Category Archives: Science

PZ Meyers and Guillermo Gonzalez

It’s not that I’m in love with Gonzalez, tenure or Intelligent Design; it’s just that this is the only topic that drives up hits to my pretend blog. So here we go:

Even though PZ Meyers and I agree on all the substantial facts about the world, we disagree about the interpretation of those facts. I think religion in general and intelligent design specifically are wrong but not irrational. But I’m a Neville Chamberlain atheist.

But Meyers’ new comments on the Gonzalez case show why I think humility is important; it keeps basic mistakes at bay. There’s some double-quoting going on (from a Nature article on the case), and for that I apologize.

First Meyers quotes from the original article:

Gonzalez, who has been at Iowa State in Ames since 2001, was denied tenure on 9 March. He is now appealing the decision on the grounds that his religious belief, not the quality of his science, was the basis for turning down his application. “I’m concerned my views on intelligent design were a factor,” he says.

Meyers’ response:

His “views on intelligent design” were his “religious belief”? OK, that’s good enough for me. No tenure.

Of course, from the quote it’s unclear whether the words “religious belief” are Gonzalez’ own our are interpolations by the writer. Can Meyers even pretend to be unbiased if he bases his “no tenure” pronouncement on a grammatical ambiguity?

Of course, Meyers doesn’t even pretend to be unbiased. And, as I’ve mentioned before, that makes it difficult to make the case that science — as a value-free inquiry into the structure of nature — should have pride-of-place in public life and public policy. If science is intrinsically anti-religion, many people will happily jettison science and keep their faith. The world will be worse for it. But science isn’t intrinsically anti-religion, only certain scientists are.

Second mistake belongs to someone quoted in the Nature article:

But Park says that a researcher’s views on intelligent design cannot be divorced from the tenure decision. Anyone who believes that an intelligent force set the Earth’s location doesn’t understand probability’s role in the Universe, Park argues. Such a person is hardly qualified to teach others about the scientific method. “We’re entrusting the minds of our students to this person,” he says.

That Meyers quotes this can be taken as an endorsement, so my criticism applies to him by association. To say that intelligent design proponents ‘misunderstand’ the role of probability in the Universe is to confuse the two kinds of probability: objective, frequency-distribution probability versus epistemic, degree-of-belief probability. We don’t know with certainty that the Universe is random rather than designed. Rather, given our epistemic situation, we assign a very high probability to the randomness of the Universe. But the kind and structure of the Universe predicted by design proponents exactly matches the kind of Universe we do in fact see around us. So it’s not that Gonzalez “doesn’t understand probability’s role in the Universe”; it’s that Gonzalez disagrees with the prevailing orthodoxy about the probability that the Universe is random. To say otherwise is itself a mistake; it is to assign a probability of 0 to a possibility which can only be absolutely excluded on non-scientific grounds.

But, in Meyers defense, he does end by quoting this paragraph from the nature article:

Eli Rosenberg, who chairs Iowa State’s physics department, concedes that Gonzalez’s belief in intelligent design did come up during the tenure process. “I’d be a fool if I said it was not [discussed],” he says. But, he adds, “intelligent design was not a major or even a big factor in this decision.” Four of twelve tenure candidates have been turned down in the past decade, he says. “We are a fairly hard-nosed department.”

If this is so, then everything is hunky-dory; it means there is nothing to see here and and everyone — from Meyers to the Discovery Institute — should be quiet and move along. To say that it is good that Gonzalez was denied tenure — simply because he believes something outside the political mainstream — is itself a wholly political claim that goes against the norms of scientific practice. And it makes Gonzalez an ally and martyr for our real enemies: the non-scientific, wholly political and dishonest ID proponents like the Discovery Institute.

I want to briefly expand that last point and then I’ll stop ranting: we pro-science Darwinians should be trying to drive a wedge between smart people like Gonzalez and the intellectually vacant Discovery Institute contingent. Sometimes the religion versus science debate is framed in terms of reason versus superstition. I think it should be seen in terms of those who think knowledge should reflect truth and those who think it should be a hand-maiden to politics. If Gonzalez is as smart a scientist as his co-workers say he is, is seems to me he should be embraced by our side rather than forced into the arms of the enemy. Even though they disagree about what the truth will likely turn ought to be, Gonzalez, Meyers and Dawkins all probably have more in common with each other about the methods used to find it than Gonzalez has in common with the post-modern, anti-science vultures in the Discovery Institute.

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Another Mistake about Free WIll

Previously I commented on a neo-creationist mistake about free will; ‘dacook’ on Uncommon Descent was under the impression that the possible discovery of free will in flies was somehow proof that scientific materialism was false.

