Death by of natural causes

I’d like to follow up Edward Robinson’s piece on the “natural/supernatural” distinction by showing some examples of how meaningless the concept of “natural” is in everyday life. Of course, for the card-carrying believer in Naturalism as a worldview, “natural” must mean “everything”, which makes it a useless word anyway – unless it’s used in contrast to “artificial”, which as I’ll show is not without its problems either.

How often have you heard people say that in the bad old days, surprising or catastrophic happenings were attributed to acts of God, but that now we know they are natural events? I suggest that in most such cases, that’s just mumbo-jumbo based on nothing rational, still less scientific.

Take, for example, the ancient asteroid strike in Mesopotamia I mentioned in a reply to Jay  a couple of posts back. The crater caused by this event has been identified as the Umm al Binni Lake. Though it would have caused a major tsusami, this strike seems unlikely to have been an explanation for the Mesopotamian flood stories (though that cannot yet be excluded), and is unmentioned in any other historical records around the time of its occurrence. But it’s conjectured to have been a factor in the demise of the Sumerian civilization and the rise of the Akkadian empire of Sargon the Great.

So it’s a good example of a “natural disaster”, rather than a divine act, right? But does that word “natural” actually signify anything in the context? Science can give us some approximate statistical probabilities on how often asteroids of various sizes will impact the earth. Yet not only are most asteroids too small to be detected in advance (witness the Chelyabinsk meteor of 2013, which shot in from left-field whilst the world was discussing the dangers of a completely different near-earth asteroid), but their orbits are so perturbed by the gravity-fields of other objects that they are chaotic, and unpredictable in detail over time. If we have no precise idea what forces are producing the actual course of the asteroid, in what sense can we say it’s “natural”, as opposed to anything else? It can only be by assuming there is no God governing, or alternatively supervening on, those forces – and by assuming that there are not even any conventional aliens monkeying with rocket motors, either. Assumptions are not knowledge.

Comets are a similar case. Many are aperiodic, having such eccentric orbits as to appear out of the blue and then disappear forever. An example is Caesar’s comet, which appeared in 44BC and may have been the brightest comet on record. Throughout history comets have been taken as omens, particularly as omens of regime change, and in this case the phenomenon appeared conveniently during a festival organised by Augustus to deify the recently murdered Julius Caesar, thus also putting a divine seal on Augustus’s rule as first emperor of one of the world’s greatest empires.

Of course, the comet’s treatment as an omen does not make it one in reality, but neither does it actually mean much to assert in contradiction that it was “natural”, when nobody can say even now whence it came and whither it went.

Things are not even that much better in the case of periodic comets, whose orbits (by definition of less than 200 years duration) are well known and so scientifically predictable, of which the most famous example is Halley’s comet. As a small boy I knew it was coming back in 1986, and I even bought my son an astronomical telescope so we could appreciate its full glory together. In the event it was something of a damp squib, partly because it was (predictably) far away and partly from light pollution, leading me to pen a poem of considerable but unrecognised literary merit:

There once was a comet called Halley
Which most of us saw rather poorly
I’ll be a hundred and nine
When it comes back next time
But by that time I hope I’m in glory.

Halley’s comet, too, was famously taken as an omen of regime change, during its 1066 appearance, regarding the death of King Harold and the accession of the Norman regime – England’s last conquest, so far. It even made it on to the Bayeux Tapestry. “But we now know it was a natural event”, and perhaps with some reason if the comet appears with clockwork precision, exactly as predicted (like the recent total eclipse) by the scientists. But hold it a moment – that’s not the case:

The average period of Halley’s orbit is 76 years but you cannot calculate the dates of its reappearances by simply subtracting multiples of 76 years from 1986. The gravitational pull of the major planets alters the orbital period from revolution to revolution. Nongravitational effects (such as the reaction from gasses boiled off during its passage near the Sun) also play an important, but smaller, role in altering the orbit. Between the years 239 BC and 1986 AD the orbital period has varied from 76.0 years (in 1986) to 79.3 years (in 451 and 1066). (http://nineplanets.org/halley.html)

Roughly predictable is not at all the same thing as predictable. My choices are roughly predictable, but no less free for that. You’ll note that, according to that quote, in 1066 the comet was over three years late in order to coincide with the conquest so that it happened to coincide with the conquest. In fact, Wikipedia’s article on Halley’s comet shows that regime change coincided with the comet at least four times in its historical appearances (as well as England in 1066, these were Armenia in 87BC, Kashmir in 1456 and China in 1910. One might, I suppose, include Haiti and the Philippines in 1986: small nations, but then the comet was a long way off!).

