Saturday, October 31, 2009

Slippery Slope

One of the intramural arguments popular among young-earth creationists goes like this...
If you dare to entertain the possibility that Genesis does not explicitly teach a young universe and Earth, the next thing you know you'll be doubting the Resurrection of Christ.
Sometimes (as by Ken Ham) it is even suggested that belief in an old Earth is at the top of a slippery slope to denying the faith altogether. I wonder, when I hear the words slippery slope, whether the person making the claim realizes that there is an informal logical fallacy that goes by this very name. When someone wrongly claims that there is a necessary logical connection between belief in Idea A and subsequent belief in Idea B, he has committed the Slippery Slope Fallacy.

Another young-earth creationist, John MacArthur, commits this fallacy as follows, both in the text and on the dust jacket of his 2000 book Battle for the Beginning...
Evangelicals who accept an old-earth interpretation of Genesis have embraced a hermeneutic that is hostile to a high view of Scripture. Those who adopt this approach have already embarked on a process that invariably overthrows faith.
MacArthur is much more widely respected (than Ham), but his argument here is every bit as fallacious. This is really an emotional appeal, by which he hopes to scare young Christians away from exploring the issue (from seeking truth on the basis of reason and evidence). But MacArthur later refuted himself on this (though I'm not sure whether he ever realized it).

You see, I later heard a tape of MacArthur speaking on the subject of biblical inerrancy. And he prefaced his remarks by lamenting the passing away of James Montgomery Boice, whom he called 'the greatest defender of inerrancy of our generation.'

Can we agree that someone considered the greatest defender of biblical inerrancy of our generation would be someone with a high view of Scripture? Can I suggest to you that Boice died without ever renouncing his faith in Christ, an event that 'invariably' follows acceptance of an old earth, according to MacArthur?

And yet here's what Boice believed about the age issue, taken from his Volume 1 expository commentary on Genesis 1-11 (of which my hardback copy runs to 464 pages)...
...we have suggested that any view that makes the earth a relatively new thing (on the order of twelve thousand to twenty thousand years old) flies in the face of too much varied and independent evidence to be tenable. Some would dispute this, of course. But in my judgment the earth and universe are indeed billions of years old.
Of course, there are--and have been throughout church history--many, many others who maintain an extremely high view of Scripture and who have a strong Christian faith and yet deny that Genesis teaches a universe and earth only thousands of years old. And so MacArthur's argument is shown to be a classic example of the slippery slope fallacy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Harris On Beetles

In the last post, I quoted Sam Harris (in Letter to a Christian Nation) as follows...
Over 99 percent of the species that ever walked, flew, or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. This fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design.
I tried to help him out, tried to turn this into an argument, by supplying the missing premise. That missing premise, however, turned out to be pretty silly when articulated... "Persistence is the test of whether or not something is designed." One can think of any number of things that were clearly designed but which are no longer used or in existence.

But perhaps this is not what Harris was driving at. The alternatives (as we saw) are no better, however. He may have been making a very subjective and straw-man argument... "If I were God, I'd have created once and once only, and had every species last forever." This, too, is hard to take seriously. The Judeo-Christian God is more creative than that, and reserves the right to create and destroy life as He wills. Moreover, the 99% of living things that have died and gone extinct have served innumerable purposes, including becoming the fossil fuels upon which modern technology depends. More importantly, much of previous life played critical roles in preparing the Earth for later life. But taking into account such things as evidence (especially when it goes against his view) seems beyond Harris.

The remaining alternative is that Harris simply wasn't making an argument at all, but merely stating his own opinion. In this case, one wonders why anyone would really consider it. Another example of Harris' 'reasoning,' and in this instance I have to assume it's mere opinion (because I cannot begin to fill in the missing but necessary premises), is the following...
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have said that, if there is a God, He has "an inordinate fondness for beetles." One would have hoped that an observation this devastating would have closed the book on creationism for all time.
Let me first point out that, while arguments can be devastating, mere observations cannot. But Harris' choice of the word 'observation' tells me that (at least subconsciously) he recognizes that Haldane's remark does not constitute an argument or even the conclusion of an argument.

