Pooh’s Think

… with comments

Another Fundamentalist Challenges Sam Harris

Wilsonite and culture-war-guy Kurt Smith it speaking out again. The scientist on the thread had sufficiently answered Smith’s original implicit argument, but Kurt comes back with more:

On the question whether Sam Harris would admit that evolution is falsifiable, I simply point everyone to a quote from his book, which appeared in Wilson’s post entitled, “You Tell Me That It’s Evolution; Well, You Know…” Harris writes:

“All complex life on earth has developed from simpler life-forms over billions of years. This is a fact that no longer admits of intelligent dispute” (p. 68).

I see. A fact. No more intelligent dispute allowed. All complex life on earth. That’s a strong and unambiguous claim against potential falsifiability, so just for fun, and in accord with Sagan’s admonition that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, I’d like Harris to start by walking me through the history of “simpler life-forms” slowly and systematically. Thankfully, he has all that and much more down pat. I’ll do my best to keep up. Since I’ve already read a little on protein synthesis, let’s jump forward a bit. Maybe Harris could begin by providing a coherent and sufficiently conclusive account of the appearance of the first ribosome…

After expressing the fact that he knows a bunch of technical terms, Kurt ends with the usual humility of a Wilsonite apologist:

Honestly, what a joke.

I agree Kurt; what a joke.

It’s a joke that Kurt would fail to further a cogent argument and then conclude with such a confident and insulting remark—although many of us understand what drinking fundamentalist Kirk culture can do to you. Harris has been clear that claims need to be falsifiable, and having a level of intellectual honesty and smarts that far exceeds the righteousness of the fundamentalist, it is certainly doubtful that Harris did not think to include the scientific theory, and on his view, fact, of evolution. In his book, Harris explains what he takes to be the confusion that counter-scientific fundamentalists make between “theory” and “fact,” and he notes there is nothing unscientific or incoherent with referring to evolution as a theory that is fact. However, Kurt’s primary move here is to misinterpret “no longer admits of intelligent dispute” as “No more intelligent dispute allowed.” And the implicit move is to say that “No more intelligent dispute allowed” entails “unfalsifiable.”

But these phrases are not equivalent; the second phrase is not what Harris would have meant by the first. If this is the kind of “intelligent dispute” that Kurt thinks Harris out to allow, then he has just given Harris more reason for asserting that evolution “no longer admits of intelligent dispute.” For what the most natural read of Harris’ statement gives us is the expression of confidence that there are no good reasons for not accepting the theory of evolution. The evidence is robust, it is settled within all respectable sciences as a current fact, and those who wish to challenge it continuously fail to provide good arguments that count as good science. This might not be true; Harris might be wrong. However, being wrong in this opinion does not imply that Harris thinks that the theory of evolution is dogma that cannot be rationally disputed in principle; and it certainly does not imply that Harris thinks that the theory of evolution is not in principle falsifiable. Rather, it is because it is falsifiable that gives Harris the level of confidence he has; precisely because the theory of evolution is falsifiable and yet has not been falsified it has rational status as a proven scientific theory.

Further, if Harris cannot take us step by step and explain fully how each stage of evolution occurred, detailing out all the causal mechanisms sufficient for the process, we do not then have some sort of disconfirmation of evolution. Is this the kind if disconfirmation that Harris should take seriously? Does Kurt’s theistic theory give Kurt the ability to answer Kurt’s own demand? Of course not; that the theory of evolution at least begins to give such a scientific explanation is precisely the sort of reason scientists prefer something like the theory of evolution to theological explanations. And this is why David Heddle’s original comment was brilliant:

I will go to my deathbed believing that the origin of life is a miracle—but the best service I could do as a scientist-Christian is to spend my career side-by-side with atheistic colleagues looking for a natural explanation. It’s better to train a legion of scientist-Christians who are leaders in evolution than an army of scientific illiterates confidently asking ‘what good is half an eye?’

November 27, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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