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Science and the Supernatural (II); Why We Get It Wrong and Why It Matters

Paul1

“I have no need of that hypothesis.” So, according to legend, said the great astronomer and mathematician Piere-Simon, marquis de Laplace, when asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned God in his book. If so, Laplace was not referring to the hypothesis that God exists, but to the much more interesting hypothesis that He intervenes in the material world. And Laplace’s point was not, fundamentally, philosophical or theological, but scientific.

The planets do not move round the Sun in circular orbits, but in elliptical pathways, moving fastest when closest. All this and more Newton had explained using his laws of motion, combined with his inverse square law for gravitational attraction. There is one small problem, however. The planets are attracted, not only to the Sun, but to each other, perturbing each other’s pathways away from a perfect ellipse. These perturbations are not trivial, and in fact it was the perturbation of the orbit of Uranus that would lead to the discovery of Neptune. Newton himself surmised that they could, eventually, render the entire system unstable so that God would need, from time to time, to intervene and correct it. Laplace devoted much of his career to developing the mathematical tools for estimating the size of the perturbations, and concluded that the Solar System was in fact stable. So Newton’s hypothesis of divine intervention was redundant, and it was this hypothesis that Laplace was supposedly referring to.

There is an irony here. Laplace’s calculation that the solar system is stable is true only in the short term, (say a few tens or hundreds of millions of years). In the long enough term, the situation is much more uncertain. As Henri Poincaré was to show a century later, a system of three or more gravitationally interacting bodies is potentially chaotic. Under certain circumstances, an initially minute difference in starting conditions can lead to an ever increasing divergence of outcomes, so that eventually planets can adopt highly elongated orbits, or even be thrown out of their solar systems altogether. Modern computer simulations show (see here and here) that the solar system is indeed chaotic, that Mercury is vulnerable to extreme change or even ejection from the Solar System, and that it is possible that in some 3.5 billion years Mercury’s instability could be transferred to the other inner planets, including Earth, leading to the possibility of collision.

Science, some say, rejects supernatural explanations on principle; this is called intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN). In Part I I argued, following the work of Boudry et al. (herehere , and here), that this strategy is misguided. Here I go into more detail, using this example, and other past and present controversies, to illustrate the point.

Stephen Hawking has commented on Laplace’s remark, in much the same spirit as I am suggesting regarding the God question, but assumes for him a much more absolute position:

I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of Science. That must be the position of every scientist. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it only holds when some supernatural being decides to let things run, and not intervene.

Paul2A similar point of view had been put forward by Richard Lewontin, in his uncomfortably perceptive review, available here, of Sagan’s Demon Haunted World); I consider this review required reading for those defending science because of its all too rare recognition of creationism as a complex social problem:

Perhaps we ought to add to the menu of Saganic demonology, just after spoon-bending, ten-second seat-of-the-pants explanations of social realities.

I cannot do justice to Lewontin’s reasoning by brief truncated quotations from his complex argument. It is clear, however, that he uses two very different arguments in rapid succession:

Nearly every present-day scientist would agree with Carl Sagan that our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural demons, witches, and spirits of every kind, including any of the various gods from Adonai to Zeus…. We also exclude from our explanations little green men from Mars riding in spaceships, although they are supposed to be quite as corporeal as you and I, because the evidence is overwhelming that Mars hasn’t got any…

We take the side of science … because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. … To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

The first paragraph is one that I can accept and advocate in its entirety. We reject supernatural causes in the same way that we reject implausible material explanations, because the evidence tells us that they don’t exist. The second, intertwined with observations that I have had to omit for brevity regarding the tenuousness of the pretensions of science and what he calls the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, is of a very different kind. Science, he says, is committed in principle to material causes, and the reason for doing so is, again, to exclude divine intervention.

Leave aside for now the problem of defining “materialism”; at a time when our concept of the material includes dark energy, particle entanglement, and quantum fluctuations in nothingness of which our entire Universe may be but one example, this is much the same as the problem of defining “naturalism” that I mentioned in Part I. Leave aside also the deliberately provocative antireligious language, inconvenient though that be for coalition builders. After all, Lewontin has, and is entitled to, his own agenda here. Leave aside even the possibility that miracles need not disrupt the normal business of science, as long as they are sufficiently rare. Hawking has followed Lewontin into the trap that awaits all those who would legislate the metaphysical out of existence. They lay themselves open to the charge that they are, themselves, arbitrarily introducing yet another metaphysical rule.

