Sunday, April 18, 2010

The "New Creationism"

 
Jerry Coyne has "coyned" a new term to describe people who accept most of science but still want to have their cake [HuffPo screws up evolution again].
I’m coyneing the term “New Creationism” to describe the body of thought that accepts Darwinian evolution but with the additional caveats that 1) it was all started by God, 2) had God-worshipping humans as its goal, and 3) that the evidence for all this is that life is complex, humans evolved, and the the “fine tuning” of physical constants of the universe testify to the great improbability of our being here—ergo God. New Creationism differs from intelligent design because it rejects God’s constant intervention in the process of evolution in favor of a Big, One-Time Intervention, and because these ideas are espoused by real scientists like Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris. (Note that Miller, though, has floated the possibility that God does sometimes intervene in the physical world by manipulating electrons.) New Creationism is bad because, while operating under the deep cover of real science, it tries to gain traction for dubious claims about the supernatural.
This is pretty good but let's not insist that New Creationists have to postulate humans as the only goal of evolution. Some of them do and some of them are content with any kind of sentient being. The common characteristic is that they envisage some kind of purpose to the way the universe has unfolded.

"New Creationism" is a much better term than "Theistic Evolution" and I think I'll use it from now on. It has the advantage of putting the emphasis on "creationism," where it belongs. (Note, this is small-"c" creationism.)


19 comments :

  1. It was about time to codify that not so subtle point with a proper term. If you say that God did it through evolution with us in mind, you are still saying that God did it, which makes you a creationist. Which makes some quite high-profile people creationists (which they indeed are) so I am looking forward for a big flame war over this.

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  2. It's typical Coyne, for whom attacking religion seems far more important than advancing science or reason. Since "creationism" has such a negative connotation, by throwing essentially everyone who believes in God into the creationist pile, it serves both his substantive goal (attacking all things and people religious) and his stylistic goal (suggesting that all who believe in God are morons). Moreover, by describing those who believe in God as "accept[ing] most of science but still want to have their cake," he gets to back-handedly accuse anyone who believes in God as being anti-science without any evidence. Despicable, surely, but impressive nonetheless.

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  3. I've blogged my two cents on the term, but in short: I like the idea of sticking a label on this particular combination of religious and scientific belief... I'm just not sure I like Coyne's version.

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  4. I don't really like this term at all. There is a huge gulf between what Ken Ham, or even Michael Behe, believes and what Ken Miller believes, much more so than between atheistic scientists and scientists like Miller. This coyned phrase seeks to broaden the term 'creationist' beyond any useful meaning. I would like to know what the difference is between a "new creationist" and a scientist who is religious. Is there any non-athiest (or non agnostic) scientist who would not fit under the "new creationist" tent? The term is so redundant it's only purpose must be rhetorical so I agree with Sinbad.

    Besides the 'creationist' bit, I also disagree with the term 'new'. How is this new? Isn't this just basically the default position of all scientists that are not atheists? Hasn't it been around as long as most scientists have rejected literal creationism in favour of naturalistic processes for evolution and the formation of the cosmos?

    I rejected 'new creationist' beliefs at the precise moment I rejected religion. I can't imagine doing one without the other and I frankly don't see the difference. Maybe somebody can point out some nuance that I missed.

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  5. Georgi Marinov says,

    It was about time to codify that not so subtle point with a proper term. If you say that God did it through evolution with us in mind, you are still saying that God did it, which makes you a creationist.

    I agree. We have Young Earth Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, and Intelligent Design Creationists. Now we finally have a name for the remaining creationists who don't fit into the older categories.

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  6. I don't really like this term at all. There is a huge gulf between what Ken Ham, or even Michael Behe, believes and what Ken Miller believes, much more so than between atheistic scientists and scientists like Miller. This coyned phrase seeks to broaden the term 'creationist' beyond any useful meaning. I would like to know what the difference is between a "new creationist" and a scientist who is religious.

    Not much of a difference, and this is the point. And the gulf is not at all as great as it seems. As a scientist, your major goal is to understand how the world works. We all specialize into some narrow area of expertise, just because there has been so much knowledge accumulated that it has gotten impossible to know everything about even some fairly minor branches of science. This has allowed the current paradoxical situation in which it is possible to make a technical contribution to the accumulation of knowledge, while actually working against the overarching goal (for example, if you're a young earth creationist and you do some sort of inorganic chemistry that has little to do with anything cosmological). This, however, does not change what the big goal is, and there are areas of science that are very closely linked to that goal, much more so than others (theoretical physics, cosmology, biology, etc.).

    If you come to some of these areas with a preconceived view of how the world works and you openly promote this view, then you are not only not contributing to the big goal, but you are actively sabotaging it. Note that you can still be making a significant technical contribution in the same time, which forms the basis of the completely false notion that you can be both religious and a great scientist. At this point in history this is no longer the case. There were a lot of great figures in the history of science who were religious, but this is because this was the default position at the time. It was those same people that actually sought to understand how the world works, and in the process we found out that it is not through the bearded man in the sky or the mysterious force in the universe/outside the universe or whatever other unsubstantiated claim you're ready to make up.

