Tag Archives: Evidence

Michael Behe and Keith Fox debate theistic evolution vs intelligent design

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

Michael Behe and Keith Fox debate evolution and intelligent design. (See below for link to video)

Details:

Michael Behe is professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania and the founder of the modern Intelligent Design movement. His book “Darwin’s Black Box” ignited the controversy 14 years ago when it claimed that certain molecular machines and biological processes are “irreducibly complex” and cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.

Keith Fox is Professor of biochemistry at the University of Southampton and chairman of Christians in Science. As a theistic evolutionist he believes that Evolution is the best explanation going for the complexity we see and that ID is a blind scientific alley and theologically unappealing to boot.

They debate whether micromachines in the cell such as the “bacterial flagellum” could have evolved by a Darwinian process of evolution. When inference to design is and isn’t acceptable in science. Whether random mutation can mathematically stack up to complex life, and whether God is reduced to a divine “tinkerer” by ID.

Here’s the debate:

Summary

Note: the following debate summary is rated “S” for Snarky. Reader discretion is advised.

Michael Behe:

  • ID is not Biblical creationism
  • ID is not religion
  • ID is a scientific research program
  • People refuse to discuss ID because of personal philosophical assumptions
  • ID is like the Big Bang – it is based on evidence, but it has broad religious implications

Keith Fox:

  • ID is not Biblical creationism, but it isn’t science

Michael Behe:

  • ID is compatible with common descent
  • ID is only opposed to unplanned, unguided evolution (Darwinism)
  • ID is not necessarily opposed to long periods of time

Behe’s first book – the bacterial flagellum

Keith Fox:

  • Here are a couple of papers that show how parts of the flagellum evolved
  • They are possible pathways

Michael Behe

  • No, those are studies that show that there are similarities between bacterial flagella in multiple organisms
  • Similarities of proteins between different organisms do not necessarily imply a developmental pathway
  • The problem of having the instructions to BUILD the flagellum still remains

Keith Fox:

  • Maybe parts of the flagellum had other functions before they were used in the flagellum
  • Maybe you can use the parts of the flagellum for other purposes
  • Maybe, one can imagine, it’s possible that!

Michael Behe:

  • No, parts have to be modified and re-purposed in order to be used for other functions

Keith Fox:

  • But maybe the proteins can be used in other systems for other things
  • I re-purpose parts from of designed things to other purposes in my house when I do maintenance

Michael Behe

  • Uh, yeah – but aren’t you an intelligent designer? What does your home maintenance have to do with Darwinian evolution?

Is ID another God-of-the-gaps argument?

Michael Behe:

  • Well consider the Big Bang… there was a build-up of scientific evidence for that theory
  • Just because a theory has religious implications, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true
  • You really have to look at the specific evidence for a theory, and not decide in advance

Keith Fox: (I’m paraphrasing/inventing/mocking from now on)

  • But the Big Bang is based on discoveries, and intelligent design is based on gaps in our scientific knowledge
  • What if I did have evidence of a step by step pathway (which I don’t right now)? Then I would win the argument – what would you do then?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, if tomorrow you do manage to find expiremental evidence of a pathway, which you don’t have today, then I would be wrong
  • ID is falsifiable by experimental evidence
  • But what about your your view? Is that falsifiable by experimental evidence?
  • What if someone goes into a lab (someone like Scott Minnich?) and performs gene knockout experiments, and publishes the results
  • You knock out a gene from the bacterial flagellum, you wait for a large number of generations, and it never develops the missing gene
  • You repeat this with every one of the 50 genes in the bacterial flagellum and it never recovers for any of the 50 genes
  • There is no pathway to build up even one of the 50 genes – according to actual experiments
  • What do Darwinists do with experimental evidence that falsifies Darwinism?

Keith Fox:

  • No, I would not accept that experimental evidence could falsify Darwinism
  • Just because known published experimental evidence that we have today falsifies Darwinism, it doesn’t mean Darwinism is false because it’s not falsifiable
  • We don’t know how Darwinism even works – it happened so long ago, and it’s not repeatable or testable, so how could lab ,experiments falsify it?
  • Darwinism is science and intelligent design is faith, though

Which side has the experimental evidence?