Paul3So, alas, does the National Science Teachers Association, whose commitment to IMN is quoted with approval by the National Academy of Sciences (Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, 1998 but still current, and freely available here, p. 124):

 Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes the universe operates according to regularities and that through systematic investigation we can understand these regularities. The methodology of science emphasizes the logical testing of alternate explanations of natural phenomena against empirical data. Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes. [Emphasis added]

This is very bad. We slide from an innocent-seeming description of the domain of science as the “natural” world, through the uncontroversial idea of testing explanations against each other, to the non sequitur of the sentence I have highlighted. There is an illusion of logic, based on an assumed dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, but this is mere wordplay. We are given no other reason for this leap, even though it could have been justified, as Hawking and Lewontin justify their own exclusion of the supernatural, by reference to the assumption of regularity. As we saw in Part I, the claim that “science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces” is simply untrue. Time and again, science has refuted the appeal to the supernatural by providing alternatives – if this is not “making statements about supernatural forces”, what is?

Present-day science does indeed make statements highly relevant to the existence or otherwise of supernatural forces. To raise the stakes to their utmost, some consider the Universe to be fine tuned for life, and regard this as scientific evidence for a purposeful Creator.[1] Others regard this as yet another argument from ignorance, since it may well be that the Universe is not really all that special, or that there are as yet unknown constraints of some kind on the relevant physical constants, or that quantum fluctuations will generate such a superabundance of Universes that some, statistically, are bound to have the required properties. While it may be premature to test these suggestions, they are part of a clearly scientific agenda. The suggested causes would be “natural.” by any standards, but if established would have the effect of making the appeal to a supernatural Creator unnecessary. Science would then have made a clear statement about the purported supernatural force responsible for fine tuning, exactly as it did about the purported supernatural force responsible for the stability of the Solar System, namely that there was, in Lavoisier’s words, no need for that hypothesis.

Two other examples spring to mind. First, the argument from Intelligent Design as applied to the mammalian eye. This fails, because the mammalian eye is in one crucial detail very poorly designed. The nerve endings, and the blood supply, run in front of, rather than behind, the photosensors, partly occluding them and giving rise to each eye’s blind spot. It does not have to be that way, since the octopus eye is built the right way round. At this point, the defender of design has two options. He can admit defeat, or at least accept that the Designer’s options are restricted by our evolutionary history. So in this case the argument from design is refuted or, at any rate, enfeebled. Or he can argue, as Behe does in Darwin’s Black Box, that the refutation fails because we do not know the Designer’s full intent. At this point, we lose interest because the argument from design has become so well immunized against observation, to borrow a term from Maarten Boudry’s PhD thesis Here be Dragons, that it has ceased to be science. In neither case have we referred to the supernatural nature of the argument as the reason for dismissing it.

Secondly, there is a version of theistic evolution in which the Creator intervenes at the level of quantum mechanical indeterminacy to set in course one mutation rather than another, and used this to ensure the evolution of intelligent humans. I first heard this suggestion from Alvin Plantinga,[2] and if I understand Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God correctly I think that on this topic, for once, he and Plantinga would agree. Certainly there is nothing here that violates the laws of physics and chemistry, since the chance breakdown of one single radioactive atom at one moment rather than the next may well disrupt a growing chain of DNA, and a single mutation may well have far-reaching consequences.[3] Were such a mutation to have happened under the Creator’s guidance, that would be supernatural causation par excellence.

I would argue against this on the grounds that there is little or no evidence of a bias towards beneficial mutations, and that since intelligence has emerged independently in cephalopods, cetaceans, parrots, velociraptors (if cerebral capacity is anything to go by), and simians, the emergence of such little intelligence as we have requires no special explanation. Now you may regard my argument as mistaken, banal, or ill-informed, but I do not see how you can describe it as outside the domain of science.

Thus we do, as I just did, use scientific reasoning to discuss the claims of supernaturalists, so IMN is untrue. It was untrue in the 18th century when science explored solar system stability; it was untrue in the 19th when natural selection rendered Paley’s watchmaker redundant; it was untrue in the 20th when claims of extrasensory perception were scientifically examined and found wanting; and it is untrue in the present century as we prepare to grapple with such problems as the origin of our Universe and its appearance of being fine-tuned for the emergence of life. To propagating IMN is to propagate a falsehood.