Perhaps historically-minded astrologers could fill in  examples of regime changes for the other appearances, in which case Halley’s significance as an omen would begin to take on a regular and predictable pattern, making it science – but would the political effects then be considered “natural”? If not, why not?

Hurricanes, too, are chaotic and completely unpredictable in detail, even if one can specify the general conditions under which they arise. The ongoing tragedy in Houston (I know we have readers there, so we’re praying for you guys) was described as a “one in five hundred year event”. That sounds more precise than it is – it really means “rare and unexpected”. Let’s move the discussion away from omens for this, though there have been academics blaming the disaster on karma for Texas voting for President Trump (and getting fired for it: belief in karma is apparently as self-evidently mistaken as belief in omens). Rather more people have been close to blaming it on Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change, which involves pretty much the same degree of magical thinking.

But the effects of climate change, if one concedes an anthropogenic component to that, certainly bear on the question of whether this is a truly “natural” disaster. Its widespread treatment as a wake-up call for the amelioration of global warming only makes sense if it isn’t natural, but artificial, unless you want to redefine “natural” to include deliberate human activity. The debate on climate shows just how difficult a distinction that is in reality.

But, as I suggested in the introduction, a naturalist materialist might argue that even human activity is explicable in terms of the “natural” forces acting since the Big Bang. In that case, climate change itself would be natural even if it were entirely the result of willful industrial pollution. But in that case one would have also to conclude that every murder victim dies from natural causes. The content of the word “natural” again slips away into the nebulosphere.

Now, all the above considerations are intended to show that the unexpected, the unpredictable or the unrepeatable cannot be attributed to “nature” except by an act of faith, and by leaving that “nature” undefined. My discussion entirely excludes the fact that even the truly predictable (and how rare that actually is in practice!) is, in historical Christian thinking, governed by the providence of God, to which Jay (again) alludes in his response to Eddie’s article.

Such a theology robs the word “natural” of what I can guess of its customary meaning (from the imprecise way it’s used), if that meaning includes “not willed by God”. Under that theology, one could divide events into (a) unpredictable things willed by God, or (b) predictable things willed by God. That would make “natural” synonymous with “predictable”, a definition I’ve been urging for the last year or two.

What, then, would “methodological naturalism” entail? It would imply that scientists would have to do their research as if they believed every phenomenon is predictable – in full knowledge that a great deal of our universe is not predictable, even in principle. Of what use is a methodology like that?

But if “natural” indeed simply means “predictable”, then there’s precious little in the world that is truly natural. One would have to exclude the time of arrival of periodic comets (as well as their visual appearance, which also varies in unforseeable ways), the impact of comets and asteroids on the earth, the weather, the behaviour of wild beasts and other living things, the appearance and exact course of diseases… in fact, one would have to exclude from the category “natural” pretty well all the things in the world that the Bible attributes to the governing activity of God.

“Once people believed the world was completely governed by natural causes. Now we realise that didn’t actually mean  anything.”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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11 Responses to Death by of natural causes

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Thanks for this, Jon. Your first paragraph acknowledges pretty much what my response to this is: how can a term like “natural” be useful, or is it just dangerously misleading and so should be discarded? I think pragmatists rule the day out in the wilds of language evolution. In the grocery store I want to be able to discern between a can of diet soda (which I still maintain is ‘unnatural’ for its ostensible origins more in a laboratory than in an orchard) and a bottle of orange juice with little or no additions. Insisting that everything is natural may cater to a purist clarity, but renders the word useless to me in that regard. So I maintain my use of it.

    I think scientific thinkers face the same kind of pragmatism. In the end we can’t completely prove that this or that seemingly supernatural interpretation should be ruled out-of-bounds for science, but we do fancy that some things are at least in principle approaching predictability (like Halley’s comet) even if it defies *exact* prediction, while other things like astrology are definitely ruled out. It’s sort of like pornography –to loosely quote one of our politicians over here. It’s hard to really define, but I know it when I see it.

