Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Stockbridge 14

Fourteen people have been invited to a special meeting in Stockbridge Massachusetts (USA). They are: Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Dan Dennett, Owen Flanagan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, David Poeppel, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, Steven Weinberg, and Massimo Pigliucci. So far they've discussed the meaning of "naturalism," including the nature of reality (morning session) and evolution, complexity and emergence (afternoon session") [Moving Naturalism Forward].

You can read Jerry Coyne's description at: Interim report: Moving Naturalism Forward Meeting. Massimo Pigliucci has also written about the first day at: From the naturalism workshop, part I.

So far it sounds quite boring. It looks looks like some of the philosophers have tricked the scientists into debating the precise meaning of words that nobody has been able to define precisely in the past one hundred years. Does anyone outside of philosophers actually care whether we have precise definitions of "naturalism" and "supernatural"? We all know what we're talking about when we discuss the existence of god(s).

And what about "emerging properties"? Surely that's a topic that's already been debated to death? What in the world do they expect to learn other than the fact they disagree on the definition of what an enregent property actually means?

As for complexity, it's either so simple that we all recognize it when we see it, or so "complex" that nobody cares. Here's what Coyne says ...
The discussion of complexity, introduced by Simon DeDeo and much discussed by Janna Levin, was way over my head. I found some consolation in the fact that Dennett, too, announced that he didn’t understand what was being said!
That doesn't sound very promising.

I'm not looking forward to the results of the next two days because they're going to tackle silly topics like the nature of morality, free will, "meaning," and "purpose". I wonder if they're going to debate the difference between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism? I wonder when they'll get to the issues of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?


[Photo Credit: One Angel Dancing on the Head of a Pin]

75 comments :

  1. Emergent properties - isn't that their term for things that are neatly explained by, for example, convergent evolution?

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  2. My general experience with definitions is that they always fail at the points where where we most wish they were solid.

    This is often because the definition is insufficiently precise. Unfortunately making it precise also makes it useless at the critical points.

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    1. Definition is about words, while science is about the world, but scientists must communicate with each other and the community, so definitions can be crucial. Philosophers of science deal with the ambiguities of definitions raised by the doing of science. Philosophers in general do this for words in general. It usually counts (and when it doesn't, the task is like honing one's martial skills before the war arrives).

      As always, Larry denigrates an entire discipline because it isn't science. As a philosopher, I am getting used to this short sighted display of bad temper from some scientists.

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    2. Define "discipline", especially as it relates to philosophy, and define philosophy as it relates to discipline.

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    3. How about this?

      Philosophy is the discipline which, amongst other things, seeks to elucidate and elaborate the occult conceptual matrices which form the metaphysical context in which the empirical discipline of investigatory science is inextricably embedded.

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    4. @John Wilkins,

      The Stockbridge 14 are discussing fundamental problems that have plagued philosophy for many years. I think it's time we recognized that some terms just can't be defined in a satisfactory manner.

      Surely the main contribution of philosophers is the discovery that "naturalism" doesn't have a precise unambiguous meaning. Surely philosophers know that there's no good way to define morality and no way to distinguish between innate and learned patterns of behavior. Surely philosophers have discovered that the illusion of free will is very powerful, so powerful that there's no knock-down-drag-em-out argument in its favor.

      If philosophers know this, then what is the real purpose of this meeting and what does it hope to achieve? If you can tell me the answer to that question then maybe I'll have more respect for philosophy and for the scientists who want to engage in these discussions.

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    5. Ian H Spedding said:

      "How about this?

      Philosophy is the discipline which, amongst other things, seeks to elucidate and elaborate the occult conceptual matrices which form the metaphysical context in which the empirical discipline of investigatory science is inextricably embedded."

      I'm not sure what to make of that. I have to ask if you're serious or joking?

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    6. I'm not sure what to make of that. I have to ask if you're serious or joking?

      I'm happy to tell you but, before I do, I'd like to ask three questions.

      First, I'm pretty sure I didn't use any words that you or anyone else here don't know so what do you think I was saying?

      Second, does it matter if I was joking or serious? Jokes can be used to make serious points and some philosophical writing can be so impenetrable that you have to wonder whether the author was joking.

      Third, is analyzing the meaning - or lack thereof - of what I wrote something that science can address?

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    7. First, I'm pretty sure I didn't use any words that you or anyone else here don't know so what do you think I was saying?

      Word salad? Because the way you combine these words fails to convey sense to me.



      Second, does it matter if I was joking or serious? Jokes can be used to make serious points and some philosophical writing can be so impenetrable that you have to wonder whether the author was joking.


      You just answered your question.



      Third, is analyzing the meaning - or lack thereof - of what I wrote something that science can address?


      No way to tell until you explain what that meaning is.

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  3. We all know what we're talking about when we discuss the existence of god(s).

    Really? That seems quite false. There are a great many interpretations of what "god" means. I guess atheists like to collapse them all into one so they can attack the most obviously silly versions of the idea, but that has always seemed like a pretty shabby trick.

    But I agree that having a roomful of philosophers debate definitions for several days sounds like a rather tiresome exercise.

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  4. "There are a great many interpretations of what "god" means. I guess atheists like to collapse them all into one so they can attack the most obviously silly versions of the idea . . ."

    Are there less obviously silly versions of "what 'god' means"?

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    1. Well, sure.

      Here's an old post from Sean Caroll, which is basically atheist in orientation but at least acknowledges that there are some very different conceptions of god being thrown around and thrown together.

      Here's the nut graph:

      The problematic nature of this transition — from God as ineffable, essentially static and completely harmless abstract concept, to God as a kind of being that, in some sense that is perpetually up for grabs, cares about us down here on Earth — is a millenia-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism.

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    2. mtraven,

      You didn't answer Veronica's question:

      "Are there less obviously silly versions of "what 'god' means"?"

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    3. And I'll pose a question to mtraven and anyone else who wants to respond:

      Is the yhwh-jesus-the-holy-spirit less silly than the Fifi the pink unicorn god?