Paul4Does this matter? Yes, very much indeed. There is a war on, between the supporters of science as we know it, and the creationists and endarkeners who wish to replace it with what the Discovery Institute’s Institute for Science and Culture calls in its notorious “wedge” document “the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

The unwarranted and inaccurate grafting onto the methods of science the arbitrary rule that it must not traffic in the supernatural exposes a flank to its enemies, which they have been quick to exploit. The central argument of Phillip Johnson’s Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, which predates the Wedge Document, is that mainstream science (including, crucially, the study of human origins) is illegitimate because it arbitrarily excludes explanations that lie outside the limits of naturalism. His disciple Alastair Noble, director of the Glasgow-based, Centre for Intelligent Design, says in the Centre’s introductory video

One of the key questions posed by the world around us is whether we are here by chance or by design.  There is a strident strain of science which insists that all the design in the world is apparent, not real, and that natural selection acting on random mutations is sufficient to explain it all.  That kind of science is derived from a view that the only explanations which are acceptable are those which depend purely on physical or materialist processes.  That is not a scientific finding that is derived from the evidence.  It is, in fact a philosophical position, and a biased one at that, which is brought to the actual evidence.  It excludes other types of explanation which the evidence may merit.

Here the claim that mainstream science excludes design-based explanations a priori is used to bolster the common creationist tactic of misrepresenting the outcomes of its investigations, including evolution, as inputs. Going further downmarket, we come to the creationist claims that evolution science is a religion like any other, or that evolution and creationism differ only in their starting assumptions, and as long as the scientific community itself presents the rejection of the supernatural as an input rather than an output, we have scant grounds for complaint against such vulgarizations.

Why do we persist in exposing ourselves in this way? Boudry and colleagues (2010) suggest several reasons. One of these we have already demolished; the claim that IMN is built in to the definition of science. There is a large literature (see e.g. here) on how and indeed if science should be defined, and I have nothing to add to this, beyond reminding readers that “supernatural” is itself difficult to define, and repeating my earlier point that insisting on IMN would exclude much activity that we generally consider scientific. A second, mentioned by both Hawking and Lewontin in the essays I quoted, is that it would undermine the assumption of regularity that underpins science. Miracles such as those claimed for Jesus would indeed undermine that assumption, but only in rare and very special cases; so rare and special that they can hardly constitute a serious threat to our business.[4]

Our faith in the regularity of nature derives from our having lived and evolved in a world where it holds good, not from some special rule about the nature of science. It is confirmed, over huge reaches of space and time, by observation. We can interpret the spectra of galaxies whose light has taken 12 billion years to reach us, and the suggestion (since subjected to highly critical scrutiny) that the constants of physics might have changed even in the fourth decimal place was enough to arouse the interest of The Economist.

From constancy to change. On current thinking, the early Universe underwent a period of rapid inflation, in which space expanded at such a rate that the distance between points initially close together grew at a rate faster than the speed of light. Thus during this expansionary stage the laws of nature were very different from what they are today. And the state of the Universe before this stage may be to us in principle unknowable.

All the conclusions of the last two paragraphs may be subject to revision. But this very fact reinforces my claim, that our faith in the constancy of nature is testable by science, and that science can (and currently does) tell us that the domain of this faith is wide, but not unlimited. Thus it is as much an outcome of our experience as a methodological input.

A third argument for IMN is that in its absence the possibility of invoking supernatural explanations may discourage the search for natural ones. This is a purely pragmatic argument, and I cannot imagine it having any real effect. Those who prefer supernatural explanations invoke them anyway. Millions of Americans believe humans to have arisen through a special supernatural act, but this is not for lack of a naturalistic explanation. Intelligent Design creationists argue that undirected evolution cannot possibly generate new information, or that protein sequences are too improbable to have arisen naturally. Young Earth creationists, a separate group (although in the UK the two groups strongly overlap) point to anomalies in radiometric dating, or to polonium halos in rocks that did not contain polonium’s ultimate parent, uranium, and claim that these somehow cause the naturalistic account of earth’s geological history to unravel. This they do because of their prior commitment to mystification. Debunking their nonsense is a proper matter for science, and the talkorigins website has a very useful page listing numerous such claims and their rebuttals[5] although experience shows that mere refutation will not stop their proponents from repeating them. And there are important unsolved problems, such as the origin of life, which some claim as evidence for supernatural intervention, but I do not think that any scientist interested in the topic would be so easily fobbed off. In any case, defining their activities as unscientific would not make the supernaturalists disappear. On the contrary; they would (and do; see above) triumphantly hail such definitions as proof that we impose arbitrary limitations on our science.

