear, as an old bearded guy, here and there during life’s history. He could go out with his godly net, bag a few animals, haul them to his lab, make a key germ-line mutation, much as researchers do routinely now with fruit flies, then release them back into the wild, subtly improved in directions he foresees will ultimately lead to US. Obviously he’d have to do many iterations of this, but hey, he’s got time and patience! After a few hundreds of millions of additional catch-and-release events, good old wonderful US would emerge out of the mists, incrementally constructed out of inserted mutations that would be indistinguishable form the random mutations that happen as well. This could have happened, and we’d be none the wiser. You don’t even have to posit some sub-atomic mechanism or fiddling with quantum mechanics. He could just stomp around the planet doing it the same way we would if given that onerous task.

      Similarly, one can not logically rule out that aliens from some other planet have done just this. Perhaps aliens came to Earth, spent eons capturing, genetically modifying, and then releasing certain animals back into the wild. So long as they made tiny changes that would look no different than mutations, a base change here, a gene duplication there, and avoided give-aways like the sudden insertion of a whole regulatory pathway, and so long as they cleaned up after themselves and didn’t bury their dead or leave spaceships around for us to find, we would be none the wiser.

      Intervention in the physics of mutations is only needed if you want to account for all mutations via God (aliens, Tinker Bell, whomever), or want God to be busy influencing biology now. If you merely wish to believe in some tinkering with life’s history, such tinkering could be very grossly executed. An omniscient God with a rifle could probably have a significant effect.

      The range of stories that *could* have happened, and left the same evidence we see now, is vast. The question of what is logically possible is the weakest form of question one can ask. A better question is what reason do we have to favor one logically possible story over another?

  15. Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    It’s a good response for context but seems to gloss over many important points that he doesn’t seem to advertise. For example, it limits the types of gods to are very narrow, and largely impotent, class of powers. Such a being would have to be statistically limited to be indistinguishable from a random number generator. While we could speak in terms of such a being having “supernatural” powers, it requires only the intelligence of the wind. Occam’s razor essentially means these types of gods aren’t even worth talking about. Frankly, it is less impressive than Strongbad’s superpower (from the old Homestarrunner online cartoons) in which he could open bottle caps with his mind.

    I also think it is important to note he is talking about a god, not God. The capital-G God is the proper name used to describe the Judeo-Christian god, and he has ruled out he is talking about that particular god.

    As for the topic of evidence against gods, he is correct that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but fails to address that there is significant evidence that there is no need for a god, that the concept is largely contradictory to the point of defining gods as unintelligent things like random functions, that the concepts of gods exploit evolved cognitive functions in the face of insufficent explanatory information, and that there is historical evidence of the evolution of the concepts of gods.

    Essentially he is arguing for Sagan’s dragon in his garage or Russell’s orbiting teacup, or at least that we can’t rule them out. This is a topic well covered and he ignores that history and evidence in favour of accommodationism based on any imagined concept we can’t rule out. He doesn’t speak to the reasonableness at all.

    • lamacher
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      … absence of evidence is, in fact, evidence of absence when such evidence should, in all reasonableness (awkward word!), be present. This modification of the trope is forgotten – or conveniently left out – by most apologists when they use it.

  16. Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Could someone who smarter than I am explain why this “causally complete” concept is really a type of making room for “God in the Gaps”?

    Seriously, one could argue that Jesus fiddles with the uncertainty relation here and there if we wanted to.

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

      Yes, I know, a theory (such as evolution) might have structural gaps that can never be “casually complete” (e. g., why this mutation and not that one? can’t the Flying Spaghetti Monster really be behind the so-called “randomness” of the mutations?) and “God in the Gaps” refers more to stuff that can be eventually filled in…but to me these ideas seem very similar.

      • gluonspring
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

        As similar as H2O and water.

  17. andreschuiteman
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    ‘My point in saying this is not to suggest that we should believe in supernatural hidden variables. The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this. You ask why this is worth saying. The reason is that many theistic opponents of evolutionary theory think that accepting the theory forces one to be an atheist.’

    I does force you to be an atheist about the god of the Bible and many other gods who are not careful enough to work within the limits of statistical error.

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I like the category of gods who are careful to work within the limits of statistical error. Potentially all powerful, save that one constraint! There needs to be a catchy term for the category of statistical error gods or causal completeness gods.

      • andreschuiteman
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        How about ‘marginal gods’?

        • gluonspring
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

          I like that. A catchy phrase is worth a lot, pedagogically.

      • Tulse
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        There needs to be a catchy term for the category of statistical error gods

        I think the term is “non-significant”.

      • Posted May 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        “Sober’s dæmons”

        /@

        • gbjames
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          Excellent. This one gets my vote!

        • gluonspring
          Posted May 17, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

          +1

  18. Caroline52
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    Prof. Sober, I know I’m not alone in appreciating your willingness to answer Jerry’s three questions, but I wish you had addressed them point by point–because in fact I believe you avoid answering his core objection. You say,

    “This is why I find statements like “there is strong scientific evidence that shows that God does not exist” unsatisfactory; the claim is correct for some concepts of God but not for others.”