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    4. I've come to the conclusion that "god" is best thought of as a title used (quite inconsistently) in many religions.

      Compare, for example, the "first cause" kind of god with the "god emperor" one. They've pretty much nothing in common.

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  5. Well TwT, is step-by-bitty-step fortuitous mutations conferring an advantage a better explanation than God did it? It seems more like a verbose distraction.

    God is the beginning of discovery, not the end. To be sure, design in nature assures us that God is alive and well 'in a silent way'.

    But that is what I think really bothers folks that rely on godless explanations.

    They are bothered by the silence.

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    1. ...or religion is for folks who can't cope with the possibility that there is only silence.

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    2. They are bothered by the silence.

      Not so much bothered by it as unable to distinguish an entity acting 'in a silent way' from one not operating at all. So they assume the silence really is silence, pending evidence to the contrary. Adaptation has the advantage of being a demonstrably real phenomenon, however skeptical one may be of its ability to make whales out of Artiodactyls. I wouldn't be skeptical at all about the ability of an all-powerful Designer to do it, but I would be skeptical about the existence of such beings, and would wonder why they did it via a process that leaves a trail of genetic continuity with divergence, exactly as expected after a 'neo-Darwinian' process has been in operation.

      Simply pointing to whales etc is not evidence of Design to me, any more than it is evidence of the existence of adaptation. But the existence of selection and drift as general phenomena, acting in both real and abstract populations given certain conditions (which hold in all real biological populations), provide a process that can serially amend and adapt populations unaided. Coupled with the evidence of genetic continuity, this only leaves room for a designer who, at best, must tinker, not Create on the grand scale.

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    3. steve said:

      "Well TwT, is step-by-bitty-step fortuitous mutations conferring an advantage a better explanation than God did it? It seems more like a verbose distraction."

      The discoveries and explanations found and produced so far and the continuing scientific research into evolution and related fields is far more productive and satisfying to me than the mind-deadening assertion "God did it". Obviously you like things that are simple. You prefer a useless three word phrase to the "verbose distraction" of scientific research, discoveries, and explanations. I guess science isn't for everyone.

      "God is the beginning of discovery, not the end."

      Well, first you'd have to discover "God" and if you have evidence that shows that you have done so I'd like to see it. And if you think that you have discovered "God" and "God" is the beginning of discovery I would think that you can reveal all the answers to every question about nature. Can you? I realize that revealing them all would take a long time so maybe you can just reveal a few important ones that will show that "God" has revealed things about nature to you that science has no chance of ever finding.

      "To be sure, design in nature assures us that God is alive and well 'in a silent way'."

      Did or does "God" design hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning/thunder, landslides, asteroid/meteor/comet impacts, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, cancer and all other diseases, poisons/toxins, fires, deformities and disabilities, pain, predation, starvation, drowning, flooding, drought, sunburn, frostbite, thirst, parasites, and death? All of those things occur in nature, and some of them are real noisy.

      "But that is what I think really bothers folks that rely on godless explanations.

      They are bothered by the silence."

      Believe it or not, we don't all need an imaginary sky daddy to threaten us into submission or to make us feel as though we're worthwhile. And it's not that people who rely on godless scientific explanations are bothered by the "silence" of an imaginary sky daddy, it's that those of us who rely on godless scientific discoveries and explanations aren't terrified of reality (nature) and we are curious and want to learn as much as we can about it.

      What is it that really bothers you about science? Is it that scientific research and discoveries keep pushing your alleged "God" into smaller and smaller 'gaps'?

      By the way, you do know that some scientists believe in a god, don't you? What do you think of them? Are they wasting their time and effort on verbose distractions and defying "God" by studying nature, or is it okay to study nature as long as "God" gets the credit for designing and creating it (except the bad stuff) and especially gets all the credit for 'specially creating' humans?

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    4. gods are humanity's first and worst attempt at explaining the nature of reality.

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    5. TwT says:

      "The discoveries and explanations found and produced so far and the continuing scientific research into evolution and related fields is far more productive and satisfying to me than the mind-deadening assertion "God did it". Obviously you like things that are simple. You prefer a useless three word phrase to the "verbose distraction" of scientific research, discoveries, and explanations. I guess science isn't for everyone."

      Whats funny here is that you are under the assumption "God did it" scientists are sitting around twiddling their thumbs since they already know 'whodunit'. Science is never about the who but the how. Don't forget this has been the prime motivation behind the vast majority of major discoveries over the past several centuries. So yeah "God did it" is a pretty f&%$ productive 3 words.

      As for simplicity, I'll just say "Simplicity of expression, depth of thought"

      TwT continues: "Did or does "God" design hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning/thunder, landslides, asteroid/meteor/comet impacts, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, cancer and all other diseases, poisons/toxins, fires, deformities and disabilities, pain, predation, starvation, drowning, flooding, drought, sunburn, frostbite, thirst, parasites, and death? All of those things occur in nature, and some of them are real noisy.

      This seems to be a reply to a YEC characterization of God. You'll have to ask a YEC how that works. For me, designing a system that produces all these effects is a better explanations that the tedium of hands on formation of indiviual effects. Thats a simpletons' view of creation.

      By the way, Man putting wrenches into the system out of ignorance is not an excuse to slam God for it. Locating the beam in our eyes is the first order of biz.

      TwT finally hits on the real issue with:

      "Believe it or not, we don't all need an imaginary sky daddy to threaten us into submission or to make us feel as though we're worthwhile. And it's not that people who rely on godless scientific explanations are bothered by the "silence" of an imaginary sky daddy, it's that those of us who rely on godless scientific discoveries and explanations aren't terrified of reality (nature) and we are curious and want to learn as much as we can about it. "

      So TwT, you go along with a caricature of God that suits your style of argumentation. Were you perphaps one of those kids that wouldn't let Mom dress you? I don't need your help Mom! I can do it myself! Well good for you. But some of us kinda liked Mom's loving touch even when she just grounded us for a week.