There are more technical arguments, which boil down to the untestability of supernatural explanations. But we already have the rule that science deals with the (in principle) testable, so that there is no need to invoke IMN. And finally there is the argument from legal expediency, which I maintain is both unnecessary and two-edged.

Unnecessary. Judge Jones famously ruled in Kitzmiller vs Dover School District that Intelligent Design (ID) is not science, but a form of religiously motivated creationism, thus barring it from publicly funded schools in the US. What is primary here is the ruling that is religion; the finding that it is not science is secondary. The ID argument from the design of the eye is not science, because it is immunized against scientific examination. But the ID argument from the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum is science. Just hopelessly wrong science,[6] as shown by the piles of scientific documents produced in court, and the persistence in this wrongheadedness was also accepted as evidence that ID’s agenda is religious. The distinction, if there is one, between bad science and not science was immaterial.

Double edged. There is a real cost to the ruling that ID is religion, and schools in the UK are paying that cost right now. While ID is officially shut out of the science lab, at least in state funded schools in England (the situation in Scotland is less clear), it is in the process of infiltrating itself into the Religious Education classroom, by way of such materials as The God Question, and RE teachers will be less able (and in some cases less willing) than their Science colleagues to dispose of its pretensions.

In short, IMN is untrue and carries a heavy rhetorical cost to science. But everything that can be accomplished by including IMN in our definition of science and then appealing to that definition as criterion, can be accomplished on its own merits by less circuitous means. So let’s cut out the middleman.

Instead, I would appeal once more to Laplace, who took as examples such purported phenomena as animal magnetism, dowsing, and solar and lunar influences on mood, and concluded:

Paul5

We are so far from knowing all the agents of nature and their diverse modes of action that it would not be philosophical to deny phenomena solely because they are inexplicable in the actual state of our knowledge. But we ought to examine them with an attention all the more scrupulous as it appears more difficult to admit them, and it is here that the calculation of probabilities becomes indispensable, to decide to what point one must multiply observations or experiments, in order to obtain for the agents that they indicate a probability that outweighs the reasons we would otherwise have against admitting them.


Or, in the abbreviated form that has come down to us to us through Carl Sagan,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

That’s all we need.

I thank Maarten Boudry and Stephen Law for helpful discussions. Posthumous portrait of Laplace by Guérin through here. An earlier version of this piece originally appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

1] Capital letters for Creator and Designer because I do not wish to collude in the polite fiction that the Intelligent Design programme is anything other than an argument for the existence of God. Separate technical questions have been raised about the validity of the statistical argument from fine-tuning, but these do not affect my argument.

2] Personal communication, ca. 2006

3] Consider the mutation that made Queen Victoria, grandmother of the last Tsarevich, a carrier of haemophilia, and what difference this might have made to Russian history.

4] For some believers, the Mass might be a counter-example. But since the claimed miraculous trans-substantiation changes no accidental (i.e. observable) properties, it is irrelevant to science.

5] Alternating mutation and selection can and demonstrably does generate new information, protein sequences have considerable flexibility and do not arise in a single step, polonium halos in uranium-free rocks can be traced to the diffusion of radon, dating anomalies are exceptional and indeed informative, since they can be traced to heating episodes and other post-depositional events, and so on.

6] Since there is an excellent scientific, indeed Darwinian, explanation in terms of exaptation. Although if this is excluded by moving the goalposts, a typical ID ploy, perhaps we have again moved into the domain of non-science.

The natural, the supernatural, and the nature of science

by Paul Braterman

 

 

Paul1Science, it is often said, is restricted in principle to the search for natural causes. Is this a fundamental rule for doing science? Or merely a useful procedural guide, derived from experience? Is it even true? Or meaningful? Does it matter? These questions are addressed in an important series of papers in  20102012, and 2014, by Maarten Boudry at the University of Ghent and his colleagues. They conclude that it matters a great deal, that the alleged restriction does not in fact exist, and that appealing to such a principle in argument is harmful to the cause of science. I agree.