    But crucially, you don’t say what “concepts of God” you think the claim is not correct for. I suspect they are the same concepts of God that, as Jerry says in his post yesterday on Victor Stenger’s HuffPo article, “is found only among well-fed theologians and extremely liberal believers.” As to those “concepts of God,” Jerry quotes Stenger as saying,

    “While supernatural entities may not be directly observable, any effects these entities might have on the material world should manifest themselves as observable phenomena of the natural world…if the supernatural has no observable effects on the natural world, then why even worry about it.”

    This is the core of Jerry’s criticism of your presentation. I think he’s saying, in effect, that your presentation is what Dan Dennett calls a “deepity” – a proposition that is designed to feel profound while being empty of meaning. Dennett’s example is “Love is just a word.” He explains that a “deepity” has this effect because it can be interpreted in two ways, one of which is obviously false, but if true it would be earth-shattering, and the other of which is obviously true, but trivial. (See Dennett’s talk, The Evolution of Confusion, at the 2009 AAI Conference, on YouTube.)

    Your presentation is a “deepity” in Dennett’s sense because many people hearing it will vaguely sense that it sort of may mean, “my personal theistic god guides evolution in ways that matter — ways that have an impact on our lives” — even though this would be an incorrect interpretation of what you say (I expect you’d agree) – while the correct interpretation of what you say (it is logically possible that a supernatural entity guides evolution without having any effect that can ever be observed on the natural world) may be true, but if so, it’s trivial.

    That you avoid saying, in your answer to Jerry, exactly what “concepts of God” his statement doesn’t apply to, may be why some of us, with all due respect, get the impression you are only giving this presentation for political reasons, or — forgive me — but as someone earlier implied, because the Templeton Foundation pays well.

    We might be more satisfied with your answer if you would be willing to correct this omission and specify to what “concepts of God” your thesis is relevant.

    Thank you again, though, for the kind courtesy of your response.

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      An excellent explanation. I think you’ve very clearly laid bare the reason that most of us here are uncomfortable with Prof. Sober’s approach: it seems deliberately constructed to pander to certain political interests, perhaps at some expense to its intellectual integrity.

  19. R. Lee Bays
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m not getting it, but is he defining “god” as “all that we do not yet know?” and then saying because science does not yet have the answer, then “god” as the answer is still plausible?

  20. Steve Smith
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    My point in saying this is not to suggest that we should believe in supernatural hidden variables.  The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this.

    Sober is flatly incorrect incorrect here. No less than R.A. Fisher wrote explicitly about why a god cannot guide evolution or design by tweaking mutations: because the designer’s efforts would be rendered “futile and inoperative” by evolution:

    If we imagine, then, some extra-natural agency endeavouring to influence the organic evolution of mammals and birds by the production, on millions of different occasions, of this single mutation, we can recognise that its efforts were futile and inoperative. —R.A. Fisher, Creative Aspects of Natural Law

    Paraphrasing Fisher’s point: “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Given the way evolution works, any supernatural designer is doomed with the Sisyphean task of constantly tweaking genetics to achieve their supernatural goal, which is exactly the same reason we don’t see packs of chihuahuas hunting in the tundra.

    Trivially, it is logically possible that some trickster god is simply projecting onto our (my) brain all scientific observations, which what Sober’s argument amounts to. But this is not a serious epistemological question.

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      isher’s point, and your point about chihuahuas, only applies if the tweaks aren’t an adaptive benefit, if some god is having to push us through a fitness valley to get us to some goal on the other side. Natural selection will quickly wash away any non-adaptive mutations inserted into a population, that is true. An adaptive mutation, on the other hand, will stick, and so isn’t Sisyphean. A chihuahua is a collection of adaptations that are of benefit in only one extremely narrow ecosystem… the ecosystem of human pet owners who like that sort of thing. In every other ecosystem, a chihuahua is a collection of maladaptive tweaks that won’t last long. Ergo, there are no feral bands of chihuahuas.

      I don’t know the full context of Fisher’s comment, but taken alone as a general comment about the futility of actively inserting mutations it strikes me as trivially wrong. Evolution itself occurs from the insertion of slightly adaptive mutations. Those mutations happen to have occurred randomly, but they need not have. How the mutation came about is irrelevant to nature. There is no special bias in nature against intentional mutations. There is no reason that, if we knew enough to really understand what mutations are favorable (and I am sure we do not) we couldn’t go out into the wild and insert mutations into, say, Zebras that would improve the Zebra’s reproductive success and increase the frequency of this artificially inserted allele in the Zebra population. The only way this couldn’t be true is if one feels that the Zebra population is already perfected, that they sit at a global maximum of fitness from which any possible change is a disadvantage. While that is certainly possible, it is very unlikely. The mutation space is vast. It is not possible that the Zebra line has explored even an infinitesimal fraction of the space of mutations. So they would have to be lucky indeed to be sitting on the global maximum.

      Perhaps I am missing something here? If so, enlighten me.

      None of these comments are meant in support of Sober’s specious thesis, however. The fact that one *could* insert favorable mutations into some population, and get them to stick, is no argument that such a thing has ever happened, or that one should bother to spend time even imagining the possibility.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:10 am | Permalink

        Part of a comment of mine above touches on this:

        “That mutations are unguided is a more serious problem for agnostics than Sober allows for. Only a relatively very fit mutation would have some likelihood to fixate in a population, drift strikes down many or most of them I think. So “guidance” is contingent environment and chance, needing repetitions at best and being impossible vs a set goal in other cases.”

