Unfalsifiable vs. “not false”

It seems Mr. Horvath is feeling neglected because I’m paying attention to Christian apologetics ministries other than his own. (You have to admire the ingenuity of someone who can manage to call you a stalker in a two-line complaint about how you’re not obsessing over him enough!) He even puts up a bunch of fresh new posts for me to choose from. Well, I don’t have the heart to disappoint him, so let’s take another field trip, shall we? I’ll skip over the frankly fictitious story about Mother Teresa going to heaven, and the pro-gun argument that makes a big deal about the word “Congress” being in the First Amendment without seeming to notice the word “militia” in the Second. Let’s look, instead, at his post on one of my favorite topics: evolution.

Wasn’t the ‘request’ put to the Creationist proponents that they frame their views in less theistic terms? If it the case that ID is an accommodation to the evolutionary scientist’s camp, then shouldn’t that camp respect the efforts of these alleged ‘closet creationists’ to come to them on the materialist’s terms?

No, the “request” made of creationists is the same request that is made of everybody who wants to claim to do science: Please back up your claims with objectively verifiable evidence that is more consistent with your hypothesis than it is with the alternatives. The reason ID has failed to win any significant scientific support is because they’ve failed to do that, and have instead limited themselves to recycling creationist objections to the theory of evolution (even though they know that evolution–descent with modification from common ancestors–is indeed a fact).

Creationists try to deny evolution in two ways: by claiming that it is unfalsifiable, and by claiming to have falsified it. Complaints that it is unfalsifiable usually turn into complaints that scientists have an unfair advantage over creationists, because scientists are free to modify their hypothesis to fit the facts, whereas the creationist “hypothesis” is that Genesis is infallibly and literally true. There’s no way a creationist can admit that any flaw even exists in the original “hypothesis,” much less altering it to fit the facts the way scientists fine-tune their theories to be more consistent with real-world truth.

The “problem” creationists are really complaining about is that scientists don’t have a pre-determined dogma that you could disprove and thus use to invalidate the scientific approach. Science, by design, is simply a commitment to the principle that the truth is consistent with itself, and therefore that a search for the truth must be an iterative search for that which is more and more consistent with what we see in the real world. This does not make the scientific approach “unfalsifiable,” it makes it self-improving and error-correcting. It’s the way things ought to be.

Horvath gives us a good example of the conflict between the creationist view of science and the scientific view of science. Speaking of Dawkins book The Blind Watchmaker, he writes

[Dawkins’ argument] is not a scientific argument at all in the sense that we can experimentally verify any of the claims from so-called evolutionary history, it is more an exercise where one takes the available observed data and tries to see if one can get it to fit into a particular explanatory framework. If, however, there were some sort of empirical mechanism by which apparent design and real design could be distinguished, that would be a different story.

But that is exactly what Dawkins and his hyperventilating minions insist cannot be scientifically done when they attack the ID movement.

Let’s quickly review how science is supposed to work, based on the principle that truth is consistent with itself. We begin with observation: we see some phenomenon we wish to understand. After observing it for a while to see how it behaves, we formulate a hypothesis. That is, we describe a cause-and-effect relationship in enough detail that an objective scientist can determine, analytically, what real-world consequences will result from that hypothesized cause. Then we compare the consequences which ought to result from the hypothetical cause with the consequences which do result from the (possibly different) real world cause, and see if they match. If they are consistent with the calculated results, we say the evidence is consistent with the hypothesis. If not, then the hypothesis needs to be reviewed.

Notice that, unlike the creationist approach, the scientific approach does not limit you to subjects that can be brought into laboratories and experimented on. That’s good news for scientific disciplines like astronomy, cosmology, geology, oceanography, archeology, paleontology, meteorology, vulcanology, and so on. The B-movie stereotype of science being a white guy in a lab coat mixing stuff in a test tube is just that–a stereotype. Real science is simply a search for that which is most consistent with the facts, whether we verify that consistency by experiment, by direct observation, or by indirect observation.

The evolutionary approach is falsifiable because one can analytically calculate the real-world consequences that would necessarily result from descent with modifications from a common ancestor. If the evidence we find in the real world is not consistent with the evidence which our calculations show ought to result from descent with modifications from a common ancestor, then we can truthfully and objectively say that the evidence is not consistent with common descent with variations. The theory is perfectly falsifiable. It’s not the scientists’ fault that it happens to be non-false.

Horvath, of course, tries to “debunk” the facts with a bunch of empty hand-waving.

The central claim of Evolution is that it can account for what appears to be designed without a need for a designer.

Bzzzt, thanks for playing. The central claim of evolution is that modern species arose via a process of descent with modification from common ancestors.