I will deal with the first four questions in reverse order. Can we make a meaningful distinction between the natural and the supernatural? I was initially inclined to say no. If something occurs, it’s part of nature. It is a law of nature that water doesn’t turn into wine, but if you believe that the miracle of the wedding feast of Cana really happened, then you need to modify the law to say “Water doesn’t turn into wine, except when Jesus tells it to.” Maarten persuaded me that this was not a helpful line to take. Like all attempts to define a problem out of existence, it is logically unassailable, but useless. It denies us access to the very distinction that we should be clarifying.

The question, however, is more difficult than it seems. After all, we do not know everything that there is to be known about nature. We readily apply the label “supernatural” to purported phenomena such as telekinesis or telepathy, in which mind is regarded as operating on matter or on other minds without material agency, but we do not have a satisfactory account of mind-matter relationships anyway. Other prime candidates for supernatural status, such as precognition and remote viewing, would if real involve transcending the usual space-time framework, but space and time are much less rigidly defined now than they seemed to be before Einstein. The limits of natural explanation have been extended in the past, by invoking action at a distance (gravity, then other forces), intrinsic randomness (quantum mechanics), and more recently particle entanglement (quantum mechanics again). Presumably they will be in the future, in ways yet undreamt of. So the fact that something cannot be explained by today’s science need not force us to invoke the supernatural. What would, then? Boudry and Taner Edis suggest a test for what they call unphysical causation, but it is highly technical, with their criterion based on demonstrated access to uncomputable numbers (I will not attempt to reproduce their argument). However, they suggest some examples. What, for instance, if Lourdes started producing undeniable miracles in large numbers, including the regrowth of amputated limbs, but only for devout Catholics? What if all organisms were found to contain an identical section of DNA, whose diffraction pattern spelt out the message “© Yahweh 4004 BC”? What, I might add, if we really did start receiving messages from the dead?

Searching for messages is not a new idea. There are cottage industries within both Christianity and Islam,  producing evidence that the authors of the Bible or the Qur’an are referring to scientific facts unknown by mere mortals when these books were first written. For instance, does the reference to the “circle of the Earth” in Isaiah 40:22 imply that the author knew that the Earth goes round the sun? Do the numerous biblical references to God stretching out the heavens show an awareness of the expanding universe? Mohammed is said to have “split the moon”; is this a reference to its formation by accretion? Few of us would find these examples convincing.

Paul2Or, to take a much more sophisticated (and lucrative) example, what of the “Bible code” claim[1] that computer searching of the Hebrew text according to certain counting rules reveals messages about post-biblical, including recent, history, placed there on purpose so that, when computers became available, we would be able to read these messages? The claim was taken seriously by enough people to put three successive volumes on the best-seller list. But that tells us nothing about its truth. This is testable, in at least two different ways, and fails both tests miserably.

Firstly, is the text special? Test: take some other, undoubtedly secular, text, apply the same methodology, and see what happens. Many people have done this with remarkable results. My favourite is an analysis, by the geophysicist Dave Thomas, of the Amazon website excerpt from the third book in the series, from which he unearthed the messages that the Bible Code was a “vain hoax” and “megalomania”. Well, that’s English, not Hebrew, but Hebrew should be even easier since it is written with consonants only.

Secondly, are the predictions correct? Take this example: Bible Code II predicted that Yasser Arafat would be shot by Hamas gunmen. In fact, he died of an infection, and Hamas had nothing to do with it. Again, the same book predicted Libya acquiring weapons of mass destruction; in fact, Libya renounced its plans in that direction, opening up a brief honeymoon between Gaddafi and the West. There were also predictions of an end-times nuclear war, and had any policy makers been paying attention to these (not inconceivable when millions of Americans await the Rapture) the consequences could have been serious indeed.

Why have I spent so much time on this silly example? Because it gives the answer to all but one of my original five questions. Despite the problem of definition, we would all agree that if the Bible Code claims had been correct, they would have been evidence of supernatural agency. So yes, the distinction (Question 4) between natural and supernatural is meaningful. More importantly, this example shows that we do in fact investigate supernaturalist claims using the methods of science (Question 3; science is not restricted to the search for natural causes; so the initial assertion is not true). It follows at once that when occasion demands we cheerfully violate the purported restriction on how we do science, which therefore cannot be a fundamental rule (Question 1).