Michael Behe:

  • Consider the largest longest-running lab experiment of evolution, Richard Lenski’s experiments on e. coli
  • Lenski has presided over 50,000 generations, (millions of years of evolution)
  • The bacterium did evolve and they did get better but not by evolving features, but by disabling features

Keith Fox:

  • But those are just LAB EXPERIMENTS! What do lab experiments prove?
  • What if? What if? What if? You don’t know, it happened so long ago, and you weren’t there! You weren’t there!
  • (clutches Flying Spaghetti Monster idol tighter and sobs pitifully)

Michael Behe:

  • See, the thing is that I have actual experiements, and here’s some more evidence that just got published last week
  • So I’ve got evidence and then some more evidence and them some other evidence – experimental evidence
  • And all the evidence shows that adaptation is done losing traits not by gaining traits
  • And the published observations are what we see in nature as well

Keith Fox:

  • But doesn’t Darwinism explain some things that we observe?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, I am not saying that micro-evolution doesn’t explain some things – it explains bacterial resistance, and other micro-evolution
  • it just doesn’t explain macro-evolution, and that’s what the experiments show

Keith Fox:

  • But ID is a science stopper! It stops science! You can’t produce experimental evidence to falsify Darwinism – that would stop science!

Michael Behe:

  • Well, you have to understand that the Big Bang postulated a non-material cause to the entire physical universe and yet the experimental evidence was allowed to stand because it was testable and verifiable evidence, even if the theory does have religious implications
  • All explanations in science are design to settle a question and it stops rival explanations that are not as good at explaining the observations
  • Finding the best explanation stops further study because it is better than rival explanations

Keith Fox:

  • Well you have to come up with a materialist explanation because that’s the only kind that a functional atheist like me will allow

Michael Behe:

  • Well, what if the best explanation for an observed effect in nature is non-material, as with the Big Bang?

Keith Fox:

  • But I have to have a material explanation because I am a functional atheist! (i.e. – a theistic evolutionist = functional atheist)

Michael Behe:

  • Well what about the cosmic fine-tuning argument? Do you accept that?
  • That’s an inference to design based on the latest scientific discoveries

Keith Fox:

  • Well I do accept that argument, but I don’t accept design in biology
  • When you apply it to biology, somehow it’s bad and you can’t do that or you losing research money and get fired
  • Anyway, your argument is based on a gap in our current knowledge

Michael Behe:

  • No, back in Darwin’s time we had a gap in our knowledge – we didn’t know what the cell was – we thought it was jello
  • Now, we know what the cell is really like, it’s irreducibly complex, and you can’t build up those molecular machines in a step-wise manner
  • The inference to design is based on the progress of science revealing the increasing levels of complexity
  • In experiments, Darwinian mechanisms cannot build anything useful, instead genes are disabled or dropped
  • You guys don’t have the evidence to prove your view that naturalistic mechanisms can do the creating
  • You keep issuing promissory notes

Keith Fox:

  • Well, you’re just seeing design subjectively, because you are a non-scientist
  • I’m being objective when I tell you that we will discover a materialist explanation later on – really really soon now, maybe even tomorrow, yeah
  • You won’t accept my speculations and you insist on these published experiments
  • You’re subjective and I’m objective
  • Just give me more research money so I can hide the decline better

Michael Behe:

  • Uh, you’re the one who is subjective – I cited evidence, and you are the one who is speculating
  • You have arguments from credulity, and I’ve got the lab experiments
  • You refuse to be skeptical, I am the one who is being skeptical

Keith Fox:

  • Maybe, maybe, maybe! Maybe tomorrow! Maybe in a parallel universe! Maybe aliens from Planet 9 from Outer Space!
  • Who knows! I certainly don’t know! And that somehow means you don’t know either! See?

Michael Behe:

  • Well, to prove me wrong, go into the lab, and run experiments and evolve some new genes (using Darwinian mechanisms) that have new useful functionality

Are there limits to what evolution can do?

Michael Behe:

  • You need multiple changes in the genome to get a new helpful feature (let’s say two specific mutations)
  • One specific change is possible
  • the odds are against getting multiple beneficial changes are really really small – you need two SPECIFIC changes to occur in order

Keith Fox:

  • Well, lots of things are really unlikely – any permutation of dice rolls is as unlikely as any other

Michael Behe:

  • Well, we are talking about TWO SPECIFIC mutations that are needed to get a beneficial function – lots of other mutations are possible, but we are looking for a specific outcome that requires two SPECIFIC mutations out of the whole genome
  • You aren’t going to get useful outcomes unless you direct the mutations

Keith Fox:

  • But then why does God allow evil!!!!1!1!!one!!!

Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

Related posts

How the WMAP satellite confirmed nucleosynthesis predictions and falsified atheism

Prior to certain scientific discoveries, most people thought that the universe had always been here, and no need to ask who or what may have caused it. But today, that’s all changed. Today, the standard model of the origin of the universe is that all the matter and energy in the universe came into being in an event scientists call “The Big Bang”. At the creation event, space and time themselves began to exist, and there is no material reality that preceded them.

So a couple of quotes to show that.

An initial cosmological singularity… forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. We cannot continue physical reasoning, or even the concept of spacetime, through such an extremity… On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.

Source: P. C. W. Davies, “Spacetime Singularities in Cosmology,” in The Study of Time III, ed. J. T. Fraser (Berlin: Springer Verlag ).

And another quote:

[A]lmost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the big bang.

Source: Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time, The Isaac Newton Institute Series of Lectures (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 20.

So, there are several scientific discoveries that led scientists to accept the creation event, and one of the most interesting and famous is the discovery of how elements heavier than hydrogen were formed.

Nucleosynthesis: forming heavier elements by fusion
Nucleosynthesis: forming heavier elements by fusion

Here’s the history of how that discovery happened, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) web site:

The term nucleosynthesis refers to the formation of heavier elements, atomic nuclei with many protons and neutrons, from the fusion of lighter elements. The Big Bang theory predicts that the early universe was a very hot place. One second after the Big Bang, the temperature of the universe was roughly 10 billion degrees and was filled with a sea of neutrons, protons, electrons, anti-electrons (positrons), photons and neutrinos. As the universe cooled, the neutrons either decayed into protons and electrons or combined with protons to make deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen). During the first three minutes of the universe, most of the deuterium combined to make helium. Trace amounts of lithium were also produced at this time. This process of light element formation in the early universe is called “Big Bang nucleosynthesis” (BBN).

The creation hypothesis predicts that there will be specific amounts of these light elements formed as the universe cools down. Do the predictions match with observations?

Yes they do:

The predicted abundance of deuterium, helium and lithium depends on the density of ordinary matter in the early universe, as shown in the figure at left. These results indicate that the yield of helium is relatively insensitive to the abundance of ordinary matter, above a certain threshold. We generically expect about 24% of the ordinary matter in the universe to be helium produced in the Big Bang. This is in very good agreement with observations and is another major triumph for the Big Bang theory.

Moreover, WMAP satellite measurements of mass density agree with our observations of these light element abundances.

Here are the observations from the WMAP satellite:

Scientific observations match predictions
Scientific observations match predictions

And here is how those WMAP measurements confirm the Big Bang creation event:

However, the Big Bang model can be tested further. Given a precise measurement of the abundance of ordinary matter, the predicted abundances of the other light elements becomes highly constrained. The WMAP satellite is able to directly measure the ordinary matter density and finds a value of 4.6% (±0.2%), indicated by the vertical red line in the graph. This leads to predicted abundances shown by the circles in the graph, which are in good agreement with observed abundances. This is an important and detailed test of nucleosynthesis and is further evidence in support of the Big Bang theory. 

“An important and detailed test”.

For completeness, we should learn how elements heavier than these light elements are formed:

Elements heavier than lithium are all synthesized in stars. During the late stages of stellar evolution, massive stars burn helium to carbon, oxygen, silicon, sulfur, and iron. Elements heavier than iron are produced in two ways: in the outer envelopes of super-giant stars and in the explosion of a supernovae. All carbon-based life on Earth is literally composed of stardust.

That’s a wonderful thing to tell a young lady when you are on a date: “your body is made of stardust”. In fact, as I have argued before, this star formation, which creates the elements necessary for intelligent life, can only be built if the fundamental constants and quantities in the universe are finely-tuned.

Now, you would think that atheists would be happy to find observations that confirm the origin of the universe out of nothing, but they are not. Actually, they are in denial.

Here’s a statement from the Secular Humanist Manifesto, which explains what atheists believe about the universe:

Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.

For a couple of examples of how atheistic scientists respond to the evidence for a cosmic beginning, you can check out this post, where we get responses from cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, and physical chemist Peter Atkins.

You cannot have the creation of the universe be true AND a self-existing, eternal universe ALSO be true. Someone has to be wrong. Either the science is wrong, or the atheist manifesto is wrong. I know where I stand.

Positive arguments for Christian theism