        I guess we agree on the last part though. Possibilities vs likelihoods is a philosophic bait-and-switch game.

      • Steve Smith
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        An adaptive mutation, on the other hand, will stick, and so isn’t Sisyphean.

        Then there is no role for god in evolution because it is selection that determines the outcome, not god, which is Fisher’s point: a god must fight against selection to achieve its goal, and that is “futile”.

      • gillt
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        Ergo, there are no feral bands of chihuahuas.

        There are feral packs of dogs, and they behave much differently than wolf packs, coyote packs or jackal packs in similar environs (on the fringes of human habitation).

        Dog breeds are the result of guided mutations and they can carry along fine outside the original environment.

        Which makes your following point that we could insert mutations into zebras that would increase their reproductive success, just as we have done with pest resistant crops and salmon.

        The case against Sober here is if one takes an honest assessment of all the junk in the human genome, the functionally irrelevant accumulated detritus, and compares that with the streamlined fugu fish genome, one must conclude that we’ve been bowing down to the wrong image and likeness this whole time.

    • gillt
      Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      This why I said God has to have many other roles besides mutagenic agent, as Sober implies.

  21. Peter Beattie
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    At any level below the surface, Sober’s answer remains pretty unsatisfactory. He starts off by differentiating between two kinds of ‘god’, let’s call them god A and god B:

    If by “God” you mean a being who separately created species within the last 50,000 years, then I am an atheist. [A] But sometimes when people tell me what they mean by “God,” their answer makes me doubt that science could ever provide evidence about whether such a being exists. [B]

    So one would expect it to be fair to say (why else would Sober make the distinction, after all?) that the god science cannot disprove is not type A but type B. But then Sober talks about the people he is trying to win over to support science when he says:

    The point is that evolutionary theory is silent about this. You ask why this is worth saying. The reason is that many theistic opponents of evolutionary theory think that accepting the theory forces one to be an atheist.

    The thing is, these “theistic opponents of evolutionary theory” mostly believe in a type A god. So Sober seems rather obviously to have fallen prey to an equivocation on ‘god’ here.

    Besides, is it really any surprise that Sober’s type A god has characteristics, while his type B god doesn’t? As he describes it, even his type B god simply gives you leave to make it up as you go along, with the only discernible reason being to allow people to have their fantasies and eat their science too. And that when any understanding of science stresses that it is a tool for making sure you are not chasing fantasies of your own making. If you don’t understand that, your ostensible ‘support of science’ amounts to nothing more than giving lip-service to certain findings of science.

    And finally, it would be the job of philosophers of science to point out that nothing can force you to accept any specific conclusion, only to make a choice. That’s why the whole enterprise of science (which I use interchangeably with ‘the quest for objective knowledge’) rests on a methodological decision: not to take the easy way out that would allow you to keep clinging to your fantasies.

    • Tulse
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      “If by “God” you mean a being who separately created species within the last 50,000 years, then I am an atheist.”

      But why? Surely a supernatural being could have created the world 6,000 years ago and made it look old — how is that power any different in principle than supernaturally tinkering with nucleotides. In both cases, it seems, science can’t absolutely positively rule out the possibility empirically.

      Once you have an argument that says miracles can happen, the implications are very far-reaching, much farther than Sober seems to realize (or at least acknowledge).

      • DV
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Clearly Sober has not thought out clearly enough the implication of his argument.

      • Peter Beattie
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        » Tulse:
        In both cases, it seems, science can’t absolutely positively rule out the possibility empirically.

        Because nothing can ever be “absolutely positively ruled out”, not even in logic. That’s why science is about making choices between rival explanations, which in turn is why we strive to make these choices as stark as possible (and the explanations as good, i.e. as hard to vary, as possible), so as to give empirical evidence ample opportunity to force (at least) one of them into a contradiction. (And even accepting that your explanations must not be contradictory, neither to themselves nor to the evidence, is just another decision you have to make—if you are interested in objective knowledge.)

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

          We don’t need to be splitting hairs to reply to Sober, but I note that science can “absolutely positively rule out [possibilities] empirically” as long as you mean absolutely within the relative context that empiricism sets up. Say, if something is found to be less frequent than the expected lifetime of observers in the universe we can realistically “absolutely positively” expect it won’t happen.

          There are by now many no-go results as well as “go” results. For the latter I am thinking of Carroll’s claim that everyday physics is completely known and realistically that this physics won’t be reverted (since there are no remaining competitors, for one).

          As for the presumed decisions described here (“not … easy way”, “not … contradictory”) it is an agent type shorthand similar to ones used in evolution. What really happens is that science works, and its community leaves “easy” and “contradictory” ideas at the roadside. It is a consequence of the process, not hinging on decisions by individuals.

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Nice!

      /@

  22. rhetoric
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    “But sometimes when people tell me what they mean by “God,” their answers makes me doubt that science could ever provide evidence about whether such a being exists.”

    Wow. Stopped reading here.

    You can’t prove that the universe isn’t controlled by tiny elephant-tigers living in the right pocket of my jeans, either. Why the constant pandering to people who are just making up belief systems so they can sleep better at night?

  23. David T.
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    I recently read Russell’s Religion and Science and the thing which stuck out the most to me were Luther and Calvin’s quotes on the Copernican Theory:

    Luther — “This fool[Copernicus] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth”.