      TwT projecting away:

      "What is it that really bothers you about science? Is it that scientific research and discoveries keep pushing your alleged "God" into smaller and smaller 'gaps'? "

      Ah, but science done with a positive assumption of God as author of creation has been berry, berry good to us. Why stop now? What has your godless assumptions provided humanity so far? Liberation from the unbearable all seeing Eye? A terrifying thought. Naked with all our clothes on.

      By the way, you haven't even begun to chip away at the chasms that separate you from reality. Its a dip in the pool of silence that brings us closer to reality.

      Just ask the Hindus, the Buddhists, the desert fathers, etc. etc. etc.

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  6. A well known story is of the creationist student giving his "science" professor a box of parts of a watch and saying just shake it enough and in time you will have a nice new watch.
    the complexity of biology makes evolution just a impossible conclusion.
    The big picture of such wonderful complexity just begs for a thinking being behind it and demands that common sense deny ideas of accidental traits accumulating to create and be fantastic living thriving life.
    It's just not true.
    It's not a worthy idea of science and has no science evidence behind it if one looks carefully.

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    1. Wait, don't tell me, let me guess: Does this story have a fascinating sequel about a tornado, a junkyard, and a 747?

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    2. Yeah some story, well known in churches and bible study groups I suppose. Naturally, these made-up stories always end up with the professor being completely flummoxed.
      There is a reason why these stories are always made-up and the event never really occured. Can you fathom why, Robert? You comment here all the time Robert, surely you have gained some vague sense of how evolution is proposed to work and therefore why your "box of watch parts" scenario would not be a challenge for any knowledgable teacher.

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    3. Robert, you forgot the part of the story where the creationist student hit the watch with a hammer to exorcise the demons that were making it run in order to appease his malevolent sky fairy.

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    4. The airplane story is a different story.
      Yet they both make great winning thinking for people.
      It captures the pure unlikyness of evolutions claims.
      A self developing watch is impossible despite any claim that at any one point something could follow something else.
      Anyways just shake that box and wait.

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    5. "A well known story is of the creationist student giving his "science" professor a box of parts of a watch and saying just shake it enough and in time you will have a nice new watch."

      And then the professor asked the creationist student how this 'experiment' was supposed to model heredity, variation, and the fixation of heritable variants in the population. In response, the creationist student babbled incoherently and looked incredibly stupid.

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    6. Yet they both make great winning thinking for people.

      They both make great winning making people think they are thinking when they are not.

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    7. A self developing watch is impossible...

      Go to http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed and search "circadian rhythm" then see how silly that statement it.

      Also, it's interesting to note how the "time piece" of biology is not ever remotely similar to clockwork.

      This argument-by-metaphor was kill long ago. Quit digging up zombies.

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  7. This gets better. Yesterday, in your post, you confirmed your "idea" that the mammals in Australia had morphed, changing at light-speed to achieve a hundred million year of evolution ... in a few centuries. The chance was given to you to back off from the silly idea but you repeated it. It's dumb. It ignores the herbivores of Australia not having 4 stomachs; the absence of placental teeth in these animals; the DNA in mitchondria of marsupials (which confirms the actual common origins of marsupials, regardless of the ecological niche or whether carnivore-or- herbivore); and disregarding the 2-uterus arrangement in the Wallabies and Kangaroos, for instance, marking them out is completely dissimilar from mammals outside Australia and all this is just a sample of the data which (obviously) you are utterly unaware of and - apparently - not interested in (why worry about evidence, after all?? Head firmly lodged in the sand). Today allchange - you switch to the equally mad extreme of asserting that evolution never occurs.
    You have a serious deficiency in the realm of reasoning-skills. You need some professional guidance, it seems, and until you get some help in order to pick up some rudimentary thinking apparatus I, for one, will not waste any more time on you Robert.

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  8. According to a quick search, there are approximately three million biologists worldwide, not counting students, high school teachers, etc. Since that means that one in every two thousand people in the world is a professional biologist, which seems like a reasonable figure, I'll accept it for now. Let's say the average career of one biologist is about thirty years. Spending a third of his/her life on the job leaves us with ten years. Taking into account administrative tasks, etc., let's divide that figure in half. That leaves us with a professional biologist, by the time he/she has retired, having spent five years (conservatively) working in the lab, or following up on and or otherwise thinking about the work that was done in the lab.
    Two scientists gets you ten years. If we take the figure of three million biologists as roughly accurate, we arrive at fifteen million years of research time. Since the field of evolutionary biology is 150 years old, let's (again, conservatively) double that figure, since the field has grown enormously over the last few decades.
    So let's say that we have thirty million years of time that professional biologists have been studying the field of biology. That doesn't include the millions of hours that non-professionals in high schools, universities etc. have been conducting.
    And yet, biologists, with all this time (the one element they use to explain how purely blind, mechanistic forces could have come up with something as complex as a living cell, to say nothing of complex organisms) can't tell you what the 'key of life' is. They can tell you a huge amount about it, but they cannot create it, or duplicate it. Thirty million years, and they don't have the formula.

    So when they try to make people feel foolish, superstitious, etc., for positing that something OTHER than blind, purely mechanistic forces managed to do what some of the most intelligent people in the world can NOT do, even with all that time that they assure is the necessary element that should erase all doubt in our minds - if we would just comprehend what such huge amounts of time are capable of producing - I tend not to pay so much attention to them. I think they have more important things to do than argue about metaphysics. Lots still undone in their own field.

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    1. Andy,

      I will not even try and correct your math. I have no time to verify any numbers. However, a few flaws: Thinking that you can just put together what each biologists does into a single line of progression. As if, working in my lab, I were able to know what the guy in that other lab is going to discover so that I can put my research just after his. Then, assuming that each and every biologist spends their time in figuring out how to make life in the lab. Do you really think that just understanding how the stuff works, stuff that has a history of billions of years in their making, takes no time at all? Studying the diversity available? Figuring out where to find the fossils explaining the history of one species or another? Counting species in one region and another? Discovering whether there's a genetic origin to that of this sickness? Working on agricultural problems? Parasites in the tropics? Better understanding the rates and contributions of "blind, purely mechanistic forces" to the history of different life forms to see if we can figure out more detailed general principles? There's so many fields of study, just within biology, that I truly cannot understand why would you make such a horrendous and obviously fallacious point.

