Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Teleology is terrifying

WARNING: The following blog contains disturbing images and descriptions of natural phenomena. This is the last cute picture on the page. Scroll down at your own risk.

I recently listened to a sermon on how to reach atheists, dealing specifically with the so called “proofs” for the existence of God – the Cosmological Argument, the Ontological Argument and the Teleological Argument. After listening to these arguments I have to say that if I was an atheist, those would have failed spectacularly to convince me of the existence of God. To me, the Cosmological Argument fails because even if you accept that there is an ultimate cause to the universe it certainly doesn’t follow that this cause has to be God. The Ontological Argument is the kind of thing that makes philosophers all giddy but anyone more practically minded would first go “Huh?” and then realize that it could just as easily be used to prove the existence of elves, unicorns and fairies. I think it’s for this reason that you don’t come across these arguments very often (at least in my limited experience). The Teleological Argument (aka the Argument from Design) on the other hand remains very popular and is the main reason most Christians feel the need to fight tooth and nail against evolution. After all, if you believe that every creature great and small is designed by a higher intellect and that this designer is God, then it follows that you will also feel that any suggestion that organisms came to their present state through natural means is in fact just another way of saying that there is no God. This is why to many Christians belief in God and acceptance of evolution will forever be mutually exclusive. This is also why the Creationism vs. Evolution debate will never be resolved as it is not about scientific evidence or reason but rather about defending the Faith. No amount of science and evidence will ever change that. Therefore I am not going to waste my energy trying to explain the facts of evolution or attacking Intelligent Design. Rather I will take the less exhausting (and futile) way out and explain why I think it’s a terrible idea to use the Argument from Design as a proof for the existence of God.

Recently I came across this satirical video that asks a question so obvious I have to wonder why it never occurred to Dr Behe – if the bacterial flagellum proves the existence of God, what does it prove about God?

It reminded me of an interview with Sir David Attenborough where he mentioned all the hate mail he gets from Christians for not giving credit to God in his nature documentaries. He said: “They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.” To me that sums up the problem with the Teleological Argument in a nutshell. It’s easy to imagine that all the beauty in nature proves God, but what about all the horrors of nature? If nature is a proof of God then what exactly does that say about God? Its easy (for some, me not so much) to believe that all plants used to be good but then some grew thorns and became poisonous or that some vegetarian animals started eating meat instead because of the Fall, but what about all those creatures who seem designed for nothing else but death and pain and suffering? Snakes, spiders and scorpions are only the tip of the iceberg. For a view into the abyss, look at:

Leucochloridium paradoxum is a species of flatworm that as part of its reproductive cycle infests a snail. Inside the snail it migrates to the eye stalks of the snail and then proceeds to stretch and change them until they resemble pulsating brightly coloured caterpillars. Birds see this and come rip the (normally retractable) eye stalks off the snail allowing the parasite to finish its life cycle inside the bird.

Sacculina is a type of barnacle that latches on to a crab. The female Sacculina seeks a joint in the crab’s shell and then ejects her protective shell, reducing herself to a gelatinous blob, and invades. "Inside the host, the parasite grows long, root-like tendrils throughout the crab's body, eventually emerging as a bump on the underside. During this process she renders the crab infertile, and creates a small opening in the crab's back that will allow a male Sacculina to make residence there. Soon the crab is filled with millions of Sacculina eggs and larvae, and like a zombie, the crab cares for these eggs and larvae as though they were its own, losing all interest in mating. When a male crab is infected, the parasite alters its physiology and behavior to be female, to better care for the Sacculina's young. The parasite basically rewires the crab for its own ends, and the crab becomes a helpless vehicle, expending its energy caring for the young organisms that will move on to inflict themselves upon other crabs."

