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Definitional dodgeball

March 8, 2011

I’ve given up on the Rational Skepticism forum for awhile, due to a disagreement over the application of the rules there; I must be the lawful-evil type, always a stickler compared to the moderators supposedly watching over me.

Lacking that input for skeptical topics, I can always count on Huffington Post to supply vacuous apologetics put forth by religious authorities. In other words, they make a good target. It makes me wonder sometimes just what it takes to become a rabbi. Like the catholic priests who had no answers for me, this fellow attempting some dialogue with skeptics isn’t up to snuff either. Presented under the modest (ha!) claim of ‘A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence,’ what we get is the same old incredulity. Well, that and merchandising!

Rabbi Moshe Averick has done yeoman’s work in deconstructing the popular arguments in favor of naturalistic explanations to the origin of life and has concurrently demonstrated the high degree of intellectual vigor of theistic reasoning. This post is a paraphrase of his analysis of the origin of life problem that confronts the naturalist camp within the scientific community. A full treatment is available in his indispensable book Nonsense of a High Order.

As I break the link to Amazon out of spite.You can be a shill for books, I won’t help.

The rabbi comes off as unimpressed with science. You see, it has not explained the origin of life yet, and apparently the discovery of DNA started a clock ticking. Did you know? I had no idea we were supposed to have explained everything by now. Mind you, this is the same sort of argument that used to apply to biology in general, until the theory of evolution came along. That the rabbi must invoke abiogenesis instead demonstrates the shrinking gaps into which his god-concept must be force-fit. Used to point at lightning and floods and plague and say ‘god did it’ then, too.

One might suppose that in the six or so decades since the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick during which researchers have been investigating the origin of life they might have come up with some pretty solid leads to explain it. The truth of the matter is that we see scientists coming up surprisingly empty-handed and that even within scientific circles, the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.

So what he’s talking about is a lack of evidence explaining the origin of life. That’s important later, talking about evidence. Or a lack thereof. Also, the origin of life — as opposed to everything scientists have discovered about self-replicating molecules, plausible pathways, and so on, many pieces of a puzzle that (skeptics as they are) they seem loathe to put a definitive stamp on.

The rabbi then continues the argument via quotes, i.e. argument by authority. For example, he takes this one and sets up a false dilemma using it. Or should I say abusing? Eh, ok. I’ll say abusing.

“The theory behind theory is that you come up with truly testable ideas. Otherwise it’s no different from faith. It might as well be a religion if there’s no evidence for it.” (Dr. J. Craig Venter, Biologist and one of the first people to sequence the human genome)

Another time-honored trope of the believer, pulling whatever quotes serve one’s purpose, and make sure you don’t include any context or link to where you got it from. I noticed that one of the commenters on the article dug up where he got a quote from Robert Shapiro, showing that the rabbi abused that one, too. At this point, I expect it.

It’s bad that I expect the priestly class to be deceptive, really. Bad for them.

The rabbi then decides, based on the Venter quote, that it is an article of faith to believe that science will come up with an answer, or, the skeptic must resort to random chance. There is the false dilemma, of course. After merely dismissing the past decades of scientific work as having come up with nothing, the rabbi chooses to ignore the record of scientific investigation. As if science were some unproven magic act, not worth a moment’s trust. Keep that in mind the next time you use a computer, rabbi, or for that matter an automobile, or a pharmaceutical, or an airplane. Do we really have no evidence to suggest any degree of confidence in scientific investigation? Does that lack of evidence charge still hold up?

So there is some dodgeball over the meaning of evidence going on, in that the rabbi begins with this lack of conclusive evidence for abiogenesis and conflates this with evidence suggesting any confidence in finding an answer. I think the record of scientific discovery speaks for itself there.

Random chance, the proposed and fake alternative, is a favorite of believers because of all the bogglingly huge numbers one can come up with. Like the bogus calculations over the random assemblage of proteins that would result in hemoglobin, assuming random chance makes the activity of life look ridiculously implausible. And this is the point for the believer: make the alternatives look bad. Don’t talk about the religion itself. Fool the non-believer into religion and don’t look back!

So after attacking the scientific record as having produced no evidence of merit, for lacking evidence to explain the origin of life, the rabbi turns right around and proclaims this lack to actually be evidence of something.

I posit to you that all the evidence points, in an obvious and inextricable way, to a supernatural explanation for the origin of life. If there are no known naturalistic explanations and the likelihood that “chance” played any role is wildly minute, then it is a perfectly reasonable position to take that a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) was the architect of life on this planet. Everyone agrees to the appearance of design. It is illogical to assume its non-design in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

So in summation, what evidence is he talking about? None, supposedly, to explain the origin of life. We go from talking about a lack of evidence to having some. What was it? The meaning of the word shifts again. Absence of evidence becomes evidence of…no, not absence…of something else entirely. A god!

What makes it reasonable to assume a god-concept in the absence of any naturalistic explanation? What makes it reasonable to assume ‘I don’t know, therefore god’? Nothing. It is simply his bold and nonsensical assertion that an argument from incredulity is somehow reasonable.

Sorry, pal. It’s not.

I did enjoy the blithe reference to a conscious super-intelligence (that some of us call God) as if there were no big difference between a god and some advanced alien species, say. Of course, there isn’t much difference is there, in that both explanations just push it back a step.

Sadly, this is something the rabbi touched on, and yet he could not see how well it applies to his own supposedly reasonable argument.

Evolution can only begin once we already have a dazzlingly complex, self-replicating, living cell with which to work. That — the origin of that first cell, not what happened thereafter — is the fundamental basis of disagreement between theist and atheist. I make that statement with a full awareness of the fact that scientists hypothesize the prior existence of “simple” self replicating molecules that led up to the emergence of the DNA based bacterium; but this just pushes the question back a step.

Never mind those creationists, they don’t exist. What? Sorry again. The fundamental disagreements go far beyond where you say they go. There are plenty of believers who dispute evolution, even if you think it’s a done deal.

Moreover, his claims about when evolution is allowed to begin are demonstrably false. Evolutionary processes aren’t limited to living cells; scientists use evolutionary processes in other fields. Good luck demonstrating that self-replicating molecules cannot be subject to evolution.

But posit a god, for the sake of argument. Is this not just pushing the question back a step? Does it help to explain anything to slap a label like ‘god’ on what you don’t know? Why is the god-concept not also subject to explanation, as the rabbi demands for self-replicating molecules? The hypocrisy is rank.

Sorry pal, but not only is your argument not reasonable (it is, in the end, fallacious and rightly dismissed), but it is simply begging the skeptic to stop asking questions, stop looking, stop investigating. Just call it ‘god did it’ and stop. We don’t know now, so we’ll never know. It’s been however many decades. That’s enough looking.

It’s a shame readers can’t tag posts like these. I would have hit it with ‘presumptuous nonsense’. At least when I try to explain something, I’ll call it trying. I can admit that I may be wrong. I’m skeptical of my own conclusions. Not this guy! Sorry, rabbi.

Well, of course one of the priestly class would be more…faithful in his arguments, eh? I’ll give it my own tag here, since I can’t there.

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