      It is sad to see this kind of thoughtless rhetoric because it only sounds nice, but it is shallow. It is plainly superstitious to posit that because the most intelligent people cannot do something, therefore some more intelligent being did it. We know this is superstitious because there were very similar reasons to "posit" that volcanoes, thunder, tsunamis, earthquakes, and a lot more natural phenomena were caused by "something OTHER than blind, purely mechanistic forces." Today, the superstitions are no different, and have no different reasons. It is the old gods-of-the-gaps all over again. It's the argument from ignorance par excellence. Twisted, turned around, revisited, reworded, disguised, hidden behind layers of rhetoric, but the very same idea: we don't know, we can't do, therefore gods.

      Sorry. But it is all too clearly superstitious to posit gods on top of natural processes as explanations for life.

      (I for one do not "assure" anybody that time "is the necessary element that should erase all doubt" in their mind. I do not think that there's a magic recipe to keep people from superstition. Knowledge is a lot more work than some scientist telling you that time is the final element that you might be missing.)

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    2. Andy,
      To give you further perspective into your fallacy, instead of comparing your biologists-making-life to the single timeline of the full history of life, what about you compare it to the history comprehended by all living forms. That is, you happily multiplied the time per biologist to the number of biologists that ever lived. Therefore, instead of comparing their efforts to the billions of years of the single timeline since life arose, what about you multiply those billions of years by the number life forms that ever lived?

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    3. NE, what you point out as 'fallacies' don't add up, for several reasons. As to your second comment, if I am only referring to the emergence of life, why would I want to multiply anything by anything? At one time there was only one life form, yes? And nobody knows the process by which that process came about, yes? No rough estimate of the time, even, I think. The iterative process from life's building blocks to the emerge of life. Three hundred million years? A few weeks? Where are the theories?

      As for your earlier comment, OF COURSE you can say it is a fallacy to add all those numbers together and say that's thirty million years. The only thing I really need to say is that it has been a LOT of time, and with that I am sure you will agree.

      But what kind of time? Let's call it 'accelerated time'. Why? Because you already have everything in front of you. You have cells to work with, you have research to read through, and, best of all, you have your own intelligent minds to work things out. You have so many advantages over blind, mechanical processes that it ain't even funny. It's like when Dawkins made his computer program to output 'methinks it was a weasel'. WIth a clear goal in mind, and all the materials you could possibly ask for to study, you should be able to come up with things much, much more quickly than blind, mechanistic processes.

      But you can't. According to Jud, the nearest you have come is a 'biological molecule' and 'the innards of cells'. That's like saying you had an automobile in front of you the whole time and after thousands of years of lab time you have a tire, a steering wheel, and some pistons from the engine. You are studying something that is as yet beyond your ability to comprehend. That's great, NE! I admire you for that. Truly, I do. But the question still arises, 'how did blind, mechanistic processes do THAT?'

      And I am NOT trying to persuade you that there is a god. You will keep on believing as you do, and no problem. My whole point in writing the above was to point out that scientists are magnificent when they do the science, but when they think the science they are doing should persuade believers, insofar as they are capable of reason, that god does NOT exist, they fall very short. Science is not a god eradicating discipline. Biology is not a god-eradicating phenomenon (far from it!) . And the theory of evolution is not a god-eradicating idea.
      People who claim otherwise are bluffing. They are holding a pair of sixes and talk like they have a straight flush.

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    4. NE writes,
      'We know this is superstitious because there were very similar reasons to "posit" that volcanoes, thunder, tsunamis, earthquakes, and a lot more natural phenomena were caused by "something OTHER than blind, purely mechanistic forces." Today, the superstitions are no different, and have no different reasons.'

      This is an interesting statement, because it causes me to consider the many different ways to approach how wrong it is.
      Surely, you are not arguing that the complexity of life, the codes within DNA, the still-as-yet mysterious property of self replication (just think what a coup THAT would be to an engineer who designs cars or airplanes!) is comparable to earthquakes and volcanoes? And biologists who study it and make their findings known are not different from high priests and their followers of old? It's all the same; if we can't explain it, we just say god did it? I think you may have far too much respect for earthquakes and volcanoes.

      Second, as to your larger argument, that this is just the ol' god of the gaps fallacy writ large: This, NE, is where you help me make MY point. Biologists reaaaalllly should not be discussing metaphysics as if they knew what they were talking about. If you believe that no person in history has ever 'touched the mind' that gave rise to this universe; that all talk of revelation, insight,etc. contained in the Vedas, Sufism, Gnosticism, etc. etc., was just self-delusion contained within a superstitious construct whose only pursuit was to understand natural phenomena, then all you are REALLY revealing is that you have never, yourself, had an experience of greater mind. You don't know what that is like. That's fine, but I have. So go ahead and call me 'delusional'. I respect you and admire you, but I can't think of a single reason why your characterization should affect me or cause me to doubt what I know to be true.

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    5. Andy,

      All you are pointing up is the inability of intelligence to generate life. Even with a working spec to reverse-engineer. So how does it become the Ultimate Solution to the problem posed by "blind, mechanical-processes-can't-do-it?" assertions. Brainy people can't even work out, in their heads, how a particular peptide will fold. Even with a powerful computer it takes longer to compute than it does to happen. So this quality you invoke has not, on evidence to date, the remotest capacity to achieve what you want it to achieve.

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    6. Allan, sure that's fine. No intelligence remotely like ours. But an intelligence far beyond ours is one we can surely contemplate. Or perhaps not even call it 'intelligence', per se. Simply an awareness of what it is doing, or at the very least that it is doing something, whatever 'it' is.