It is not enough to posit that given enough time natural selection can do something, you have got to have some knowledge of what kinds of things natural selection couldn’t do, either in principle, or in such and such amount of time. This is exactly the kind of analysis that Intelligent Design proponents can bring to the table and exactly the kind of work that Evolutionary scientists say is not scientific.

Unfortunately, ID proponents uniformly fail to bring anything more to the table than a superstitious attribution, plus some recycled creationist objections to evolution, plus the false assumption that if they criticize evolution, ID/Creationism somehow automatically becomes true. Behe’s “irreducible complexity” argument, for instance, is simply a dressed-up version the old “argument from incredulity” objection creationists have been making all along.  Nor has Behe succeeded in finding anything that is indeed irreducibly complex. Flagella aren’t irreducible. Blood clotting isn’t. Nor is the immune system.

Unlike evolution, ID fails to follow the scientific approach to science. ID specifically avoids proposing any kind of cause whose real-world consequences could be worked out apart from taking a peek at the real world to see what the “right answer” is. ID is the pseudo-scientific equivalent of painting the bulls-eye around the arrow after it has hit something. Mt. Rushmore is supposed to be “obviously” the product of design because it is different from, say, Mt. Everest. In a creationist view of the world, however, Mt. Everest is also supposed to be the product of design. Even poor “designs” like weak backs, narrow birth canals, and cruel diseases and poisons and such, are supposed to be the result of “intelligent” design. Any conceivable set of circumstances “fits” the ID premise, but it’s an untestable premise because there’s no way to work out what results it ought to produce if true.

Does anyone think that if it was discovered that mutations couldn’t accumulate that this would cause evolutionists to abandon their theory?

Another way of phrasing this is to ask, “Suppose we discovered that variations could not be passed on across multiple generations; would that be inconsistent with the hypothesis that the modern diversity of species is the result of accumulated variations during a process of descent with variation from common ancestors?” And the answer is Yes it would be quite inconsistent, and we would say that the evidence failed to support that theory.

Give me a break. Darwin’s theories emerged before any such mechanisms were known. Darwin put out his theory before there was even any knowledge that there were mutations to accumulate.

Um, well, yeah, after Darwin proposed his theory, subsequent results did prove to be amazingly consistent with the way evolution would have to work. In genuine science, that’s a good thing. Truth is consistent with itself. When you discover that your theory is consistent with the truth in ways you didn’t anticipate, that’s a sign you’re on the right track, not a sign of unfalsifiability.

Similarly, the discovery that something could not be ‘explained’ (that is the key word, here) by lateral gene transfer would not defeat evolution. Isn’t that the whole point of the the alleged superiority of the evolutionary account, that just because you run into a hitch doesn’t mean the investigation ends, unlike that vile intelligent design hypothesis which ends inquiry?!?

Well, it is indeed true that lateral gene transfer is not essential to the theory of evolution in the broad scope. It turns out to be verifiable, and to explain some observed patterns of evolution. If those patterns weren’t there, then you could possibly falsify the idea of lateral gene transfer. Since that one has been observed in the lab, though, you’d think a creationist would be satisfied. Right.

ID does end inquiry, by the way. Are ID proponents exploring ways in which natural mechanisms could produce flagella, blood clotting, immune systems, and so on? Of course not–finding such answers would invalidate their claim that evolution cannot produce these things. The so-called “Intelligent Designer” is not only an unknown agent using unknown mechanisms at an unknown point in time producing results that are unknown except for present-day observations. The “Intelligent Designer” is an “explanation” (or attribution, rather) that requires us to remain ignorant of how nature works, so that we can claim that we don’t have an explanation for it.

Nor would observations of organisms being created falsify evolution.

Hey, at least he got one right! 😉 Though if we did observe new species coming into existence via divine creation, it would lend a great deal of support to a scientific theory of creation. Someone would have to come up with a scientific theory of creation, though–so far no one has.

And if the fossil record was in fact ’static,’ since the theory is primarily an explanatory one, it wouldn’t defeat the theory, it would just call for a different interpretation of those fossils, or a decision not to use fossils at all.

Nope, sorry, this one’s flat wrong again. If the fossil record showed that all modern day species have existed continuously and contemporaneously since the beginning of life on earth, that would flatly contradict the theory that some of them originated by descent with modification from others. Sibling species are not each other’s ancestors. Again, because evolution describes an actual mechanism whose results can be calculated without having to look at the real world, we can tell what should and should not appear if new species arise via evolution. ID (and creationism) provide no such mechanism because they’re not science. They’re simply a superstitious attribution: they give God (with or without the disguise) credit for whatever it is that we observe, without being able to show any connection between the two, or even to describe what such a connection would consist of (beyond “poof! it’s magic!”).

For my own part, if I am presented with an object, biological or otherwise, and all my faculties leap to the inference that it is almost certainly designed, it is going to take much more than an elaborate explanatory system to convince me that it is in fact only apparently designed.