    Calvin — “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”

    Anyways, reading these quotes reminds me so much of the current Young Earth Creationism fad, you’d think that theologians would learn, sort of like the Catholic Church has from the Giallo scandal, but sadly they haven’t. Eventually I think this ignorance is going to drive much of the younger generation away. We laugh now at Luther’s response about the earth not moving, we’ll laugh later at the ignorance of the YEC, I just don’t see why it has to be this way. Will they ever learn?

    As for his reply:
    “Second, we differ about what the best strategy is for protecting evolutionary biology and science more generally from religion. Your strategy is to attack religion. Mine is to try to persuade religious people that science and theism can be reconciled. ”

    I fall somewhat into this category and agree with him (although this is all personal opinion and I’ll freely admit that I might be wrong). I still believe that once they start to accept evolution, eventually they’ll realize that god is an unnecessary factor into the equation, but you first have to get them to open up to the possibly of evolution.

  24. jimvj
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.

    Two centuries later this unnecessary “cause” is still being floated? Why not more imaginative – and equally imaginary – causes.

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      An uncreated consciousness, perhaps?

      /@

  25. Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    ” It therefore leaves open that there may be supernatural hidden variables. ”

    I’ll take “methodological naturalism” for $1000 Alex. Which is of course distinct from philosophical naturalism.

  26. Kevin
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    There are no hidden variables. Everything I’ve studied and read about quantum mechanics has come to this conclusion.

    Sorry, but on that point alone, your argument is indefensible.

    I agree with you that the “which god” question is extremely important. But surely then, you can agree that when you make pronouncements about “God” in a highly Christian country that is filled with fundamentalists and which controls a large part of one of the two political parties, it is incumbent upon you to state this fact clearly? Because when they hear you said “god”, they interpret that to mean “Yahweh and his baby boy Jesus”.

    I said in earlier comments that an incompetent god, or a malicious one, or an uncaring god is conceivable given the evidence. But the god that the vast majority of your listeners believe in is not that god. And so, by omitting the upfront qualifier that you’re not talking about their god but a deistic god concept, you’re in effect engaging in an egregious lie. It’s a sin of omission.

    I think you could have done much, much better. And I think you do disservice to every scientist and every friend of science and reason when you play fast and loose with the most-critical element of your argument. That being your definition of god.

    • lamacher
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Absolutely! +2.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. This is the point Richard Dawkins makes On page 15 of the second edition of “The God Delusion.” Criticized by those who who adhere to “sophisticated theology,” he remarks: “If only such subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would surely be a better place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is that this kind of understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible. To the vast majority of believers around the world, religion all too closely resembles what you hear from the likes of Robertson, Falwell, or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or the Ayatollah Khomeini. These are not straw men, they are all too influential, and everybody in the modern world has to deal with them.”

  27. TJR
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    So there might be supernatural hidden variables whose effects are indistinguishable from random variation? Indeed there might, and I might be a brain in a vat.

    I read Sober’s “absence of evidence” paper which he refers to, and the probability stuff seems OK though I’m not so sure about the biology.

    However, that paper largely takes 20 pages just to say that if we have looked for evidence but not found any then absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence.

    However, if we’ve not looked very hard or the evidence is difficult to find then it may only be a trivial amount of evidence, and absence of evidence is almost never proof of absence. Isn’t this all blindingly obvious?

  28. Stackpole
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Would one of you philosopher/scientists offer an amateur (me) a definition of “casually complete”?

    Thank you.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Causally…not casually.

      In other words, a theory that is completely and 100% inalterable in all respects down to the most-minute detail. A theory that offers perfect predictive power. A theory that is backed up by every single data point ever collected with no variability or probability distributions beyond dead certainty.

      In other words, a theory that doesn’t exist.

      Science doesn’t know everything. However, as Dara O’Briain once said, “Science knows it doesn’t know everything. Otherwise, it would stop.”

  29. ahimsa
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    I’m an Indian, and evolution is not nearly the contentious issue here that it is in the US, but there are still many Indian Hindus (and Christians and Muslims) who don’t accept evolution.

    You say that evolutionary theory is silent about “supernatural hidden variables” and therefore, we should encourage Christians to believe that God may have influenced some (but not all?) mutations, so that more of them can accept evolution. If you were in India, would you make a similar case for Hindus, that they should accept evolution because it may well be that Yama, the lord of Death, has guided deleterious mutations; Vishnu, the preserver, has guided neutral mutations; and Krishna, the god of love and bhakti, has guided the beneficial mutations?

    These things may all well be possibly true, however unlikely – perhaps a single or a pantheon of God(s) have intervened to guide evolution in various ways – but is this something that scientists, or even philosophers of science, should seriously consider in their work? Do they really have a responsibility to emphasize to the public that because evolutionary theory is causally incomplete, it is logically possible that a range of deities or other supernatural beings could have intervened in the workings of evolution?

  30. Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    “But sometimes when people tell me what they mean by “God,” their answers makes me doubt that science could ever provide evidence about whether such a being exists. In this case, I feel obliged to be an agnostic.”

    I would ask Professor Sober if he could please list some of those answers that people gave for what they meant by “God” and which would tend to make him an agnostic.

    • DV
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      I second the challenge.