      Just as a painting by a great artist looks nothing, whatsoever, like the brain processes that went about creating it, so could not this 'mind' be working outside our ability to even comprehend it? But yet, still be a 'painter' rather than a random vortex that sloshed paint around?

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    7. Andy,

      First and foremost, for me it is never about affecting you or causing you to doubt what you think to know to be true. For me it is been about explaining to you why we, or perhaps just I, don't find what you say convincing. That's quite different, isn't it?

      Yes. I am arguing that no matter the complexity, self-replication, DNA codes, et cetera, life is exactly like thunder and volcanoes in terms of being natural phenomena that, because we don't know it all, are posited to be due to some anthropomorphic-but-magical being. So far we haven't seen any magic involved in how life works, thus we have no reason to think that magic was ever involved, even if a problem like the origin of life is still in the works, even if it is not solved within my lifetime, I don't find the gods explanation satisfactory one bit. You do, perhaps, because you already "know" that there's gods. But I do not know such a thing. Thus, I see no reason to posit such a thing as explaining anything. Instead I see it as a god-of-the-gaps argument. I have to say I have very good reasons to see it that way. Unless you can show me that thunder, and volcanoes, and whatever other gods that you find superstitious are objectively different to the gods imagined by all the cultures that you mentioned. Remember that from where I sit, sacrificing people at pyramids so that The Sun will keep burning is exactly the same as sacrificing Jesus to forgive our sins. Some blood offering to appease imaginary beings. Remember that given such a thing, I will have lots of difficulty believing that all those ancient cultures had it wrong, were superstitious, and whatever the culture-and-gods you subscribe to had it right and are not superstitious. Remember that to me the most "advanced" gods are but the domestications and evolutions of those ancient superstitions.

      As for the life-multiplication. I was trying to make you notice the size of the fallacy. We can add numbers and compare and that does not make any of those numbers more real. Instead you took it seriously. Even then, if you think that such multiplications are valid, then again, how am I supposed to know what will be discovered in other labs, and thus put my research ahead? Remember that if you think that the multiplications are real, then biologists like myself, who do not study the origin of life, are quite busy with the billions upon billions of years that every life form in the planets has gone through once we multiply them. Right? Let us also visit the origin of life a bit. Well, how could those millions of years of biologists, all of whom, of course, work in making life in a test tube, how could they replicate the first half to one billion years that might have lead to life in the planet and do it instead in a test tube? Surely you are not saying that it must have been a single event, with a single cell by the end? I have trouble thinking how to multiply. By the number of hot-vents under the ocean? By the number of organic molecules? By the number of hot ponds? Let me know also how should we, who, again, are all work in making life in a test tube, know of all the possible conditions that those billions of years produced with so many eons of events erasing most-if-not-all traces of such times immemorial.

      I would talk about physical-chemical self-replication, and other stuff that is truly fascinating, or about my religious experiences, and then about putting them in perspective, but that would add distractions. Instead I go back to the original argument and ask: do you still think that your multiplication argument is valid?

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    8. Andy,

      "No intelligence remotely like ours" ... therefore, is it worthy of the term 'intelligence' at all? So intelligent that it can cause matter to appear out of nothing? So intelligent that it can predict the outcome of chaotic processes a few billion years hence? Wow. That's bright! All very well to invent what it can do, but unless you can characterise it in some way, this 'intelligence' is just your bog-standard "God": a catch-all, can-do-whatever-it-is-you-need-it-to-do magical 'poof'-er.

      It can create matter out of nothing, and know why, and what it's going to do with it, without any of the limitations of earth-bound, matter-resident neural circuitry. But somehow, that matter can't just self-organise. This God needs to be around to push it hither and thither just so, in apparent violation of its own thermodynamic restrictions on matter and motion. 'Cos it can do anything. What use is it, then, as a competing hypothesis?

      For my money, intelligence needs a physical brain to live in. Unless you can do a better job of demonstrating a lack of such dependence than a few thousand years' worth of theists, then we are left with processes and entities that demonstrably do occur.

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    9. Allan Miller writes, "What use is it, then, as a competing hypothesis?"

      Perhaps no use at all. I reject the idea that god IS a hypothesis. As soon as it becomes one, it has to go through the hoops that science creates for it. That is why I am hardly a fan of ID. I am much more a 'separate magisterium' type of guy.

      "For my money, intelligence needs a physical brain to live in."
      And I'm betting you're wrong. I am betting that brains exist because of, and through, intelligence, not the other way around. This one we won't settle, though, obviously.
      And if such time ever comes that we do, I don't think we'll be bothering about who owes who.

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    10. NE, the post above presents lots to chew on, so I will deal with each issue with a separate, relatively brief, reply.
      Firstly, you wrote,
      'life is exactly like thunder and volcanoes in terms of being natural phenomena that, because we don't know it all, are posited to be due to some anthropomorphic-but-magical being.'

      To that, I will say, fair enough. I disagree, but will not press the point. Where you and I disagree more profoundly is my disagreement with your, seemingly strong, position that religions were born out of nothing more than peoples' attempts to explain natural occurrences, with perhaps fear of death thrown in. And have nothing else from which to cull from. If that is true, you are essentially proposing that all the 'esoteric' strains of religion, and their adjuncts - i.e. Sufism, Kabbalism, Gnosticism, Hindu mysticism (the teachings of the Vedas), Zen Buddhism, Jungian psychology, etc. etc. - are nothing more than imaginary and delusional philosophizing based upon a few very simplistic lies.