Cymothoa exigua is a small crustacean that enters through a fish’s (specifically, a red snapper) gills and uses claws to attach itself to the base of the snapper’s tongue where it survives for a while by drinking blood from an artery. Eventually the fish’s tongue will disappear (There is some confusion on what exactly happens, whether the louse eats the tongue or simply causes it to atrophy due to blood loss) and once the tongue is gone, the louse becomes the new tongue and manipulates the fish’s food and consumes the free food particles as the fish eats.

Now these animals are all designed specifically to do things that are unspeakably horrible and cruel (not to mention really disgusting) and if they owe this design to an Intelligent designer then this designer makes the Spanish Inquisition look like a lovable bunch. However if they owe their design to evolution then they are merely the products of an imperfect world and its just nature being heartless nature. This is why I think Christians would be better off just letting go of the Argument from Design and simply accepting evolution. For if Teleology proves God then the God it proves is anything but kind and compassionate.

(For more on these and other terrifying creatures check out the article: "The 7 most horrifying parasites on the planet" )

Friday, April 3, 2009

Dishonest by Design

There are many good reasons to reject Intelligent Design Theory. First of all, it doesn’t even deserve the name “theory” because it isn’t one. Unlike real scientific theories, Intelligent Design offers no mechanism, makes no predictions and cannot be falsified. Now that’s a good enough reason right there to fully reject it and all attempts to put it in the classroom. However, up to this day that has not been enough to discourage ID proponents who continue to insist that saying “Golly gee, that sure looks complicated!” is the same as doing science. There is however an even better reason to reject it, namely the fact that Intelligent Design requires massive dishonesty.

While I may completely disagree with Creationism, at least I can respect Creationists for being honest about what they stand for. Kent Hovind and friends may have their faults but at least they are not going pretend that they don’t believe the universe to be 6000 years old. In fact they tend to be completely upfront about the fact that they believe everything in existence was created in its present form in 6 days around 4000 BC and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Not so with the ID crowd. Most of them believe exactly the same thing, but they pretend that they don’t. Here is a great example:

Notice how that lady steadfastly avoided every question about what exactly she believes? This is what all ID proponents have to do. They have to pretend that ID is not religious, they have to pretend that they don’t really think the “designer” is necessarily God and most of all they have to pretend that they aren’t really Creationists. How can any Christian follow something that requires so much willful deceit? What happened to not being ashamed of the Gospel? What happened to always being prepared to give an answer for the hope in you? When did it become OK for the disciples of Jesus to deny Him in public?

Seems to me that Intelligent Design forces its supporters to act less like Disciples of Christ and more like followers of L Ron Hubbard! Hiding the truth about what your faith stands for (until you reach the right level/are brainwashed enough not to question it) is something Scientology is supposed to do. They lure you in with promises of mental health and only tell you the crazy story about Xenu later. Christians on the other hand have always been completely upfront about what they believe. You may think us silly but we will tell you about everything from the virgin birth to the resurrection and all the miracles in between right on day one so that you can make a completely informed decision about what you are letting yourself in for. At least that’s what we used to do in the days before Intelligent Design…

Some may disagree with me and claim that in this case the end justifies the means. Again I have to disagree. Intelligent Design is the worst thing to happen to Christian Evangelism since the Crusades! Has anyone actually thought this through? For ID to actually work 3 things need to happen:

1 – Scientists have to stop doing science, cease looking for explanations and mechanisms and simply accept that certain features were somehow designed by "someone" or "something". This alone would take a miracle on the level of the parting of the Red Sea.

2 – The identity of this designer must then be debated until Scientists are willing to completely abandon the Scientific method and simply accept that the designer was a supernatural being.

3 – Lastly, once everyone can finally agree that the designer was God the debate would then have to start regarding which God? Yahweh? Allah? Vishnu? Odin?

Only when all 3 of these issues have been conclusively settled would Intelligent Design have any claim to effective evangelism. Honestly, how many decades do you think that will take? Is it really worth compromising so much for a strategy that has so virtually no chance of ever working and if it ever did would probably take over a century?

I think not.