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Truth Infallible

14 Jan

Some time ago I was told a research paper I penned in college had been selected for publication in the University’s research journal.  Since that journal may or may not be available to everyone, I thought I’d post it here to stir up some controversy.  It is much needed, as most of my entries here have been me providing a list of crap I’m doing and not really saying much of anything.   So, I hope you enjoy this very lengthy post (the paper is a dozen pages).

Truth Infallible

by Joshua D. Maley 

“God forbid that Truth should be confined to Mathematical Demonstration!”
– William Blake

           Intrinsic to human nature are several qualities, or base instincts, that drive us, compel us, and define who we are: the desire to survive (i.e. eat, drink, live), the desire to procreate (continue the species), and perhaps less obvious, the desire for Truth.

            The road to Truth is arduous.  From the beginning of history, there have been those who would manipulate facts and create their own truths with the intent to willfully mislead others.  This continues today, in the form of politicians, the news media, and the numerous religious sects vying for the control – and most often, the money – of countless individuals.

            When one considers the realm of science, however, one often does not consider falsehoods and secret agendas.  Why should they?  Scientists don’t ask for your votes.  They don’t knock on your doors and ask if you’ve heard the good news about microbes in Earth’s stratosphere.  They don’t appear on television and tell you that you’re going to burn for eternity if you don’t send them fifty dollars per month.  Surely there is no agenda here.  Surely the sweeping generalization that science is an honest, unbiased search for Truth is . . . well . . . true.

            Science as an institution appears highly altruistic.  Yet the vast army of scientists in this country, and indeed the world at large, is comprised of normal human beings, susceptible to the same biases, agendas, and flaws to which we are all subject.  Bestowing the title of scientist on someone does not make him above reproach. This is not to discount the keen intellect necessary for scientific work.  But that intellect is still human, and still vulnerable to moral dilemmas.  In other words, the science is only as good as the scientist.

            These dilemmas and their results are perhaps no more keenly demonstrated than in the eternal debate over the Truth of our existence: where did we come from?  Are we a cosmic accident, destined only to live, suffer, and die?  Or are we the product of a design that transcends our ability to understand, destined for things we cannot yet fathom?

            This debate is most often manifest in the form of “creation versus evolution” – strictly speaking, that debate is religion versus science, and its propagation has polarized society into believing that one is right, one is wrong, and there is no middle ground.

            Middle ground does exist, and has existed since the time of the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, who laid the groundwork by suggesting that the existence of life could only be the result of an intelligent mind at work (Luskin).  Issac Newton himself made a claim of intelligent cause in his work, Opticks:

Was the Eye contrived without Skill in Opticks, and the Ear without Knowledge of Sounds? . . . And these things being rightly dispatch’d, does it not appear from Phænomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent (Newton, pp. 369, 370).

            Despite increasing acceptance and a growing mound of evidence, Intelligent Design is still regarded as something of a crackpot idea that is, at best, fringe science and at worst, “repackaged creationism” (Lusk).  This is an unfortunately widespread misunderstanding.  As Stephen C. Meyer, the Director of the Discovery Institute, contends in his article, “A Scientific History – and Philosophical Defense – of the Theory of Intelligent Design”:

            The theory of intelligent design, unlike creationism, is not based upon the Bible. Instead, it is based on observations of nature which the theory attempts to explain based on what we know about the cause and effect structure of the world and the patterns that generally indicate intelligent causes. Intelligent design is an inference from empirical evidence, not a deduction from religious authority (p. 2).

            The question must be raised, then: what happened to the search for Truth?  The theory of evolution has explained many things regarding the process of life, but has offered no substantial proof for the existence of life.  Prominent scientist and evolution advocate, Richard Dawkins, admitted that evolutionary science has no proof whatsoever regarding how the “first self-replicating molecule” (the first type of life form) came about (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed).

           Moreover, by teaching only one possibility in the face of many others, we are cheating our future generations out of the ability to think for themselves.  When we look at both arguments from a truly neutral perspective, it becomes obvious that evolution and intelligent design are intrinsically bound: both have their strong points, both have their weak points, and both are more complementary towards each other than either side wants to admit.

 “If it is not true, it is very well invented.”

– Giordano Bruno

 

           Credit for the establishment of modern evolutionary theory is generally attributed to Charles Darwin and his infamous voyage to the Galapagos on the HMS Beagle.  After this experience, he published what would become his life’s work: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.  In this treatise, he outlined his beliefs on how, given enough time, species can and will evolve into completely separate species.