Paul3It is only after the Bible Code claims have been convincingly shredded that we can decide that claims of this kind are not worth our time and trouble. It was only after exhaustive card-guessing experiments had failed to reveal any evidence for ESP (and after the published evidence for its reality was found to be faulty if not fraudulent) that people decided it was just not worth while continuing in that direction. It was only after spiritualists had repeatedly been exposed as fakes that scientists more or less stopped investigating them. For a while, even such distinguished scientists as Alfred Russel Wallace took their pretensions seriously. However, nowadays such investigations are undertaken more to unmask fraud and protect the public than in the hope of new discoveries. (In this endeavour, scientists have been joined by professional magicians, from Houdini to James “the amazing” Randi, illustrating to my mind the artificiality of separating off “science” from other kinds of factual enquiry.) Much the same, but with less emphasis on fraud, can be said about hunting for ghosts. In this century, there have been several studies of the effects of intercessory prayer on recovery from illness. No effect (or in one case, a small negative effect, tentatively attributed to the added stress of the situation), and a recommendation from Cochrane Reviews, which collate data from clinical trials, that no further work of this kind be undertaken. In each of these cases, the scientific search has been abandoned, not because of some overarching principle about the nature of science, but because plain experience showed it to be pointless. A priori rejection of the supernatural had nothing to do with these decisions, which were based purely on experience. Experience that would never have been attained if scientists really were debarred from submitting the supernatural to investigation.

Science, as P. J. Medawar pointed out in his devastating critique[2]  of Koestler’s Act of Creation, is an extremely practical activity, and it is commonplace for lines of enquiry to be abandoned because they were getting nowhere (I can confirm this from bitter experience, as a sometime experimental chemist). Thus, as Boudry and colleagues remind us, the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris decided in 1775 to have nothing more to do with proposals to build a perpetual motion machine. This was many years ahead of the development of the laws of thermodynamics, which tell us that such a machine is impossible, but so much effort had been spent to so little effect that the Academy decided no more was warranted. Not because (as we might now be tempted to say) such a machine would require a supernatural mechanism, but because they didn’t think there was any chance of it working. The suggestion made in Question 2 is correct, and can be extended beyond the supernatural to futile questions in general; when, as often happens, we turn aside from investigating this or that incredible claim, we do not do so on principle but because experience warns us that we would be wasting our time.

Now for the final question, does it matter? Yes, obviously, as an intellectual question. Also, I think, from the point of view of the individual researcher. We all of us carry philosophical baggage, but scientists to my mind should do their best to travel light, so unnecessary principles should be deliberately discarded. But, most importantly, as part of the ever-necessary strategy of defending science from its enemies. As I shall argue in my next post, the principle that science is only allowed to look for natural causes is widely seen as a bastion against obscurantist encroachment. But this is a strategic error. It is an unnecessary and inaccurate metaphysical add-on to science, an easy target for its enemies, and should be abandoned.

I thank Maarten Boudry for helpful suggestions. Illustrations: Book cover from Amazon; “Vain Hoax” from Dave Thomas at New Mexicans for Science and Reason here (see also here). An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.


[1] This discussion refers to Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code books, rather than to the original statistical puzzle posed by Eliyahu Rips, who has dissociated himself from them.

[2] New Statesman, 19 June 1964, reprinted in Pluto’s Republic, OUP 1984

Creationism as conspiracy theory, and the teaching of the Urey-Miller experiment

Some time, you may want to start a conspiracy theory. If you want to learn how to do this, you cannot do better than study the antics of the creationists, and especially their Discovery Institute (DI) think tank.

Creationists absolutely need to have a conspiracy theory. That is because their position contradicts everything that scientists have been telling us for the past 200 years, or even, in its Young Earth version, the past 300 years. If creationism is true, the entire intellectual establishment has been lying to you.