      I'm not even sure that someone who hasn't delved into these areas somewhat even has a leg to stand on in terms of rejecting them. Nearly all of them are based on at least some form of diligent meditation as a practice. If one doesn't meditate regularly, then one cannot very credibly argue that the experiences of those who DO are bogus. The best one can do, I suppose, is what Sam Harris does -and I applaud him for doing so. He recognizes that there IS something to the 'spiritual', 'revelation', etc. I believe he is just now finishing up a book on this.
      He maintains with conviction that all matters of spirituality can be explained by neural activity within the brain. I disagree with him there. But at least he doesn't brush it all off as woo woo.
      Even if religions did start out, when human consciousness as we now think of it was still emerging, as direct responses to things like volcanoes and earthquakes, (and I am not sure I agree with this), it achieved more, under certain conditions when esotericism was allowed to thrive, or even, in the case of Gnostics, had to go underground.
      Think of it this way: when Darwin created his theory of natural selection, the whole fascinating world of cells and genetics was mysterious to him. He probably imagined a much simpler process by which natural selection stretched, pulled, enlarged and shrank physiology. But, continuing the path he laid down, a whole amazing world of cellular activity was revealed,through disciplined study by very intelligent people. This, in at least one respect, is comparable to the way that some extraordinary individuals within religious communities were able to go further, and discover things that, presumably, those who came before them couldn't even imagine. Maybe the leap from volcano to transcendent consciousness isn't so different from blob of protoplasm to tiny self replicating supercomputer, after all. Just my two cents.

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    11. Allan Miller writes, "What use is it, then, as a competing hypothesis?"

      Perhaps no use at all. I reject the idea that god IS a hypothesis.


      No, I don't meant hypothesising the existence of the feller, I mean hypothesising his involvement in this or that phenomenon. You're on a science blog, and have looked askance at the failure of people (most of whom aren't actually looking) to establish Life in a test-tube. You presumably think that failure means something significant, and requires an additional mechanism, whether or not you would dignify it with the term 'hypothesis'.

      I would say that the search space of conditions and permutations is likely to be vast. And if we don't know how vast, nor how common are 'targets', we can't really say whether failure to locate it in x amount of biologist-hours tells us anything.

      I'm not so sure that people are attempting to persuade you to let Time and Permutation into your life, but they are pretty obvious and plausible reasons why Life, even if it had a 'natural' origin, is not amenable to a simple test-tube demonstration. Even with a God, there is no reason to suppose he actually did anything to bridge this or that gap, even if it says so in a book.

      If gaps allow you to continue your faith, all well and good. I suspect in any case it is based on something a little less provisional than the hope that science will continue to have particular unknowns.

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    12. Allan writes;

      "...looked askance at the failure of people (most of whom aren't actually looking) to establish Life in a test-tube. You presumably think that failure means something significant, ...."

      Yes, and why I feel that is 'significant' was written in my OP. To wit:

      So when they try to make people feel foolish, superstitious, etc., for positing that something OTHER than blind, purely mechanistic forces managed to do what some of the most intelligent people in the world can NOT do, even with all that time that they assure is the necessary element that should erase all doubt in our minds - if we would just comprehend what such huge amounts of time are capable of producing - I tend not to pay so much attention to them.

      What I am arguing is that people of faith need not feel intimidated by designations that they are 'deluded' and 'irrational' by smug atheists such as Dawkins, Coyne, John W. Loftus (author of God and the Folly of Faith), Victor Stenger (God, the Failed Hypothesis), Lawrence M. Krauss (A Universe from Nothing), Darrely Ray (The God Virus, How Religion Infects Our Lives), etc. etc. . As I wrote to NE, people like those authors are holding a pair of sixes, at best, and pontificate with the assurance that they have a Royal Flush. They should stop doing this, and get on with the science, imo. Then I have no complaints.

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    13. what some of the most intelligent people in the world can NOT do, even with all that time that they assure is the necessary element that should erase all doubt in our minds...

      Andy, "life in a test-tube" is not about "creating" a live bacterial cell in the lab. It's about understanding prebiotic chemical evolution. And yes, of course, the question of scale is important here. Real abiogenesis did have millions of years at its disposal to carry out quadrillions of local experiments in a test tube the size of the Earth's global ocean. It isn't an excuse for giving up in advance, but neither is it a reason for predicting that abiogenetic research is doomed to fail. It will achieve its aim if it comes up with a plausible scenario and satisfactory insight into the crucial steps. In science you win against someone's imaginary royal flush if you're holding lots of real pairs of sixes. Smug IDiots will then point ot that science still CAN'T create a bacterium from a spoonful of reconstructed primordial soup. That's right, it can't, because life can't be created and wasn't created. That's the whole point.

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    14. Piotr, one thing that we can both agree on, surely, is that neither side has a monopoly on smugness.
      But I admit to a particular vexation with the 'oh, by the way, we killed God' attitude of the authors I cited above and the many people who agree with them and/or are persuaded by them.

      And I assume that your particular vexation would be with those who believe that THEIR god is EVERYBODY'S god. Actually, that vexes me as well.

      When you talk about an 'imaginary royal flush' losing out to 'lots of real pairs of sixes', you are referring to a 'game' that I wish wasn't even being played, by EITHER side. As I wrote earlier, I am a 'separate magisterium' guy, myself.

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    15. Andy,

      I understand your irritation with the anti-theistic stance of certain authors. My own position is a more simple a-theistic one. I simply don't believe, and never did in any strong way. Certainly not since since becoming bored with illustrating seasonal Bible stories at age 10 or so. At least Santa and the Easter Bunny actually gave you something! (Shock horror, yes I know people think certain historic figures gave a great deal).

      I think you have picked your target carefully, however. No-one would seriously argue that origin-of-life research is anywhere close to giving a, let alone 'the', answer. And it is not actually being given all that many 'biologist hours'. But evolution is much more readily characterised, and has been, exhaustively. Christians and others think and argue that this subject is in a mess and on the verge of being overturned by the the 'new Kuhnian paradigm' (with a suspicious whiff of a long-discarded one). So if people versed in the subject matter turn on them, arguing that they are ill-informed, stupid etc - well, some of them are.

      It is not a tactic that is likely to change anyone's mind, of course. But that is not why I argue the 'pro-evolution' side anyway. 'Converting' people to atheism is neither here nor there. I just argue against 'bad science' and unsupported conclusions, and hope to get my own sorted out where necessary.