    I think your point stands given that this then becomes a difference of degree rather than a substantial category difference. Returning comets or other “regularities” may defy exact prediction, but they certainly come tantalizingly close enough to it to tell us we’re on the right track whereas astrology, or omens interpretations stray far enough away from useful prediction that we “just know” they should be ruled out as science — wouldn’t you agree? I write all of this without making judgment about which side of this ID ought to fall on, which I know is the main issue of contention for many who concern themselves either with making sure it gets ruled out, or alternately trying to prevent it from being unfairly ruled out. But setting all that aside if we can, I’ll repeat the question here that I already asked under Eddie’s post as well: Is there good reason to keep around a useful gatekeeper system to separate out scientific ‘grain’ from the ‘chaff’ so to speak? Should we keep ‘natural’ around as a useful partition –and if so where would you place the boundary?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv – good to hear from you.

      In common parlance the natural/artificial divide is useful. But neither there, nor in science, does the word properly have any correlation whatever with the activity, or not, of God. One might believe that God is the creator of orange-juice, and it’s that which renders it natural (despite the squeezers and packers who get it to the supermarket) as opposed to some ersatz human product. Though even here, “natural” has become a weasel word for “good” (when dope-heads used to tell me marijuana is “natural”, I replied that so is snake venom).

      In science (where I still think the useful range of “natural” coincides with “predictable”) the question of “act of God”, or not, is a theological and metaphysical one with no relevance to science: pattern, and subsequently traceable cause and effect chains, are science’s whole business.

      The Babylonians predicted eclipses based on the reliability of the gods’ habits in that area, and were doing the same science that predicted your recent eclipse: how much more so the habits of the living God, however mediated?

      And as for those events that are not predictable – or those whose predictability is limited by their involvement in chaotic systems, like Halley’s comet – “natural” is surely no more than an unwarranted faith statement that only unmeasured and unmeasurable forces excluding divine action are involved. But there appear to be no theological reasons for that, and certainly no scientific ones, and many against (such as the role of such an asteroid in the direction life providentially took on earth).

      The question of astrology, it seems to me, hinges on quite a simple question: can the movements of the heavenly bodies be demonstrated to correlate with particular events in a predictable way (subject to the same criteria of statistical significance as any other correlation)? That wouldn’t necessarily mean “is the whole system of Babylonian/Egyptian/mediaeval astrology correct?”, but simply whether some correlation could be shown.

      If it could, then why wouldn’t that be a demonstration of some “natural” power, as Kepler or Galileo, as accomplished astrologers, certainly believed? I believe there are a very few such correlations in the literature, which if confirmed, would warrant scientific investigation like any other “spooky action at a distance” such as gravity or quantum entanglement. One doesn’t need to “keep it out” by any word like “natural”: if there is no observable and predictable correlation, astrology qualifies itself as scientific chaff.

      That would apply even if there were some real but elusive effect (as is certainly the case is some other phenomena I observed in a medical career). Science has to measure what is predictable, and shrug off (rather than reject) what it can’t.

      Back at BioLogos, Joshua once replied to me that science can deal with isolated (and therefore unpredictable) phenomena, but I disagree: it’s only when the phenomenon occurs, or can be made to occur, again that science qua science can begin to do any more than some peasant who notices something unusual and tells his friends.

      The boundary is around regularity, simpliciter – I see no reason to put a boundary of any sort around God.

  2. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    You wrote:
    In science (where I still think the useful range of “natural” coincides with “predictable”) the question of “act of God”, or not, is a theological and metaphysical one with no relevance to science: pattern, and subsequently traceable cause and effect chains, are science’s whole business.
    [end quote]

    That paragraph nails it for me. So it isn’t that I’m saying astrology (or anything else) should be automatically disallowed from being called ‘science’. But in my view if it has already failed to be a good predictor –then to the extent that it has, we are simply letting the chips fall where they may. You make much of some successes that omens and portents folks could point to; in order to press your point home, I think. But if such folks could turn these successes into actual predictions of note (not ‘retrodictions’ reading back though history in search of confirmatory candidate events), then we can talk. But until then, science seems within its right to maintain its narrow scope in search of those kinds of successes.

    You wrote: “The boundary is around regularity, simpliciter – I see no reason to put a boundary of any sort around God.”

    Amen to that! I really liked your earlier commentary on our ‘weasel’ word, ‘natural’. Snake venom is natural too! Indeed.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Merv.

      May I jump in on one point:

      “But if such folks could turn these successes into actual predictions of note (not ‘retrodictions’ reading back though history in search of confirmatory candidate events), then we can talk. But until then, science seems within its right to maintain its narrow scope in search of those kinds of successes.”