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      “I would ask Professor Sober if he could please list some of those answers that people gave for what they meant by “God” and which would tend to make him an agnostic.”

      That would be any god who is sufficiently powerful and sufficiently devious to hide all evidence of her existence.

      Those are the kinds of gods that tilt you away from being an atheist (the default position when you’re born) toward believing that theism could be correct.

      I imagine that there are millions of second and third generation atheists in Europe who are going to be converted to agnosticism as soon as Sober, and other leading philosophers, tell them about these gods.

      • Notagod
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

        LOL – your last paragraph.

  31. Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    The theory of evolution doesn’t have to say anything about such a possibility. That’s a result of Parsimony, which is not a theory of science, but an underpinning component to the philosophy of science (and mathematical theorem).

    This has implications for his “causally complete” concern.

    Anyway, I have to argue about flying saucers on the beach with people, you know. And I was interested in this: they keep arguing that it is possible. And that’s true. It is possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it’s possible or not but whether it’s going on or not. — Richard Feynman

  32. Kevin
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    OK, this one has got me riled up. I don’t know why. It’s standard accommodationist fare.

    Aside from Russell’s Teapot and the other arguments already presented here that refute Sober’s theology philosophical argument, there’s this.

    In order for one to believe that there is a supernatural power that directed mutations resulting in humans (which is the core of what we’re talking about), you’d have to believe this.

    1. 13.7 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened, resulting in expansion of a local space-time coherency within the multiverse. This is our universe.
    2. At least two supernova had to occur of stars to create the heavier elements we find on Earth today.
    3. A third star — our sun — was born about 4.7 billion years ago. Let’s reiterate: Two-thirds of the entire existence of the universe passed before our solar system was formed.
    4. Life appeared out of complex carbon molecules almost as soon as it’s environmentally safe for it to do so, and because Earth has a molten iron core that creates a magnetic shield protecting the surface from radiation that would otherwise sterilize the surface.
    5. For some 3 billion years, all life was unicellular.
    6. Multicellular life appears about a half a billion years ago. Worms, sponges, and other weird forms. Eventually chordates, but not until much later in the process.
    7. Two or more “great extinctions” occur, wiping out 90% to 99% of the species that are on the planet at the time.
    8. After the last great extinction (not counting the one we’re in now), a small class of animals known as “mammals” fill ecological niches previously filled by other now-extinct creatures.
    9. After several million years, one of the species within this class developed a bigger brain and began walking upright, freeing its hands from locomotion to other uses (tool making).
    10. Tiny incremental changes over time created creatures with even bigger brains, eventually leading to the taming of fire, mastery of the local environment, development of speech and language.
    11. Most of the species of this branch of apes went extinct. However, evidence suggests that several species co-existed for fairly long periods of time.
    12. Only within the last 50,000 years or so did the modern human species develop. It co-existed with other humanoids until about 27,000 years ago.
    14. About 6,000 or so years ago, humans began to develop written language and other forms of civilization. Leading us on a direct path to where we are today.
    15. And god “tweaked” things to make this happen.
    16. Without leaving a trace of residue of this tweaking anywhere one looks anywhere on Earth, our solar system, or the entire universe.
    17. And without any coherent means to do so. (What is the method by which the supernatural intervenes in the natural world? What is its energy source? Why is it undetectable? And if you invoke “quantum” anything, I’ll SCREAM!!!)

    But it’s “possible”. Because primitive people who did not understand the weather decided there was a “god” controlling aspects of their lives and environment.

    Right. Got it.

    Stopping now. Moving on. Lowering blood pressure.

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      It may seem improbable but as long as it’s logically possible, philosophers will be agnostics and will defend religion.

      It’s one of the reasons why philosophers have such a bad reputation these days. It’s also proof that philosophers employ another, non-scientific, way of knowing to arrive at “truth.”

      Finally, it’s proof that their version of “truth” doesn’t make any sense.

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      A theist would look at your points, 1-17, and say, “My, what foresight God has!”

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      God surely moves in mysterious ways! ;-)

      Seriously, nicely played.

      /@

    • Caroline52
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      That was ripping good. Very therapeutic for the rest of us as well. My blood pressure just went down too. Thanks.

  33. Sastra
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Haven’t read the comments yet but wanted to point out that Sober’s response misses the real issue: what happens when you look at the supernatural in general and “God” specifically in light of science in general and evolution specifically.

    That’s where the heart of the science/religion debate lies. Forget about hidden variables for the moment. Should “the existence of God” iitself be treated like any other hypothesis about what is or is not likely to be true? People believe there is a God for empirical reasons. They have “faith” that the evidence they have can best be explained by “God.” God is purportedly a disembodied Mind with no reason for why it is the way it is. What does or can evolution tell us about minds, brains, and how they got the way they are?

    “Mental things, brains, minds, consciousnesses, things that are capable of comprehending anything — these come late in evolution, they are a product of evolution. They don’t come at the beginning. So whatever lies behind the universe will not be an intellect. Intellects are things that come as the result of a long period of evolution.” (Richard Dawkins)

    Evolution doesn’t just give us no reason to think God intervenes. It eats away at the hypothesis itself.

  34. FastLane
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    What I get out of this response is that for Sober, (his) god might be quantum indeterminate. If you look for him, he’s not there, but if you don’t, he just might be tweaking the variables.