           Evolution, and specifically natural selection, is fueled by a steady supply of genetic variation, which is the “ultimate source of new biological structure” (Meyer, p. 5).  If some evidence of limitations arose that would inhibit the amount of genetic variation, it would invalidate Darwin’s theory.  Such limitations were initially believed to exist during the latter end of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th century, thanks to the studies of one Gregor Mendel.

           Mendel’s studies of genetics, and specifically inheritance, initially brought about headaches for Darwinists by suggesting that there is only a limited amount of genetic variation possible based on the traits passed on by the preceding generation (Mendelian Genetics).

           However, in the 1930’s, further advancement in genetics led to the nascence of the neo-Darwinist: an advocate of natural selection who accepts an “evolved” form of Darwin’s theory that incorporates more recent scientific information.  Neo-Darwinists believe that numerous small-scale, microevolutionary changes can eventually extrapolate to macroevolutionary changes.

           Microevolution: literally means “evolution on a small scale” (Understanding Evolution).  These are little changes, such as fish who live in dark caves losing their eyes because they no longer need them, or people who live in sunnier climates eventually developing darker skin due to constant exposure to sunlight.  The neo-Darwinist believes that one can infinitely extrapolate on these small scale changes to explain the evolution of entirely different species, given enough time; in other words, microevolution leads to macroevolution.

           Macroevolution deals with the big picture: those sweeping changes that scientists believe are responsible for the eventual development of human beings (Understanding Evolution).  This area of study recognizes common traits between completely different species.  While this particular field is not observable – to date, no scientist has ever documented witnessing one species transforming into a different species – scientists study patterns in the natural world and genetic information to infer hypotheses.

           The ingredients for macroevolution are simple: mix together the core evolutionary components of genetic mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection and add roughly 3.8 billion years.  Such would be sufficient to proceed from a puddle of “soup” to the world we know today (Understanding Evolution).  Despite the progress made since Darwin’s era, there are still many questions evolutionary biologists are trying to answer.  These questions, culled from the website “Understanding Evolution,” are as follows:

  1. Does evolution tend to proceed slowly or in quick jumps?
  2. Why are some clades (groupings of species based on a perceived common ancestor) very diverse and some unusually sparse?
  3. How does evolution produce new and complex features?
  4. Are there trends in evolution, and if so, what process generates them?

           These questions not only provide a framework for the future study of evolution, they also suggest the limitations of the theory.  Indeed, using the term “theory” to describe it may be too informal.  In science, before a theory can be declared, several things must occur in accordance with the widely accepted scientific method.

           The scientific method is a series of steps taken to “logically solve problems in many . . . areas of life” (The Scientific Method).  The first step is actually positing a question to answer (in our case: from where does life come?).  Next, we must formulate a hypothesis (or a conclusion based on what we know; this conclusion must be testable).  Once the tests are in place, a deductive prediction is made which is either validated or invalidated by the results of the testing.  It is important to note here that even when the results validate the hypothesis, it “can never be proven or confirmed with absolute certainty” because it is impossible to test under all possible conditions and variations (The Scientific Method).  Nevertheless, hypotheses which have gained support from empirical testing are eventually promoted to the rank of theory.

           The issue with macroevolution, then, should be evident: it is untestable.  Scientists can examine data from the fossil record and from species today and can make inferences about potential relationships.  Those inferences may even ring with the sound of truth and logic.  Yet strictly speaking, if we are to follow the method developed by science itself, there is absolutely no basis for macroevolution to be considered a tried and true theory.  It is a hypothesis that has garnered support from inferences derived from scholarly study, but lacks any kind of empirical evidence.

           Taken together, these observations and inferences can logically lead us to a singular conclusion: for all its support and all its followers, the theory of evolution still involves a component of faith.  If science is honest with itself about its inability to definitively prove a hypothesis, much less a theory, then one cannot say without a doubt that evolution is 100% true.  One must have faith: in those who conduct the research, in those who publish their theories, in those who make their various claims.

Yet the deepest truths are best read between the lines, and, for the most part, refuse to be written.”                                                                           –  Amos Bronson Alcott

            Despite the popular assumption that intelligent design is a new fad being spread by religious fanatics, the debate over design in nature predates even Darwin and his evolutionary hypothesis.  As noted previously, even the ancient Greek philosophers wrestled with the question.  Indeed, the very co-founder of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, even believed that certain elements of biology were best explained as the work of a higher intelligence.  As Meyer explains in a quote from Wallace, “[S]o far from this view being out of harmony with the teachings of science, it has a striking analogy with what is now taking place in the world” (Meyer, p. 5).