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    16. That's OK with me. My vexation is mostly with armchair criticism by people who have never done any research themselves, who have no real idea of the rules and strategies of the game called science, but who nevertheless demand to be treated as legit players. They in fact believe they can beat scientists at their own game. I realise you are not quite that type of guy. I just wanted to point out that science has no ambition to work miracles or replay the history of the Universe to prove its claims. Some scientists may display unnecessary hubris, but it certainly isn't a mainstream characteristic. If people work hard on showing how terrestrial artiodactyls evolved into whales, they do so because they are curious how it happened. They don't even think of scoring a point against creationists. They would do the very same thing if there were no creationists left on this planet. So after many years of hard work they at last have a nice chain of transitional fossil taxa and a very good understanding of what happened, and they are justifiably proud of the progress they have made. It irritates them if someone says, "But with all that, you can't turn a cow into a blue whale, so you lose," and reveals Genesis 1:21 as his winning hand. You could say that such a pest confuses separate magisteria, so his bad manners don't really matter. OK, just keep him away from educational politics and school curricula.

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    17. Allan and Piotr, well said.
      Both comments above fully endorsed by me. Thank you.

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    18. Andy, just an afterthought: I've never ever tried to convert anyone to atheism (which would be a contradiction in terms anyway, given my view of atheism, which is the same as Allan's). My wife is a Catholic, and religion or lack thereof has never been a family problem for us. My children grew up in this mixed environment and were free to construct their own world outlooks. If my son is an atheist and a biology student, it isn't because we cast dice for his soul and I won and my wife lost. She's as proud of him as I am.

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    19. I enjoyed reading this and some of the other tracks on this post. I just want to add that scientific thinking and approach, particularly regarding our understanding of how cells and organisms work at the molecular level, is barely a handful of decades old. So, what I think is amazing is not how much we don’t understand, but how much we understand!

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    20. @Claudiu Bandea,

      The scientific way of knowing (i.e scientific thinking) is several THOUSAND years old. That's a lot more than "a handful of decades."

      Our understanding of how cells work at the molecular level dates back to the nineteenth century. That's about 12 decades.

      However, I agree with you that we know hell of a lot. Far more than the creationists give us credit for.

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    21. Piotr, that is an interesting addendum. Similar to my own family situation. My daughter, now a young adult, appears to have settled into a somewhat malleable agnosticism, after earlier being more firmly atheistic. I rarely discuss my own beliefs with her, and since I came to them in my own way, through my own experiences, I am happy to let her do the same. She has never set foot in a church in her life other than as a tourist. :)

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    22. Claudiu writes, 'So, what I think is amazing is not how much we don’t understand, but how much we understand!'

      I agree. And I also think it is an amazing field of study, which, actually, supports my point of view that one can't, with a wave of a hand, dismiss the possibility that life is not something that came about completely blind to its own mechanisms. After all this time of research put in by so many very intelligent and diligent professionals, it is still revealing itself through a myriad of new discoveries, with much still to learn. And as I have written several times, in my view, if you can't duplicate it, make it, make something better than it, and need to study it in order to continue to learn more about it, it is premature to rule out the possibility that it emerged through some sort of awareness beyond our own.

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  9. can't tell you what the 'key of life' is

    As if there were such a thing. It's just chemistry. Folks used to think life was special - vitalism and all that - and we mere mortals would never have sufficient knowledge to be able to duplicate the wondrous operations of living things. Then a biological molecule was synthesized. Somehow appropriately, it was a component of piss.

    At this point we've graduated to synthesizing the innards of cells. Do we know what the innards of the very first life looked like? No, not yet, maybe not ever. One good reason is that by the time life started leaving fossil traces, a signficant fraction of a billion years had passed from life's origins. But folks are very interested in it, are working on it, and who knows? Maybe they'll succeed. I hope you'll have sense enough, if and when it happens, to be thrilled.

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    1. I promise to be thrilled, Jud. I'll check back in thirty million years. ;)

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    2. As long as you haven't lost your curiosity and sense of wonder, there's hope.

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    3. Jud, curiosity and sense of wonder I have in bucketloads, I can assure you. Scientists have no monopoly on that.
      And I hope that you have a deep, abiding sense of gratitude at the opportunity to exist, however it came about.

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    4. Yes, and I thanked Mom and Dad for that. :-)

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    5. good one :)
      May 12th and June 16th, 2013; don't forget!

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  10. What is lost on JUD is the fact that we can sythesize biological components precisely because they are programs and we recognize them as such.

    But JUD won't go down that dark street. Just suffice for him to say "Hey, that dark street has always been there so no need to explain it".

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    1. And here I thought we can synthesize biological components because we now know that organic molecules follow exactly the same laws of chemistry that every other molecule does.

      The "dark street" that you allude to is the one you go down when you think that biological compounds have some sort of élan vital which has about as much explanatory power as saying that the operation of a railway engine depends on it's its élan locomotif.

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  11. What is lost on JUD is the fact that we can sythesize biological components precisely because they are programs and we recognize them as such.

    I don't think deification-through-capitalization is necessary, though thanks for the compliment.

    The first biochemical synthesis occurred in 1828. I had no idea this was an early outbreak of computer science.

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    1. Jud, the programs Steve is referring to are within the cells. He is not talking about computers.

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    2. What program is being used by a rock, in the vacuum of space?

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20160129

      (Apologies - Originally posted at the bottom, not in-line)

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    3. andyboerger: Oh so *that's* the translation of Steve's inaptly worded sentence. Thanks. But heck, adding 2 plus 2 and getting 4 is a type of "program," so nothing particularly awe-inspiring, much less deity-necessitating, about that.

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  12. What program is being used by a rock, in the vacuum of space?

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20160129

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  13. One should consider how immensely large a test-tube the planet earth is, and the incalculable number of micro-environments there are and have been in this natural test-tube, and how long this test-tube existed. No person will be able to adequetely appreciate the above magnitudes, but even just a vague sense should give pause to anyone looking at a laboratory test-tube and wondering why the emergence of life from non-living components has not been documented and/or explained.
    With the question of life or any other phenomenon, should be conclude that any phenomenon not satifactorily explained by this our year of 2012 must therefore involve supernatural elements? Why 2012? Why not year 1998, or 1834, or 2043?