    Schrodinger’s god? ;-)

    • lamacher
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      Schrodinger’s ceiling cat!

    • Posted May 16, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      Heisenberg’s, I think. But I can’t be certain…

      /@

    • Caroline52
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      what a great riposte!
      / @

  35. gillederais
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    That’s ridiculous.

    What exactly does he mean by “supernatural hidden variables” in a random process (dice, mutations, whatever).

    I think these three words mean nothing at all, so the whole discussion is a giant void.

    Either they are measurable (which is impossible since they are “hidden”) or they are not measurable, which pretty stands for “they do not exist”.

    Sober should explain what he means by “supernatural hidden variables”, which I think is pretty difficult.

  36. Mary - Canada
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why hidden variables are automatically labelled as supernatural since they are not known. This sounds a bit like the god of gaps argument.

  37. Dan L.
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I’m pretty satisfied by the response. Sober was clear about his…let’s say diplomatic intentions in making this argument, I think he’s correct strictly speaking (even if I don’t think it’s a particularly relevant argument to anyone not predisposed to believing in God), and made it clear that this isn’t the usual rebuke to “scientismists”.

    If you actually read the paper the talk seems to be based on it’s not exactly friendly to theism either. The sophisticated theist approach to Sober’s argument seems to be willfully misinterpreting what he’s saying because the hidden variables/levels of explanation stuff isn’t satisfying for theists either.

    • Notagod
      Posted May 17, 2012 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Its intellectually sloppy, focusing on the insignificant while ignoring the obvious.

  38. Christopher
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Prepared for the Worst and commented:
    Another reason I like Sober

  39. Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I think the very fact that Sober is getting so much push-back on a point that is ipso facto true about the limits of our knowledge of the evolutionary events in history , adequately answers your first question. Indeed, it is just as important as pointing out, with Sam Harris, that religious people do not, and cannot, know that God is “out there”, or that an afterlife exists, etc..

    Religious people are being lied to by rote. The very least we can do is be very careful about outlining precisely what we do, and do not(or cannot), know to be true about the world. Even if the datum suggests that this knowledge won’t “convince” most(or any) people , the honesty and open-handed delivery will be a breath of fresh air for those doubtful of certain answers and dogmatic truths.

    Or, as Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    • Notagod
      Posted May 17, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Obviously christians don’t give a damned god about getting a breath of fresh air as you describe it. The christian religion specifically condemns that kind of refreshing breath.

      Besides the refreshing breath that you describe has always been available, its in the foundational basics of science. What you’re suggesting is a recitation of the alphabet by every author.

  40. Eric Shumard
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    My take on Sober’s argument: Evidence can not rule out theories of the supernatural which are empirically indistinguishable from theories void of the supernatural. There are an infinite number of such theories and they are empirically indistinguishable from each other. Traditional religions in general do not fall into this category. Amen.

  41. Michael Fugate
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    An oft-stated goal behind many of these arguments is increasing acceptance of evolution in the US, but a confounding goal is increasing retention of religious beliefs – especially in college graduates. We know that most people who give up religion are likely to accept evolution and, if that is our goal, we should be using strategies that work even if religious belief is lost. If our goal is to only increase acceptance of evolution without also increasing loss of religious belief, then our strategies become very limited. Which goal is being put forward by may people and organizations stressing accommodation and compatibility – is acceptance of evolution or is it retention of religious belief?

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Good point. When Sober talks about increasing acceptance of evolution among the religious I can’t help but wonder why he would care. What does it matter if the religious accept evolution or not? If you accept evolution but still think you don’t need to worry about global warming because God will step in and fix it or rapture us off to the next life or whatever, that is not an improvement worth bothering with.

  42. Logicophilosophicus
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Sober’s response is clear and valid. Almost all comments here assume that he is some kind of apologist for the Biblical God – I believe if you actually read his work you will find that he agrees with everyone here that darwinian evolution is incompatible with fundamentalist creationism.

    It’s obvious to an outsider that WEIT devotees have lost sight of that, and assume that any examination of Darwinism is “woo”. One poster writes that the sources of variation (mutation) *must* be absolutely random. If so, MRSA and industrial melanism are not Darwinian. But of course they are.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      No, the commenters here assume what Sober himself says: he wrote the paper and gave the talk to help give religious people a way to reconcile their beliefs with evolution. That could be seen as a form of apologetics, though I don’t care what you call it. What astounds me is that an atheist philosopher would engage in trying to buttress people’s faith in the light of science.

      You are either not reading or have not comprehended many of the comments. And why, exactly, aren’t MRSA and melanism mutations “random” in the evolutionary sense? Do you have any evidence for that?

      • Ougaseon
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        I doubt that he does. I suspect he has instead confused mutation with selection!

        As a complete aside to this topic, how common is that confusion?

        • Caroline52
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for explaining why someone would claim that MRSA and melanism mutations aren’t random. I couldn’t make heads or tails of that claim when I read it.

          Confusing mutation and selection is like confusing the wind and the windmill. I don’t believe anyone who learned even basic, fifth-grade evolution could confuse the two.

          Therefore I suspect the original source of this assertion was someone who had studied evolution deciding to craft a deliberate distortion for political purposes. And that was a rotten thing to do.

          It injures innocent people, because the odds are (since carriers will always be more numerous than vectors) that the commenter who repeated that assertion here never learned anything about how evolution actually works, and is simply repeating what they’ve been told, without understanding what it means.