All conspiracy theories work the same way. Like the most unpleasant kinds of religion, they divide humanity into two groups, the illuminated and the benighted, and offer membership of the illuminated, if you will only accept their central doctrine. To qualify as a conspiracy theory, that doctrine has to pour scorn on the most obvious or scientifically validated explanations of the facts, and replace them with the belief that these explanations, or indeed these facts, are fabricated by a close-knit group of wicked people (in this case, the Wicked Evolutionists, or WE), cynically manipulating the evidence for their own disreputable reasons. Once this belief is in place, it is self-sustaining, since all evidence to the contrary is tainted, coming as it does from the Unscrupulous Scientists (US).

The next step in setting up your conspiracy theory is to find a group of people who already want to believe you. Most of us, after all, spent most of our thinking time in looking for evidence in favour of what we want to believe. So find a group of people who already have reasons to want your claims to be true. They might, for example, wish to believe that the Government is hiding evidence of UFOs, or that NASA is a giant scam, or Barack Obama should not be President of the United States, or that Government should not interfere with the operations of industry.

Then give them an excuse, however flimsy, for believing. Believing that aliens landed at Roswell, or that the Moon Landings were faked, or that Obama was born in Kenya, or that there is no such thing as man-made global warming. Or, at least, for believing that the topic is controversial. If all else fails, your own voice raised in denial of reality can be used as evidence that the controversy is real.

You’ve now got US in a cleft stick. If WE ignore you, you can continue unchallenged. If WE reply to you, that proves that there really is a controversy. And if WE try to explain that there is nothing worthy of a reply, you can claim, as William Lane Craig claimed when Richard Dawkins refused to debate with him, that WE are scared of you.

Finally, you have to convince your target audience that it matters. Here the creationists have it easy. For most people, at least for most people outside some parts of Western Europe, religion matters. If the Bible is literally true, as a lot of people would like to believe, then evolution is wrong and WE are spreading false doctrine. Moreover, since WE are smart people (no self-respecting conspiracy theory would claim that Nobel Prize winners as a group are stupid), WE must be spreading that false doctrine for non-scientific reasons. And what might that reason be? Obviously, naturalism is a form of materialism which is a form of atheism. It is therefore the scientific, as well as the religious and moral, duty of creationists to refute what WE are saying. Hence the DI’s notorious Wedge Strategy. Refute evolution, and the way is open, as the wedge Document says, to refute “scientific materialism” [emphasis in original] and reinstate “theistic understanding.”

Cover of the Wedge Document.

Time to illustrate by example. And a good example it is; the DI members are really very good at what they do. This one comes from the cover letter that the Discovery Institute recently sent out with its pamphlet for parents, A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design. My excuses for publicising here are that it is going to reach its target audience without any help from me, and that this particular example is in fact rather instructive. I take a perverse pleasure in showing ways that we can learn, from creationist materials, what the creationists themselves refuse to learn.

So here it is, reproduced solely for purposes of discussion and review. Emphasis in the original:

Dear [first name]:

 Textbooks and teachers stop teaching myths about evolution when the mainstream media admit textbooks are wrong … don’t they?

Not if the data challenges Darwinian evolution.

… Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth …

The evidence challenging evolution is beginning to outweigh the evidence that supports it.  But will your kids learn about that in their science classes?  Unfortunately, probably not.

To help parents understand all the aspects of the debate over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design we created a free 28 page e-booklet A Parent’s Guide to Intelligent Design: Resources to help you and your children understand the debate between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design.

 The free booklet comes with a request to donate, but whether that Discovery Institute really needs that money, or whether it is just another device to generate commitment, we can only speculate.

Let’s look first at the overall structure, and then at the specific claim, (which is actually one of four; but life is short).

Starting off with the initial rhetorical question, and its proposed answer. Here the purpose is clear, while the language, quite deliberately, is not. Note the reference to the mainstream media, suggesting that it is the biology teachers and textbook writers who are the fringe group. The nudge nudge, wink wink, dot dot dot layout establishes intimacy; reader and writer bonded together by a common understanding. Finally, the question and answer format introduces an element of deniability that you will find throughout the creationist literature. “We don’t say evolution is wrong, we just draw attention to all the question marks about it.”

Now to the substance of the claim I’m examining, that the textbooks are “Retelling outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life and wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth.” 30 years ago, this claim might have had some validity, but not now. No matter. Once a claim enters the creationist literature, it takes on a life of its own. For example, Darwin’s lament about the incompleteness of the fossil record in 1859 is repeated as if it described the situation today, despite the existence of tons (literally) of evidence unearthed (literally) to the contrary. So let’s look at what actually happens in the Urey-Miller experiment, what it does or does not tell us, and how it is treated in 21st-century textbooks.