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  7. the evidence for all this is that life is complex, humans evolved, and the the “fine tuning” of physical constants of the universe testify to the great improbability of our being here—ergo God

    This is not so different from the Strong Anthropic Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle) which is not a priori unreasonable. We could proceed by the following analogy:

    We will start with Conway's "game of life" cellular automata (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway's_Game_of_Life). We know: a) Conway exists and chose the rules explicitly (intelligently?) because of the complexity those rules could generate. b) the game is a Turing machine: capable of computing anything that can be computed algorithmically. Suppose there is no such thing as a supernatural soul such that a strictly computationally generated entity capable of self-awareness is possible. Such entities, were they to evolve could reasonably explore the universe around them and wonder as to why the rules were as they were. They would be correct were they to suppose that the rules were deliberately chosen to allow complexity, including themselves, to evolve. Of course, there wouldn't be any objective benefit for these organisms to worship Conway, nevertheless, the supposition of one-time intelligent design of their physical axiomatic rules would not only be reasonable, but factually correct.

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  8. Jerry's made a bold stroke for purity of essence!

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  9. "whom attacking religion seems far more important than advancing science or reason."

    You may as well argue that attacking astrology or psychics is not as important as advancing reason, as though such attacks are apart from or somehow not consistent with the goal of advancing reason.

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  10. "You may as well argue that attacking astrology or psychics is not as important as advancing reason, as though such attacks are apart from or somehow not consistent with the goal of advancing reason."

    I'm sure that Jerry Coyne loves this post. It has the arrogant certainty of the righteous, a veneer of intellectualism, and sufficient ridicule to make it clear that those who disagree are deemed inferior. Well played.

    However, it is also clearly and breathtakingly wrong-headed. Coyne isn't merely proposing evidence-based attacks on religious views of various sorts. Instead, he is demanding a preconceived and unevidenced philosophical commitment to naturalism.

    Big difference.

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  11. Coyne isn't merely proposing evidence-based attacks on religious views of various sorts. Instead, he is demanding a preconceived and unevidenced philosophical commitment to naturalism.

    Why is it "preconceived and unevidenced"? And why should we commit to supernaturalism instead? How good a case can be made for supernaturalism?

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  12. I don't have a problem with people like Freeman Dyson who allow no place for "God's hand" in either evolution or the origin of life (as indeed, Dyson has published on the latter subject).

    But it does irk me when Francis Collins gets off with claiming that human morals are a sign of God — what more is this claim than watered-down ID? So maybe this new term isn't such a bad thing.

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  13. Sinbad says,

    Coyne hasn't demonstrated that naturalism is correct or offered evidence in its support. Instead, he demands a priori allegiance.

    It's a bit more complicated than that.

    Coyne and the rest of us don't try to demonstrate that naturalism is the only possibility. Instead, we address any claims to the contrary to see if they might have some validity. So far, none of the claims supporting the supernatural have stood up to the rigors of scientific examination. This includes fairies and Santa Claus as well as Zeus and any one of the thousands of other gods that have been proposed.

    In light of this evidence it's reasonable to adopt the default position that supernatural beings don't exist. That's the naturalist position you describe.

    We don't demand that everyone adopt this position as a *requirement* of science. What we do demand is that you adopt it as the working model against which you test all challenges. The onus is on believers to support their claims with evidence. Since the claim is rather extraordinary, the evidence would also have to be extraordinary but at this point I'd settle for any evidence at all.

    You can't wiggle out of this by saying that naturalism is evil and unsupported. You can't wiggle out of the debate by saying that acceptance of the default position is a philosophical stance that's outside of science.

    The silliness of that take on things is illustrated by substituting the tooth fairy for your favorite god. It makes no sense to claim that rejection of the tooth fairy is a philosophical claim that can't be proven by science. There's no difference between the lack of evidence for a tooth fairy and lack of evidence evidence for the Christian god. In both cases it is reasonable and rational to assume that they don't exist.

    Now, I'm well aware of the fact that philosophers can argue for years about whether you can ever prove the non-existence of something. They'll even debate the existence of the chair they're sitting on. Some of those debates are fun—I've engaged in them myself—but they don't have a lot to do with the real world.

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  14. I think it is sweet how some people believe that their Abrahamic god is a 'real person' just like them, but male and with omni-powers. Why it has taken him 14 billion years to produce weak copies of himself by indirect means is not explained.

    And why should God eventually produce animals capable of rational thought? A god of Long Necks might well favour diplodocuses and giraffes. Humans could be just a byproduct of the process - you don't hear many priests arguing that, do you?

    Of course you could argue that God has been formed in the image of men...