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    1. Shawn, that argument works fine for those with an atheistic bent, but it goes nowhere for those who are believers, and have their own very good reasons for being so. You basically run the risk of creating a plea for a 'science of the gaps' with that argument.
      People of faith will not be convinced, nor will they be surprised that 'the emergence of life from non-living components has not been documented and/or explained'.
      They have their own (I should say we have our own), very different reasons for not being surprised. Why is your argument better?

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    2. Wow, Shawn explained this better than me above. I wish I had seen it and saved lots of words.

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    3. You basically run the risk of creating a plea for a 'science of the gaps' with that argument.

      I don't know why smart people don't get this, but science *is* in huge part "the gaps." People fascinated by the unknown turn to science to try to figure out answers to the limitless wonderfully interesting questions before us. Unanswered questions are not failures, any more than answered questions are finally resolved for all time. (Newton, meet Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg.... Darwin, meet Wright, Haldane, Fisher, Gould, and on and on.) They are an unending source of wonder and excitement. Ingenious answers lead to more fascinating questions, so voila, you get to have your cake and eat it, too.

      For folks with a bent toward criticizing science as inadequate, this provides unending fuel. For them, each "missing link" only opens up two additional gaps for the ancestors and heirs of the newly discovered organism, just as every new potential early-life biochemical step only seems to them to open up more gaps, more unanswered questions about the rest of the process. Perhaps one day scientists will arrive at a theory that knits together many of the threads we have today about the origins of life into a unified whole. But that doesn't happen often; Einsteins and Darwins don't come along every day.

      Meanwhile, though, scientists and those who love science will be fascinated by the journey, while "people of faith" will do the equivalent of sitting in the car asking "Are we there yet?" a million times and being disappointed the answer is still no.

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    4. Jud writes, 'I don't know why smart people don't get this, but science *is* in huge part "the gaps."
      That's an excellent sentiment and one that I fully endorse and embrace.
      But as I wrote earlier, scientists do not have a monopoly on a sense of wonder, nor curiosity.
      As for 'folks with a bent toward criticizing science as inadequate', I plead not guilty. As I have continually maintained, my issue is with anti-theistic rhetoric, such as voiced by Dawkins, and to a lesser extent the host of this site, that science, more or less, IS adequate to fully cleanse ones mind of silly god notions. It is not. When that stops, I am gone from this site, and I am sure no one will mourn my departure. :)

      As for your comment about people of faith sitting in the back seat wondering if we are there yet, that it is an extreme oversimplification. It is possible to believe goddidit and yearn to know HOW goddidit. That supposition need not be, though it assuredly often is, an inquiry killer. It IS for fundamentalists, but there are lots of different types of believers.

      There are those who don't even ask 'are we there yet?', because their minds are occupied with altogether different questions and priorities. They may find their answers in poetry, art, music, philosophy and yes, faith. Science asks certain kinds of questions, but they are not the only questions worth asking. About this I am sure you and I are in agreement.

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  14. Why is your argument better?

    Because it does not involve imaginary beings? Because yours unnecessarily moves the problem into one about identifying the imaginary beings, then explaining them? Because the history of humanity is plagued with imaginary-beings explanations that failed? Because there's no reason to think that imaginary beings today are any more real than imaginary beings of the past? Because ...

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    1. Yes, NE, if you want to put horns, antlers, bells, whistles, etc. on these 'imaginary beings', you find yourself in the position of needing to explain those features. If you attribute qualities to them such as unconditional love, then you have to explain why the universe is like it is. If you wish to attribute emotions such as jealousy and favoritism to them, then you need to explain by what definition they should even be described as 'superior'. But I'm not doing any of that. I am talking about a knowing-ness that produced knowing, whereas you are talking about an un-knowingness, that over time eventually resulted in knowing. Bare bones, our argument comes down to that. We are both talking about the same universe, and neither one of us is more 'clued in' than the other as to how to explain it. You have your very different perspective from mine, and I honor it. But I will not accept the idea that science buries god. I'll write more about that tomorrow in response to your comments above.

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    2. They have their own (I should say we have our own), very different reasons for not being surprised. Why is your argument better?

      History.

      In any case, it isn't my intent (at least not directly) to convince believers that god does not exist, it is a fruitless endevour. Even when the emergence of life is shown to be a completely natural process two things will occur: some will deny it, as many still deny the earth is older than 6000 years, and for others their god will just blend back further into the cosmos, with such ever increasing camouflage that one could be forgiven for doubting there is even a god there.

      Andy, would it be possible for one of faith to acknowledge intellectually that their god almost certainly doesn't really, actually exist, but still in an emotional sense live their life for reasons of security, comfort and contentment as if their god was real? Or would this shatter the very idea of faith? Or does the above description actually describe many religious people? I find it hard to believe that someone of say your intelligence and thoughtfulness doesn't have grave doubts on an intellectual level about the existence of any entity worthy of the name god.

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    3. Shawn asks, 'would it be possible for one of faith to acknowledge intellectually that their god almost certainly doesn't really, actually exist, but still in an emotional sense live their life for reasons of security, comfort and contentment as if their god was real? Or would this shatter the very idea of faith?'
      I can't say for sure. I think it would, as you write, shatter the very idea of faith. But I suppose there are some people whom that statement describes more or less accurately.
      I think what you will find in greater numbers are that more thoughtful people will, at times, experience the 'grave doubts' you write about. This is one of the most common and understandable human experiences of all, particularly when a person of faith is faced with circumstances that seem cruel and unbearable. Death of loved ones (especially suicides or murders), disease, grinding poverty, depression, etc. The 'usual suspects', if you will.
      Some abandon belief altogether, but others return. And in the case of the latter, it is too simplistic to just assume 'they need that crutch'.

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