I cannot imagine how the existence of 350,000 species of beetles counts as evidence against God having created living things. Recounting all the ways in which coleopterans are useful and important to their various ecosystems is a task of which no one (but the Creator Himself) is capable. Beetles are found in virtually every ecosystem where any living things are found. They are prey, predator, parasite, symbiont, decomposer, scavenger, garbageman. Open up a rotting log, a decomposing carcass, or a week-old cowpie and you'll find beetles busy at work, in greater numbers and variety than flies or any other creature. Forests, deserts, ponds, tidal flats, arctic tundra, mountain streams, and every other life zone on Earth (with the exception of deep oceans) are home to beetles, every species of which is perfectly adapted for its time and place and role.

Maybe Haldane and Harris don't like beetles. They certainly don't speak as experts who understand (or have given even a moment's thought to) them or their place in the amazing pageant of life that makes Earth such a fascinating--indeed, unique--place. As with the rest of Letter, Harris' rhetoric here turns out to be nothing but empty, ignorant opinion, completely irrelevant to the thesis he is supposed to be supporting.

While we're on the subject, I was thrilled yesterday to discover a species of beetle I had never seen before. It was a largish scarabid beetle, and one would have been tempted to call it a "June Beetle" but for the fact that adults appear to take wing with the first snows of October.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Harris on Extinction

As you may recall, I'm teaching a class right now in Critical Thinking, which is mostly an introductory logic course. As we get to the point of identifying fallacies and other errors in reasoning, I expect to lean heavily on the writings of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the other 'New Atheists.' And this is simply because their reasoning is so sophomoric (which is also why more thoughtful atheists are so embarrassed by their books). Here's an example from Harris' best-selling book, Letter to a Christian Nation...
Over 99 percent of the species that ever walked, flew, or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. This fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design.
I don't really know where to begin in critiquing such nonsense. Perhaps I should start by saying that it doesn't even come close to being an argument, but is nothing but bald, unsubstantiated opinion. To get from the single premise ('99% of species that have lived are now extinct') to the conclusion ('living things cannot have been designed') requires so many intermediate premises, each of which would require support the likes of which Harris' book is entirely devoid, that it's difficult to imagine that anyone would be persuaded by such claims.

Another thing that might be pointed out is that this pseudo-argument is not scientific, but metaphysical (religious). (This true, by the way, of most of Darwin's arguments and most of those made by his modern defenders.) Harris has here placed himself in the role of designer of life (God), and determined that he wouldn't have done it that way. Apparently, Harris' concept of a supreme, self-existent Being who created the entire universe includes the requirement that He be satisfied with creating life once and once only, and not allowing any such creations to die out. We do not, of course, require the same of either human artists or human designers, giving them instead the freedom to shelve or discard some of their works.

More importantly, this is not a claim about God from the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, which state quite the opposite (in Psalm 104, for example)--that the Creator God reserves the right to give life and to take it away, to create and to re-create. And since the Judeo-Christian God is the one toward which most of Harris' illogical venom is directed, the rules of argumentation would require that he address that God and not a straw-man of his own imagination.

But to see just how ludicrous Harris' claim here is, consider a comparable one...
Over 99% of all dialing telephones are no longer in use. This fact alone appears to rule out the idea that they were designed in the first place.
Like living things, some early telephones are still extant, and many of the extinct ones can be found in museums. Far more are buried or lost, never again to see the light of day. And like extinct living things, one possible refutation of the silly claim about phones is that their designer didn't intend that they would last forever, or even remain the most advanced iteration for all of time.

As with most of the subjects Harris has the audacity to address, he's way in over his head with regard to the history of life on earth. What scientists are beginning to understand is that early life forms were perfectly suited for the conditions on earth at the time in which they lived, that later forms could not have survived those quite different earlier conditions, and that the earlier forms played key roles in making earth (including its atmosphere, oceans, crust, and other aspects) suitable for the later forms. In short, the entire history of life on earth--including the many extinction events--absolutely demands the very conclusion of design that Harris' weak pseudo-argument seeks to deny.