           Just as Darwinism enjoyed a renaissance in the early years of the last century with the neo-Darwinist movement – which was a reevaluation and integration of new scientific evidence into an existing theory – intelligent design enjoyed a similar return to prominence in the 1970’s, thanks to the work of Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen, and the introduction of what is commonly known as the science of information.  The basis for this new brand of science (which some contend should take its place amongst the most base elements of existence, alongside matter and energy): the discovery of DNA.

           DNA, or Deoxyribonucleic Acid, is regarded as the “sine qua non of life” (Thaxton).  It is through DNA that a living system is classified; in other words, if a given organism contains DNA, it is deemed alive (Thaxton).  The familiar “double helix” represents a strand of DNA, and within that strand is reputed to be all of the “digital information” that, to use a modern analogy, instructs the body in the same way computer code instructs software.

           Francis Crick, one of the men who helped bring the DNA molecule to light, formulated a “sequence hypothesis,” which suggests that the chemical constituents in DNA code act like a written language that reflect certain things depending on their arrangement.  These bear the hallmarks of language or code, which both point to an intelligence behind the design (Meyer, p. 6).

           The modern study of intelligent design is inextricably woven into the study of DNA and genetics, although it receives credibility from other fields, such as quantum physics (the study of individual units of energy, which is “more important than even relativity in the grand scheme of things” because it “contains many clues to the fundamental nature of the universe” [“What is Quantum Physics”]).  One of the biggest issues arising from this study is a fundamental flaw with the very backbone of evolution: that element of random chance.  Whereas evolution suggests that, given enough time, completely random systems can falsely give the appearance of order, genetic studies demonstrate that the sheer number of possible sequences corresponding to a gene or protein of a given length are so great that it may in fact “preclude the origin of genetic information by random mutational search” (Meyer, p. 8).

           Meyer contends that a single protein one hundred amino acids in length is in and of itself extremely unlikely.  He posits that there are 10130 possible amino acid sequences of this length, and the vast majority of these perform no function.  How, then, can random chance be responsible for a human body that is infinitely more complex?  Meyer says, “Would an undirected search through this enormous space of possible sequences have a realistic chance of finding a functional sequence in the time allotted for crucial evolutionary transitions?”  (Meyer, p. 8 )

           Furthering the argument that there is a degree of intelligence behind life is Dean Kenyon.  In the 1960’s, Kenyon’s book, Biochemical Predestination, was considered a leading volume on chemical evolution.  Eventually, Kenyon would come to challenge his own hypotheses, and attempted a series of experiments that suggested simple chemicals do not arrange themselves into the “complex, information-bearing molecules” required for life to exist (Meyer, p. 10).  The magnitude of this “defection” should not be underestimated.

           Intelligent design theory is subject to the same limitations as evolution.  While we can point out patterns and elements of design in DNA, we cannot “prove” that they were intelligently designed any more than we can “prove” they evolved by random chance.  There is simply no way to empirically record data that will answer definitively the question of where we came from.  Intelligent design also bears with it a stigma that keeps it from being regarded as true science: specifically, its misinterpreted association with the religious extremists who want to claim it as proof of their creationist views.

“At times, truth may not seem probable.”
–          Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux

           Applying scientific theory to the study of something does not necessarily make that something science.  If, indeed, there is consensus that science is only concerned with that which is able to be proven and verified beyond a reasonable doubt, then perhaps the science classroom is not the appropriate place for intelligent design.

           Conversely, we must examine whether the theory of macroevolution is suited for the science classroom.  As has been demonstrated, it is nothing more than an inference based on existing scientific evidence.  Why is it deemed acceptable to teach this unproven hypothesis, this inference, as scientific theory?  Why is there such hostility in the scientific community when someone challenges its validity?

           Intrinsic to scientific impartiality should be a dose of neutrality.  Yet this neutrality is replaced with such vehement hostility that one must question if the “evidence” is being properly interpreted.  According to Wolfgang Wieland, who is quoted in Dr. Werner Gitt’s book, In the Beginning Was Information, scientists are swayed by bias and popular opinion.  He explains, “It only appears that such theories are tested empirically, but in actual fact observations are always explained in such a way that they are consistent with the pre-established theories.  It may even happen that observations are twisted for this purpose” (Gitt, p. 30).