      But evolutionary biology hardly ever makes any “predictions” as that term is usually used in chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc. Almost all of its “predictions” are in one or another way “retrodictions” — after the fact, ad hoc explanations of how evolutionary process A could have produced creature B.

      Ask any evolutionary biologist living what would happen if you released 10,000 rodents of a foreign species to a strange country. How many of them will venture to predict what will happen 10, 50, or 100 years from now, let alone 1,000 or more? Would a placental mouse introduced into Australia compete again certain marsupials and wipe them out? Would the marsupials wipe out the newcomers? Would mutations create a new variation of the invading species, a *gliding* placental mouse? No evolutionary biologist has a clue what would happen. In that sense, evolutionary biology is not a predictive science at all.

      By contrast, I knew an honors chemistry student who had designed a molecule that had never existed before. His job was to manufacture it, and see if it conformed to predictions of its properties based on chemical theory. That is what predictive science is about.

      Evolutionary biology is not, and I suspect, never will be, a predictive science. The model for modern science, for me, is still chemistry/physics, where the idea of prediction is most closely realized.

      But speaking of predictions (tee hee!) many ID folks predicted that much of the DNA labelled as “junk” would eventually turn out to have function. Informing the prediction was a design model. (Just had to slip that in.)

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Eddie

        I was thinking as I read your comment that, perhaps, in the limited field of population genetics one can predict the way that a particular gene can be fixed in a population given the various factors, even though it’s not been possible to predict how said gene will affect phenotypes.

        But on reflection, even that is a statistical model – drift theory is based on the unpredictability of which genes will be fixed, and which will be eliminated. Even the fixation of a moderately advantageous allele (if one could ever accurately identify such a thing beyond using inferred markers of fitness) is considerably more amenable to chance than to natural selection: a majority of advantageous mutations never see the light of day, according to the maths.

        So I conclude you’re right about evolutionary theory and forward prediction. In respect of Merv’s point about omens, that makes for an interesting comparison: can we think of any reputable scientist who would bet his reputation on the nature of a single evolutionary change resulting, say, from climate change? Yet history is full of kings going out to war or appointing successors on the basis of omens, and continuing to pay their advisers’ salaries on the results and train their successors – just look at Daniel’s career!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Merv

      Indeed the role of comets as omens in my OP was in the context of making the point about what is natural, as you suggest.

      Still, as an aside I’m interested in how much our disavowal of such possibilities is the result of data, and how much it’s based on the assumption that because omens wouldn’t be “natural” (in the ill-defined sense) we don’t need to do the work because they couldn’t be predictive.

      By that I mean that the way the Babylonians, say, treated omens would be, in modern terms, to see them as part of a complex multifactorial reality involving chaotic systems, and not like predicting an eclipse. Yet remember, they used the same system for a couple of thousand years to run their governments and handed it on to the Greeks, Romans, Jews and early modern Europeans, which suggests they had some degree of success.

      Interpreting omens was like doing a meteorological forecast in a place like Britain. There is science involved, of course (by correlating data with outcomes over time), but interpretation of the probabilities is so individual that here in the southwest (where the prevailing winds from the Atlantic hit first) my wife makes a hobby of choosing which of the varying forecasts seems most probable when she sniffs the air.

      For example, for my village today my desktop Accuweather says there is dense fog at the moment – and there is indeed, if you count the crystal clear view I have of of it over the sea 7 miles away! The rest of the day promises low cloud, a breaking shower, and a top temp of 21degC. But the BBC says outbreaks of rain will clear to bring a bright day, only with a max of only 18degC.

      Chances are none of the forecasts will get it absolutely right – but nobody’s about to abandon meteorology as a science on that basis, or even on the fact that nobody can accurately predict beyond the immediate future even in principle. With that in mind, it’s a little hubristic when people say we now know God doesn’t control the weather, but that it’s “natural”. As natural as the non-existent fog round my house!