Miller-Urey experiment (1953).

Miller-Urey experiment (1953). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original report of the Urey-Miller experiment relates it to Harold Urey’s cold accretion theory, which maintained that the planets formed so slowly that the gravitational energy of their formation was dissipated as heat. On this theory, the metal from iron-nickel meteorites would have been lying around on the Earth’s surface giving rise to a strongly reducing (i.e. hydrogen-rich) atmosphere. This theory did not survive the moon landings, and the discovery that most of the moon’s surface consisted of molten basalt. Nor does the experiment address the origin of biological polymers, or of organisation. Nonetheless, the experiment was, and remains, liberating. It destroyed the assumption that the building blocks of life are difficult to come by.

Changes in thinking since then have all been in the direction of making the production of these molecules seem easier. As Stanley Miller himself showed in one of his late (2002) papers, we don’t need a strongly reducing atmosphere. We certainly don’t need ammonia, the least plausible of his original ingredients because it is so readily destroyed by UV light, as long as we have nitrogen, N2, (which we certainly would have) and some source of energy powerful enough to split it into separate atoms (and we would certainly have had that, in the form of the Sun’s unfiltered UV light, back before the formation of atmospheric oxygen and ozone, as well as lightning). We don’t need large amounts of methane. Very small amounts, which could readily arise from geochemical processes (as seems to be happening on Mars), would do the trick, as would carbon monoxide, a component of volcanic gas; it was carbon monoxide that was used in Miller’s 2002 work. Organics could also have arisen by completely different pathways, including reactions at hydrothermal vents, or on sulphide mineral surfaces, and large amounts of organics would in any case have been brought to earth by comets. Comets, after all, are dirty snowballs. The snow is thought to have made a major contribution to the Earth’s oceans, and the dirt is a mixture of organic compounds. Simple organic molecules are a precondition for life as we know it. We do not know the relative contribution of the various possibilities to the inventory of such molecules on the early Earth, but we can feel confident that they were there – one way and/or another.

What about the textbooks? What do they say, what should they be saying, and how much justice, if any, is there in the Discovery Institute’s accusations?

To quote Ken Miller[1], who is, among other things, one of our most influential educators and textbook writers in biological science:

It’s absolutely true, of course, that the strongly reducing atmosphere Miller and Urey used for their first experiments is now not thought to be indicative of the primitive earth.  Therefore, it would be a mistake to claim that these experiments “proved” anything about the actual biochemical pathways to life on earth.

However, these experiments were still absolutely essential in shaping our current views of prebiotic evolution.

Exactly. Urey-Miller demystified the production of the building blocks of life. For some decades, there was rancorous disagreement between those who paid high regard the original experiment, and the geochemists to whom such an atmosphere seemed increasingly implausible. However, once it became clear that the highly reducing atmosphere was no longer even necessary, the dispute faded into the background.

I have looked at half a dozen textbooks. One of them did in fact present the Urey-Miller atmosphere as realistic, which I regard as gross professional incompetence, rather than the deliberate concealment suggested by the creationists. However, even this text did mention reactions at mineral surfaces as an alternative. Every biology textbook that I have examined, with one exception, makes it clear that finding a possible source for the building blocks is not the same as explaining the origins of life. The exception is the 2012 text Evolution – Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, which presents the isotopic and fossil evidence for Archaean life, but says nothing about its origin. And indeed, why should it? We don’t demand that a chemistry textbook gives an account of the origin of the atoms, nor could it possibly have done so during the 150 or so years between when Dalton put forward the first version of the modern atomic theory, and when Fred Hoyle and co-workers gave the first good account of the origin of elements heavier than helium.

So rest assured that your children’s textbooks will not retell “outdated myths about the Miller-Urey experiment and the origin of life”, but will, on the contrary, carefully distinguish between the formation of prebiotic organic molecules, and the origin of life itself. And even the few texts that are still guilty of “wrongly telling students the experiment correctly simulated gases present on the early earth” are careful to make this distinction.

And the Discovery Institute is doing what they always do superbly. Distorting reality.

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[1] Personal communication

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