           Personal bias is obvious in mainstream science as well.  Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, admits that his belief in atheism compels him to be hostile towards those who challenge evolutionary theory.  Indeed, Dawkins has no problem believing that life on Earth could have been seeded by extraterrestrials (themselves the product of some form of Darwinian evolution), but cannot abide the idea that “God” was somehow behind it (Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed).

           We have established that neither macroevolution nor intelligent design can ever be conclusively proven true or false.  We have established each takes an element of faith to believe in.  We have established that the study of both theories is not pure science, because they are both merely inferences based on scientific data but not able to be tested.  So what is the solution?

           Honesty on both sides, and proper context, will lead us to the best solution.  If indeed macroevolution and intelligent design are inferences based on scientific data, they should be taught as such.  Perhaps neither belongs in the science classroom.  Perhaps they belong in the philosophy classroom.  Perhaps they belong in an interim study of pseudo-science.  After all, we are more than the sum of our biological parts, aren’t we?  When one listens to Mozart or Bach, or is drawn into the words of classic literary works by men like Chaucer or Dickens, what we feel and experience transcends the ability of scientific explanation.  Science offers us no explanation for abstract concepts such as “beauty” – these come from somewhere beyond the reach of Darwin, Dawkins, and even Meyer and Gitt.  Science is but one aspect of our existence, and of the human experience.  And while it can help quantify some of that experience, it will never be able to provide us with a complete explanation of it.

           Science belongs in the science class room, there must be no mistake.  But the time for masquerading inferences as fact must end, and the hostility of the establishment when their long-time “theories” are called into question must likewise end.  After all, the freedom to question everything is what allowed Darwin to develop the theory of evolution in the first place.  One must wonder if Darwin would approve of the dogmatic adherence to his theory in the face of opposing ideas.

           In the end, proponents of both theories must admit, if they are being honest with themselves and true to the established principles of science, that we simply do not know what sparked the existence of life and that until we do, the study of both should be relegated to the appropriate classroom (which may or may not be the science classroom).  What we can see is how life has evolved, and how it continues to evolve.  And while we can use that knowledge to extrapolate to a degree about our past, the Truth is that we cannot prove one theory or the other.  The Truth is, we do not, and cannot, know for certain.

           Science has revolutionized our understanding of the world around us, and it has done so because the men and women who devote their lives to it have been free to question everything.  When we start putting limits on those questions, when we start imposing our beliefs on others, we start to lose ourselves.  It is ironic that that same claim, once made against religious fanatics everywhere, can now be made about many in the scientific community.  The freedom to question everything will eventually lead us to the Truth.

Works Cited

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Dir. Nathan Frankowski. Perf. Ben Stein. DVD. Premise Media Corp, 2008.

Gitt, Werner. In the Beginning Was Information. Christliche Literatur-Verbreitung, 2000.

Luskin, Casey. “A Brief History of Intelligent Design.” CSC – A Brief History of Intelligent Design. 8 Sept. 2008. Center for Science and Culture. 19 Mar. 2009 <http://www.discovery.org/csc/&gt;.

“Mendelian Genetics.” NDSU – North Dakota State University. 07 Apr. 2009 <http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/instruct/mcclean/plsc431/mendel/mendel1.htm&gt;.

Meyer, Stephen C. “A Scientific History and Philosophical Defense of the Theory of Intelligent Design.” Gesellschaft 7 Oct. 2008: 2-2.

Newton, Issac. Optiks. Prometheus Books, 2003.

“Of Darwin, Dover, and (un)intelligent Design.” Church & State Feb. 2009: 10-13.

Thaxton, Charles B. “DNA, Design and the Origin of Life.” Origins.org. 24 Mar. 2009 <http://www.origins.org/articles/thaxton_dnadesign.html&gt;.

Understanding Evolution. 24 Mar. 2009 <http://evolution.berkeley.edu&gt;.

“What is Quantum Physics.” Oracle ThinkQuest Library. 07 Apr. 2009 <http://library.thinkquest.org/3487/qp.html&gt;.

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2 Comments

Posted by on January 14, 2010 in Writing

 

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2 responses to “Truth Infallible

  1. Invisible Mikey

    January 14, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    Joshua, I enjoyed reading your paper.
    Though I don’t agree that scientists are dogmatic (at least not those I’ve worked with in medical practice and research), your points are well-considered.

    I don’t believe scientists working in the field identify themselves as ONLY Darwinists. To me, that’s a misconception based on a non-existent war between a philosophical position (Intelligent Design) and a method (the practice of science). The scientific method is not focused on origins, but on experimentation and result – this works, this doesn’t. Try it, see what happens. Can you repeat the result? Who started it is so far out of consideration it’s irrelevant.