  3. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Okay, regarding my casual use of “predictions” and “retrodictions”, I can see some additional clarity is needed here as I presumptuously thought you both pack those terms with the same kinds of things I do. Eddie wrote:

    But evolutionary biology hardly ever makes any “predictions” as that term is usually used in chemistry, physics, astronomy, etc. Almost all of its “predictions” are in one or another way “retrodictions” — after the fact, ad hoc explanations of how evolutionary process A could have produced creature B.
    [end quote]

    This is exactly right — predictions can be about already existing data, and especially impressive when it is about as-yet undiscovered data bearing on past events. Saying that evolutionists can’t predict what the release of some organisms will do to an environment is an impossibly high bar to impose, Jon, and obscures the true power of the much simpler things that can and have been predicted by evolution. There are just too many variables in any such proposed experiment to ever have hope of teasing it all apart. One might just as well cast aspersions on the efficacy of gravity because astronomers won’t be able to predict where a given comet or asteroid is a decade from now. It isn’t that gravity doesn’t work, but only that there are too many chaotic variables (even within a simplistic –yet multibodied) gravitational regime to be able to pull off such a feat –even with QM aside. Evolution explains a lot of things (nested heirarchies?) amazingly well. Not strictly a ‘prediction’ of any chronological sort, but a ‘prediction’ nonetheless in the wider useful application of that concept.

    The reason for initial reticence to accept things like Omens or astrological influences is not only over a failure to produce even somewhat consistent or testable results (which I maintain you haven’t shown yet), but also for a lack of proposed mechanism. One can invoke a God or gods as the common mechanism, but that is not what the Christian God could be (a mere mechanism). Evolution at least has some proposed mechanisms in place as faulty or incomplete as they almost certainly are. But they are something.

    I won’t pretend here to have some big dog in the ID fight, and so won’t dispute your attribution of prediction to them about so-called ‘junk dna’. I will say though, that even as a non-expert on all things genetic I have always recognized the breath-taking hubris it takes for anyone to declare as useless those things for which they have not been able to determine a use. That is a general principle I’ve always harbored and not one that is rooted in any scientific prowess or special insight of my own. The best we can ever muster is that something “seems random” to us and that we have failed to discern how it could be useful at some level for something / someone.

    Blessings on both of you, and I hope you are on the mend, Eddie!

    -Merv

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Merv

      Saying that evolutionists can’t predict what the release of some organisms will do to an environment is an impossibly high bar to impose, Jon…

      Not me, Guv’ – I only talked about the unpredictability of gene fixation, which is a much more modest case!

      Just one reply (reminding you that my omens were a working example, not a truth claim). “Mechanisms” for observed regularities are well down the line of scientific work. Science begins by classifying and measuring regularities (hence that army of obsessional collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries, observing a lot and explaining very little). Theory follows when people of imagination select what’s significant.

      The praise that was given to science for predicting the recent eclipse (eg on Sy’s guest blog at The Book of Works) had nothing to do with any explanation of the theory of gravity, for eclipses were predictable millennia before Newton. Likewise, getting to the moon depends on measuring the right compensations to make for the multi-body problem, not on fully understanding that problem.

      Newton’s contribution was simply to propose a spooky occult force acting at a distance which operated under certain mathematical constraints. And that force remains spooky and occult in nature, except that we’ve got used to calling it scientific. Maybe gravity has waves – maybe not. Maybe (Hawking says) gravity is eternal and causes creation. In fact, we know its effects, not what it is – it could be God acting consistently on mass.

      The present taboo against invoking God as a mechanism only works in a naturalistic framework in which one has excluded divine contingency. You should read Chabarek on why its adoption by Thomists (and would-be Thomists) is anti-philosophical.

      The limiting case is an undoubted miracle, such as the wine at Cana. Wine became water, and the only efficient cause of it was God – so if he was not a “mere mechanism” in that instance, the principle of the argument fails in every possible instance, however you understand his agency.

      Miracles, of course, are contingent rather than regular (though I’ve suggested before that one could do science on, say, healing reports worldwide, which might reveal patterns of God’s working – a thing which Francis Bacon anticipated in his “new science”).

      But supposing that one could find regular correlations between omens and outcomes, whether or not “God is the agent” is scientifically irrelevant. To exclude him as a “mere mechanism” is a theological argument, not a scientific one, and scientists are usually unwilling to let theology trump science. “Astrology can’t work, because God does not produce physical effects” is an argument for a theological or philsophical journal, not for New Scientist – and might well be refuted by theologians or philosophers. It’s akin to argument “the earth does not move, because God’s word says he has fixed it immovably”. The proper response (apocryphal or not) is “It does move, though.”

      One would start the scientific explanatory process, in such a case, by exploring possible effects of known forces (such as gravity on human behaviour, or whatever), and if that failed propose an unknown cause – identified as a “ξ field” or “dark f particles” according to current fashion. It would be beyond the competence of science as a discipline to run out of hypotheses and call the cause “God”, but it would have no good grounds to insist the cause was “natural” v “supernatural”, but every reason to say it was “natural” v “contingent”.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Thanks, Merv, for trying to meet me in the middle.