Another poor soul unable to resist the siren lure of naive superstition. The problem with Mr. Horvath’s world view is that it offers us absolutely no insight into the real world. There is no scientific mechanism proposed for “design” or “creation,” and therefore there is no way to know what a Designer/Creator ought to produce. Creationism and ID cannot tell us anything about any thing that we have not yet observed, it gives us no clues into any unsuspected truths which can be predicted, tested for, and verified (or falsified). It is strictly a post hoc, superstitious attribution. Only evolutionary theory is sufficiently specific and consistent with real-world truth to afford us new insights into biology, paleontology, and so on. Evolution is science; creationism and ID are merely superstition.

6 Responses to “Unfalsifiable vs. “not false””

  1. PalMD Says:

    “For my own part, if I am presented with an object, biological or otherwise, and all my faculties leap to the inference that it is almost certainly designed, it is going to take much more than an elaborate explanatory system to convince me that it is in fact only apparently designed.”

    If we all thought that way, then when someone got, say, diabetes, we would say, “It must be from God, no sense looking any further. Call the undertaker.”

    What a sad, limited mind he has.

  2. The Professor Says:

    Substitute “AIDS” for diabetes, and I think you’ll find a surprisingly large number of people who do think EXACTLY that way, to the point of trying to obstruct research into a cure.

  3. sntjohnny Says:

    You guys are nuts. There is no way you can get from that quote to that conclusion. Yeesh.

    This serves as more evidence that a big part of the problem of communicating with atheists is purely concerned with literacy.

    Example: “I’ll skip over the frankly fictitious story about Mother Teresa going to heaven, ”

    lol, frankly fictitious? Come on. You thought that was offered as anything more than a story, than fiction?

    I rest my case. This is why talking to you isn’t worth my time Deacon. It presumes that you’d understand what I was saying in the first place.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    frankly fictitious? Come on. You thought that was offered as anything more than a story, than fiction?

    Of course not. If you hadn’t been perfectly frank about it being fiction, I wouldn’t have called it “frankly fictitious.”

    You guys are nuts. There is no way you can get from that quote to that conclusion.

    I’ll be happy to spell it out for you. Let’s look at the quote again.

    For my own part, if I am presented with an object, biological or otherwise, and all my faculties leap to the inference that it is almost certainly designed, it is going to take much more than an elaborate explanatory system to convince me that it is in fact only apparently designed.

    If we understand superstitions well enough to recognize them “in the wild,” it’s easy to see that this is a prime example. One thing superstitions can readily supply that science can never offer is easy, instant answers. Science is just too much work: you have to examine the evidence (which can be quite extensive), analyze it, form a hypothesis that describes the cause-to-effect connection in enough detail to tell us what consequences should be present if the hypothesis is true (and absent if it is false), devise a plan for verifying whether or not those expected consequences are indeed found in real life, and so on.

    Superstition, by contrast, only needs to come up with whatever spur-of-the-moment answer seems right in your own eyes. The fact that your faculties immediately “leap to” a design conclusion upon being presented with an object is indicator number one that we are dealing with superstition rather than science.

    Secondly, notice that in the quote above, no mention is made of any objective means by which one might verify a real-world connection between the purported Designer and the alleged design. The big difference between superstition and a genuine scientific explanation is that the superstition makes an attribution and then stops. Leading ID proponents are actually proud of the fact that they cannot document any real-world connection between Designer and Designed, cannot describe what such a connection would consist of, and in fact are vehemently opposed to any attempt to try.

    Thirdly, notice that the quote explicitly disdains “elaborate explanatory systems” in favor of instant, simplistic answers. “Evil spirits cause disease” is a much simpler answer than you would get if you asked a microbiologist to explain bacterial infection. The more elaborate explanatory system, however, is more reliable because reality is more complex than naive superstition would have us believe. Yet the more complex systems require more work to understand, whereas superstition offers immediate, easy answers that spring from whatever seems right in your own eyes. Of course the superstition is going to seem preferable—to the superstitious.

    The way to demonstrate that one’s beliefs are not superstitious is to go beyond the snap judgments and baseless attributions of superstition, and do the work that science does: explain, in verifiable terms, how your proposed cause (a Designer) led to the observed result, and then provide us with real-world evidence that documents that this connection did, in fact, take place. Merely attributing things to a Designer fails to go beyond superstition. There needs to be a real-world connection.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    By the way, as an exercise, what do you think about the following quote?

    For my own part, if I am presented with a world all around me, and all my faculties leap to the inference that it is almost certainly flat, it is going to take much more than elaborate geological system to convince me that it is in fact round.

    1. Is there anything superstitious about the speaker’s declaration?

    2. What connection is there between the speaker’s reasoning and the actual shape of the world?

    3. Is the speaker employing an effective technique for discovering the truth?

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