    It also isn’t fair to give so much weight to Richard Dawkins. He’s a prominent atheist and critic of religion, but he hardly represents any kind of average scientist or scientific worker. The scientists I know (mostly medical Drs.) are no less religious than the average population, since there’s no reason God couldn’t work using evolution or any other method.

    I do applaud you for not confusing Social Darwinism (Herbert Spencer coined “survival of the fittest” not Darwin) with Darwin’s own work.

     
    • joshuadmaley

      January 15, 2010 at 12:53 pm

      Though I don’t agree that scientists are dogmatic (at least not those I’ve worked with in medical practice and research), your points are well-considered.

      I appreciate that. I certainly don’t intend to imply that all scientists are dogmatic, nor is the paper itself intended to be an assault on science. To the contrary, I have tremendous respect for the field and those who work in it. It is a valuable tool for the study of the mechanics and inner workings of the world around us, and has brought our civilization to new frontiers in medicine, propulsion, and more. It is only when it pushes beyond the “how” and attempts to explain “why” that it becomes a problem now and again.

      I did discover during my research, however, certain elements within the field (in particular those who concern themselves with the study of evolution) who were extremely dogmatic. It was this group – the embodied mainly through Richard Dawkins – that I chose to address. I apologize if that was unclear.

      The purpose was also to address the blind acceptance of science for the sake of science, and to suggest that there are no hidden agendas or biases at work. It is naïve to think that any organization or group is completely altruistic and not subject to human error, but I found a surprising number of people who felt that such is the case with the scientists; enough to make it a larger point in the paper. Take that for what it’s worth; this is but one city in one state in a small corner of the country, so perhaps attitudes are different elsewhere. But I did see reflections of this attitude in my research.

      I don’t believe scientists working in the field identify themselves as ONLY Darwinists. To me, that’s a misconception based on a non-existent war between a philosophical position (Intelligent Design) and a method (the practice of science). The scientific method is not focused on origins, but on experimentation and result – this works, this doesn’t. Try it, see what happens. Can you repeat the result? Who started it is so far out of consideration it’s irrelevant.

      I don’t believe I attempted to classify “all” scientists as strictly Darwinists. I know several who are not, and I can only assume there are more out there. To say all scientists must be Darwinists is tantamount to saying all church-goers must be extremist nut jobs.

      I don’t see a comparison between ID and the Method at all. Scientists who subscribe to ID as a philosophical position still use the Method in their work. I don’t think at any point I suggested the Method be used to determine an origin. As you point out, the Method is essentially the practice of science, and it is a long-standing and well respected practice at that. My issue, and the reason for its inclusion, is that the Method cannot specifically and reliably applied to macroevolution – the assumption that, given enough time, genetic variation will produce entirely new species. You can, however, apply the Method to microevolution. So it is extrapolated that because microevolution has strong supporting evidence, then macroevolution must also be true. This may even be a reasonable extrapolation. But that is all that it is: an extrapolation. To claim it is a hardened and proven theory, as a great many people do (within and without the science circle) is inaccurate, by science’s own standards. Thus, it should be treated as such. I completely agree with those who want to keep the science classroom strictly based in science. But it should apply across the board.

      It also isn’t fair to give so much weight to Richard Dawkins. He’s a prominent atheist and critic of religion, but he hardly represents any kind of average scientist or scientific worker. The scientists I know (mostly medical Drs.) are no less religious than the average population, since there’s no reason God couldn’t work using evolution or any other method.

      Very true. As with any research paper, particularly college papers, one only has a limited amount of time and space and must stay on a certain theme. I chose Dawkins because he best represented the attitude and world view that I wanted to focus on for the paper. There were others I spoke to, read interviews with, and so forth but in the somewhat limited time frame I wasn’t able to include all of the material I would have liked. I may revise the paper to include them as well in the future.

      I do applaud you for not confusing Social Darwinism (Herbert Spencer coined “survival of the fittest” not Darwin) with Darwin’s own work.

      This sort of paper is always an uphill battle. Most people expect Creation versus Evolution and expect me to insist God be taught in the science class and to somehow attempt to disprove scientific methodologies and practices or simply ignore them. I don’t feel that way at all. But certainly, the same standards should apply across the board; macroevolution is untestable. It is an extrapolation being perpetrated in the classroom as a cold, hard fact. I wouldn’t expect ID to be taught as such in a science class, or any other class. So I would expect to see that here.

      I appreciate your comment, thank you.

       

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