          That makes me genuinely sad, and I don’t mean that in a snarky way at all.

          Sorry I don’t know the answer to your question about how prevalent this particular meme-virus is.

          • Logicophilosophicus
            Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

            Not a meme virus at all – it is just the example I came up with. Having read the hread carefully, I saw that the false claim was being made for Darwinism that the whole process – including mutation and environmental factors – MUST be random. I believe Darwin actually claimed that natural selection (also sexual selection) is an inevitable consequence of variation. He knew nothing about the sources of variation, and a lot of the time it’s clear that he thought factors were blended. Mendel’s work was not known in England, molecules and the atomic theory were matters of speculation.

            MRSA and industrial melanism are the results of wilful human intervention in the environment. Sober says that – logically – the Darwinian process does not preclude the intervention of will.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:35 am | Permalink

              No apologist (which of course most agnostics are, or they wouldn’t keep their theological “can’t ask, can’t tell” policy) seems to make the much more difficult claim that selective pressures are guided outside of artificial selection.

              Sober specifically discusses mutations, which variation is defined as being absent selection.

              • Posted May 17, 2012 at 2:47 am | Permalink

                “No apologist (which of course most agnostics are, or they wouldn’t keep their theological “can’t ask, can’t tell” policy)”

                Hmm… do you honestly think that the majority of people who self-identify as agnostics are apologists? I’m not sure that’s defensible.

                /@

    • Michael Fugate
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      “Darwinism” and “Darwinian” usually raises creationist flags.
      Also there is an assumption of an unbridgeable gap been creationism and theistic evolution, but one only need read Biologos to see that is not necessarily so.

    • J
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      What I think many of us are arguing, in fact, is that Darwinian evolution is incompatible with the Judeo-Christian idea of God. As ‘God’ is the term he uses, out of either laziness or short-sightedness he brings in all the theological baggage associated with that character – whether he means to or not. A deity with less direct involvement with the human race could be trivially compatible with evolutionary theory but that is not what most of the theistic evolutionists want to hear & that is why his use of the word ‘God’ is a problem for the “WEIT devotees”.

      • gluonspring
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. Theistic evolution is not evolution as is meant among readers here(and why I think we should not say the Catholic church hierarchy embraces evolution, they do not, they embrace theistic evolution which is a different theory). Here, we mean evolution to be evolution by natural selection. It is specifically a theory of how adaptive change, the appearance of design, can occur through random variation and natural selection. It is a theory supported by many lines of evidence. Any theory of some agent other than chance as the source of mutations is, simply, a different theory.

        A wide range of theories are logically possible given the evidence. Aliens could periodically visit the earth and insert strategic mutations here and there. So long as they took care to tinker in very small ways each time, we’d be none the wiser. We don’t take this theory seriously because there is no evidence that such a thing has happened. Moreover, the current theory of evolution doesn’t need it. The current theory is already adequate to explain what we see, so why make up logically possible stories with no evidence?

        I think that is pretty much the definition of “woo”, stories introduced into the narrative that are not needed, shed no additional light, and for which there is no evidence.

    • Ougaseon
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      No, people don’t assume that any “examination” of evolution is woo. They conclude that from the observation that most such “examinations” begin by ascribing to evolutionary theory claims and predictions that the theory does not actually claim or predict!

      You are correct that Sober explicitly rejects an Old or New Testament God. The objection is that he elides over the fact that this exactly the type of god that most people want to rescue. His goal of accommodation necessarily relies on most readers interpreting all of the following statements about God and logical compatibility as being about their Biblical God. As was pointed out before this is equivocation. As ahimsa points out, the exact same argument in the cultural context of Hinduism will instead result in readers interpreting his meaning to be that Yama, Vishnu, and Krishna are logically compatible with evolution. But I seriously doubt any Christian in the US would agree that mere logical compatibility either implies the existence of those deities or accommodates their existence! If we’re being intellectually rigorous, how could it be the case that this exercise actually accomplishes Sober’s stated accommodationist goal? Personally, I can only conclude that he doesn’t actually expect his religious readers to understand his definition of god and hopes that they instead interpose their own culture’s deity into his argument so that they might decide that evolution doesn’t contradict their religion.

    • eric
      Posted May 17, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      One poster writes that the sources of variation (mutation) *must* be absolutely random.

      Sober accepts that mutation is random in his paper. He actually gives (IMO) a pretty good description of exactly what scientists mean by ‘random’ when they talk about mutation.

      So what’s your issue here? That said poster was agreeing with Sober?

  43. Posted May 16, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Elliot Sober says,

    “Second, we differ about what the best strategy is for protecting evolutionary biology and science more generally from religion. Your strategy is to attack religion. Mine is to try to persuade religious people that science and theism can be reconciled. This probably won’t work for many fundamentalists, but I think it may have some chance of working for many other religious people.”

    This is significant. Sober is now claiming that science and theism are compatible and not just evolutionary theory and theism.

    This will depend on definitions. According to my definition of science, you do not believe in things—especially extraordinary things—without evidence. How is that compatible with theism?

    I also suspect that Sober is being a bit disingenuous (sorry Jerry). He’s probably more interested in protecting religion from science. Science is not being threatened by religion.