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  15. "Coyne and the rest of us don't try to demonstrate that naturalism is the only possibility. Instead, we address any claims to the contrary to see if they might have some validity."

    If that were so, it would be reasonable.

    "So far, none of the claims supporting the supernatural have stood up to the rigors of scientific examination."

    To your standards.

    "In light of this evidence it's reasonable to adopt the default position that supernatural beings don't exist. That's the naturalist position you describe."

    In terms of that as a methodological position, I have no quarrel. I also don't have a quarrel with the idea that it's a reasonable conclusion. But unless and until the truth of naturalism can be demonstrated, Coyne is wrong to demand adherence to his party-line conclusion to avoid the irrational/anti-science/creationist label.

    "We don't demand that everyone adopt this position as a *requirement* of science."

    Coyne does. Anyone who won't make the a priori philosophical commitment irrespective of evidence (it's Lewontin's usage) is deemed a creationist moron.

    "The silliness of that take on things is illustrated by substituting the tooth fairy for your favorite god."

    But Coyne isn't speaking about claims regarding any specific god. He rejects the possibility of a god as irrational and opposed to science. Those who disagree are deemed creationists.

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  16. To your standards.

    Your standards must be very low then

    Coyne does. Anyone who won't make the a priori philosophical commitment irrespective of evidence (it's Lewontin's usage) is deemed a creationist moron.

    See, nobody is making philosophical atheism a requirement for being a scientist. The argument (and they way I state is here is actually quite stronger than what most people would probably commit to) is that if you come to science with a priori philosophical commitment to religion, is not fit to be a scientist. Because you're breaking the most fundamental rules of the game if you do that and it's practically always the case that religious scientists enter science with this prior commitment rather than derive it from scientific facts. For the simple reason that you can not derive religion from scientific facts. The examples of scientists who were atheists and converted (Francis Collins) only confirm that, as the reasoning behind his decisions was such that it would get him fired immediately for research misconduct if it was applied to any actual science. Of course, all of this doesn't mean that due to the fact that science is also a profession in our society, you can't be technically doing science, but in effect if you are religious, you have removed yourself from the pool of people who can call themselves true scientists (remember, PhD stands for doctor of philosophy, not for doctor of pipetting, writing code and publishing paper)

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  17. I'm sure that Jerry Coyne loves this post. It has the arrogant certainty of the righteous, a veneer of intellectualism, and sufficient ridicule to make it clear that those who disagree are deemed inferior. Well played.

    However, it is also clearly and breathtakingly wrong-headed. Coyne isn't merely proposing evidence-based attacks on religious views of various sorts. Instead, he is demanding a preconceived and unevidenced philosophical commitment to naturalism.

    Big difference.


    Project much? You're doing everything you're decrying. My comment was sincere, although I'm fully aware that you reject its sincerity based entirely on your own personal cynicism, rather than any evidence...you know, the evidence that you are demanding. And don't even get me started on how "arrogant certainty of the righteous, a veneer of intellectualism, and sufficient ridicule to make it clear that those who disagree are deemed inferior" is an apt description of your own post. Well played, indeed.

    Coyne does promote evidence-based attacks on religion, that is for those cases where religion makes claims with sufficient specificity that we can make and test its empirical implications. Obviously, many religious claims are vague, and lack this specificity, and so evidenced-based attacks on those particular claims do not apply. But in those instances where the claim is vague, then it MUST be analyzed a priori. You say this as though it were a criticism of the analysis, but how else would you analyze a strictly a priori claim that makes no empirical statements, accept a priori? An example of which being the very things you are saying here, which are not empirical but a priori in nature? Do you find your own claims to like merit?

    The irony coming from you is explosive.

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  18. I would just like to point out that this is hardly "new". It's basically the mental justification deployed by moderate, non-biblical-fundamentalist Christians -- namely, ordinary Catholics, at the least, and I imagine Jews and other groups as well -- to accept science and evolution without having to throw out the belief structure, rituals and family-like group membership that they feel are necessary for their emotional happiness.

    You can regard this as wrong, ill-informed, and even as intellectually craven. But those people are not your Young Earthers; they are sufficiently pro-science that they accept the process and facts of evolution. You can lump them in with Creationism, but they do not share the willful rejection of evidence, nor the anti-intellectualism, that makes Creationism as evilly wrong-headed as it is. Grouping them all under the same label may feel appropriate to you, as an atheist, but it obscures useful distinctions about the ways in which these groups think and behave.

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  19. anonymous says,

    Grouping them all under the same label may feel appropriate to you, as an atheist, but it obscures useful distinctions about the ways in which these groups think and behave.

    I make several distinctions. There are Young Earth Creationist, Old Earth Creationists, and Intelligent Design Creationists.

    Up until now, the creationists who don't fit into one of those categories have been calling themselves "Theistic Evolutionists" but that's a very misleading term. I think "New Creationists" is a much better way to describe a group whose fundamental premise is that life was created by God in some way or another.

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