      We agree about the unwarranted boldness of declaring “useless” biological features for which we can’t currently imagine a use. To give another example — though this was pre-ID, since even creationists made use of it — it used to be thought that something like 100 (or many it was only 50, I don’t remember — but it was “many”) organs in the human body were “vestigial”: now-useless leftovers from an earlier function which “evolution” had rendered obsolete. But the past 100 years of biological knowledge have shown that many of these organs have definite or probable functions. So any argument along the lines of “evolution must be true, because we have useless organs” is greatly weakened. (Of course there might be *some* truly vestigial organs, so the argument wouldn’t be entirely destroyed; but the exaggeration of the *number* of such organs was intellectually unwarranted. But the point here, as in case of DNA, is that there has been a historical tendency of defenders of evolution to over-claim what we know about nature and living things — what organs are useless, what stretches of DNA are useless, etc. When a theory tends to produce such overclaims on its behalf, one has to wonder about the scientific integrity, or at least about the scientific cautiousness and prudence, of the theory’s promoters.)

      “One might just as well cast aspersions on the efficacy of gravity because astronomers won’t be able to predict where a given comet or asteroid is a decade from now.”

      Merv, I believe that the comets or asteroids about which you are speaking are those for which we have very little reliable data about their paths and past locations. For those whose paths are well-known, prediction is reasonably accurate. We can’t identify what exact point in space a comet will be ten years from now, but we know pretty well the contained region where it will be ten years from now. What did Jon say about Halley’s Comet? 78 years plus or minus 3 years? That remarkably precise, compared with what the evolutionary biologist can tell you about what species will evolve in the Australian outback at any point in the future.

      Even more precise is our predictive knowledge of major solar system bodies. We know so accurately where Mars will be on a given future date that NASA can be certain that it can drop one Mars Rover within a few hundred yards of the previous Mars Rover. Astounding accuracy, between moving bodies like Mars and Earth, tens of millions of miles apart in space, and the beginning and end of the journey months or years apart. Evolutionary biology has nothing even close to offer in comparison. We know how to land that Rover almost on a particular grain of Martian soil (within a few hundred feet, anyway) because we understand gravity and other causes of celestial motion; the evolutionary biologists can’t predict what species will evolve, because, bluntly put, they *don’t* understand the causes of the phenomenon (evolution) that they study, in anything like the fullness and precision that physicists understand the causes of planetary motion. They have nowhere near (a) a complete list of all causes of evolution, or even of all the most important causes; (b) an agreed-upon weighting among the causes (for some selection is of only slight importance, for others its almost everything, etc.). On the mechanistic side, evolutionary theory simply isn’t in the same class as chemistry and physics. It’s still very much a junior science in that sense. But I have found that evolutionary biologists bristle when one points this out. (Which is human nature, I guess, when one’s Ph.D., tenure hopes, grant applications, career goals, etc. depend on convincing the world that evolutionary biology is rigorous science, and that one is a particularly sterling example of that rigor, and then someone shows up in a public forum and embarrasses the same person by invidious comparisons with more rigorous sciences and more rigorous scientists. No emperor likes his nakedness pointed out.)

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Eddie, again to pick up on one small point: the standard response to “vestigial organs turn out not to be vestigial” seems to be that they no longer perform their original purpose, so the case still stands.

        Which is nonsense, because a homologous organ that performs a different function is as much evidence for structuralism (think pentadactul limbs as wings or legs), or special creation (God likes to show his versatility) as it is for adaptive evolution.

        The one position it does refute is the original “vestigial organs” argument, ie that useless organs lag behind adaptation in a blind “tinkering” process.

  4. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    Much for me to digest here, Jon, which means I can’t yet do it all justice here and now.

    You wrote:
    Newton’s contribution was simply to propose a spooky occult force acting at a distance which operated under certain mathematical constraints. And that force remains spooky and occult in nature, except that we’ve got used to calling it scientific. Maybe gravity has waves – maybe not. Maybe (Hawking says) gravity is eternal and causes creation. In fact, we know its effects, not what it is – it could be God acting consistently on mass.
    [end quote]

    Indeed consistent regularity is the key. Whether it be God or nature, as long as it is sufficiently consistent, it gives science something to work with. You are absolutely right that gravity (and much else that is basic about reality) is spooky. The only difference between ‘magic’ and regularity is that we get used to regularity, and then even choose to count on it.

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