    The real question is whether Elliot Sober actually believes what he said in the Chicago presentation or whether it’s just an accommodationist tactic.

    I wonder how his talk would be received by philosophy departments in Berlin or Beijing?

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      Actually, if he is being honest here, it is a sobering outlook. Imagine the pessimism he must feel if he feels the need to bamboozle the religious to buy off the survival of science? I’m optimistic that science is more of a threat to religion than conversely, but just barely. I have been steeped in enough religion to see that it could turn on us and destroy us at any time. They outnumber us, after all. Religion is a powerful mind virus, affecting most of the world’s population through most of history. And religion isn’t above taking everyone and everything with it.

      Even if Sober’s motivations are what he says, I think the appeasement strategy won’t work. The religious mind has a particular kind of flaw, but it isn’t blind. It can see through the pandering.

  44. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    As I posted on the earlier discussion of Sober, a God who “tinkers” with evolution seems trivial (Earlier I said something about going from “god of the gaps” to “creator of the crevices”) and saying this God “might” exist doesn’t affect me at all.

    • Logicophilosophicus
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

      I’d say such a god is worse than trivial – he’s dishonest. The universe is law-governed, and it’s billions of years of physical and biological evolution according to those laws are unnecessary if miraculous intervention is then accepted. Worse still, as Descartes pointed out, there is a need (if you are religious) to believe that a good god would not mislead and confuse his creatures. If you couldn’t believe that (in a god-run world) then NOTHING can be trusted.

  45. gr8hands
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Sober erroneously wrote: “It therefore leaves open that there may be supernatural hidden variables.”

    Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! First you have to prove that “supernatural” exists, not presume it. Everything fails because of that mistake.

    • gluonspring
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

      There may be non-supernatural hidden variables. Aliens could have periodically visited the Earth and tinkered with our ancestor’s genetics. They could have slaughtered dinosaurs with ray guns, then smashed the earth with a meteor to cover their tracks. Stories are endless.

      • gr8hands
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        gluonspring, that would not be supernatural. Space aliens are not supernatural.

        • gbjames
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

          How do we know that?

        • gluonspring
          Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

          Exactly! Why even bother with supernatural, whatever that means (doesn’t it become natural as soon as you measure it?), when one can concoct so many entertaining natural stories. I mean, if making up “logically possible” stories is your goal.

  46. Hempenstein
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Somehow this all seems analogous to Susumu Ohno’s efforts to connect music with DNA, by scoring music according to a DNA sequence. It made a brief ripple a long while back, and, sure, you can do that, but it doesn’t help in understanding music or how DNA functions because there is no fundamental, underlying connection – only one that has been artificially made.

  47. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    “I see no comparable reason to publish a paper about the possibility of supernatural interventions in gambling devices.”

    Casinos are full of gamblers who would no doubt take great comfort in such a paper. You can spot them brandishing their lucky trinkets, their superstitious customs, and their can’t-lose gaming “systems.” Spend a weekend in both a casino and a church (where, I take it, the anti-evolutionists tend to congregate), and you’ll find that gamblers are the more committed bunch — at least when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, something church-goers (save the few who tithe) don’t seem wont to do.

    I like to wager as much as the next guy, or maybe more — unless the next guy happens to be a stone-cold degenerate gambler. But I limit mine to games where one’s skill and judgment are matched against other players’. I don’t believe fairies or pixies populate poker rooms or the human genome. Never bet against the house when wagering, is my policy, and always bet against it (where “the house” means the supposed all-powerful Creator of the Universe) when doing science.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 16, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      This comment wins the thread so far!

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 16, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        Gamblers mistake any “win” for a “hot streak,” and look to go double-or-nothing.

        Not me.

  48. Posted May 16, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    I wrote a rather lengthy post on Google+ with 4 good (at least to me) reasons why, so far, Coyne beats Sober.

    See https://plus.google.com/101752320499567895627/posts/RAebhuLasCT

  49. corio37
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Sober’s whole approach seems to me to profoundly miss the point. The problem is not that religious people don’t believe in evolution; it’s that they DO believe in religion. And when you pander to that assumption you imply that they can go on believing whatever they damn well please and — because that’s what theists do — imposing those beliefs on other people. Once you endorse someone’s belief in religion, then you might as well stop trying to give them any factual information, because you’ve already sold the pass.

    If you had a grandfather who kept walking into walls, Sober’s solution would presumably be to cut holes in the walls for him to walk through. Coyne’s — I hope — would be to get him a pair of glasses.

  50. dcg1
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Sober’s views are just the same old rehashed accomodationist nonsense. The evidence for the existence of subtle supernatural interventions, is on a par with the evidence for what existed before the “Big Bang”.

    • Claudiu Bandea
      Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      In his response to Jerry’s challenge, Elliott Sober says:

      “This is why I find statements like “there is strong scientific evidence that shows that God does not exist” unsatisfactory; the claim is correct for some concepts of God, but not for others.”

      Elliott, can you please enlighten us with some examples of “concepts of God” that you think can exist?

      • Claudiu Bandea
        Posted May 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, my comment above was intended as an independent comment, not a reply to dcg1’s comment.


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  1. [...] and Science Yes, it is POSSIBLE that some deity, somehow, manipulates the mutations in evolution. The point: why is this possibility even worth considering (on a serious intellectual level)? To [...]

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