Here we have the same mistake, but from the other direction: Philip Ball claims that, even if we do discover the source of spontaneity (and presumably autonomy, although he doesn’t discuss it explicitly) we haven’t found free will per se, because ‘free will’ is simply a term without an existing referent:

The fact is that ‘free will’ is (like ‘life’ and ‘love’) one of those culturally useful notions that become meaningless when we try to make them ‘scientific’. That’s why it is unhelpful to imply that the brains of flies or humans might contain a ‘free will’ module simply because they have a capacity to scramble the link between cause and effect.

The argument in Uncommon Descent is, roughly, something like this:

1. Free will is required for responsibility.

(“Though many Darwinists shy away from the implications of their beliefs as they apply to ascribing responsibility for human behavior…”)

2. Free will is essentially non-material.

Therefore,

3. If free will is discovered, then it disproves materialism.

This is an obviously flawed argument. Premise (1) is perhaps true, but it doesn’t prove premise (2); (2) is often assumed to be true by religious apologists, but it requires some form of independent support. The conclusion (3) doesn’t follow from the premises unless one is seriously begging the question.

(EDIT: The question-begging assumption seems to be that since responsibility is immaterial, free will needs to be immaterial also.  But material features and properties can be necessary components of immaterial states; after all, the ability to act is itself both material/physical and necessary for responsibility.)

As far as I can tell, Ball argues similarly:

4. Free will is required for responsibility.

5. Responsibility is culturally constructed.

(‘As neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Megan Steven of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boson have pointed out, we act in a social context. “Responsibility is a social construct and exists in the rules of society,” they say. “It does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain.”’)

Therefore,

6. Free will is culturally constructed and therefore not real in the same sense as neuro-physiological structures in the brain.

This is a better argument, but still wrong. The conclusion (6) doesn’t follow from the two premises.

But free will, as discussed by philosophers, moralists and neuroscientists, need not be strictly defined, except in terms of its effects:

7. ‘Free Will’ is just whatever allows free action.

So what is free will? We don’t know. It just is whatever allows humans — and maybe flies — to act freely. Of course, we need a good definition of “free” — but it presumably includes spontaneity and autonomy. So if we do discover neuronal structures required for our spontaneity and autonomy, we’ve found free will. Even if responsibility itself is socially and culturally constructed.

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Update on the Gonzalez Tenure Case

So it turns out that Iowa State University likely acted appropriately in denying Guillermo Gonzalez tenure; the original article (subscription required) is here and a good summary can be found here. In short: Gonalez didn’t produce new stuff after moving to ISU, but tried to get tenure on his research done as a post-doc.

I’m still not convinced it’s a total win for for Darwinist side. The way I see it there are at least three related Darwin/Intelligent Design arguments going on simultaneously:

  1. The true account of the origin of biological diversity.
  2. The (privileged ) role of science in public policy debates.
  3. The role of science (including/especially biology) in our society.

Only the first is won or lost exclusively through scientific research, scientific practice and the norms of the scientific community. It is also the one we need to worry about the least, since Darwinian natural selection is true and Intelligent Design is false.

Guillermo Gonzalez didn’t do the work and didn’t get tenure, based on his quantity of research and the number of grants (zero) he received. So far, so good. But when this is seen in the scientific blogosphere as a win of Darwinism over Intelligent Design— not just the appropriate functioning of the tenure process, not just preservation of the norms of the scientific community, but a win in the Culture War between the forces of Darwinian Good and the Neo-Creationist Evil, it ends up loosing us ground in debates 2 and 3. I still think that if real, live scientists give off a whiff of scheudenfreude when an IDer doesn’t get tenure, it sends the wrong message to society at large; it tells them that science doesn’t deserve the privileged role in public life we think it ought have.

If the pro-science among us gloat over Gonzalez loosing his bid for tenure, simply because he belongs to the ID contingent, it’s actually worse if he was rejected for good reasons. That makes the anti-ID, anti-religious bias all the more obvious.

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Intelligent Design and Tenure on the Net

On the one hand, the usual suspects cry foul when Guillermo Gonzalez is denied tenure, at least in part because he is an advocate of Intelligent Design.

On the other, those who want to defend the integrity of the Scientific Establishment are just fine with it — denying tenure because a teacher believes odd and peculiar things, or because they “embarrassed his department and his University” or because they hang with the wrong crowd.

Let’s get some things straight, right off the bat: I think that Intelligent Design is flawed, incorrect, and poor science; I suspect that the Discovery Institute & friends are probably engaged in all of the sneaky, underhanded things of which they are accused; and I strongly suspect that the traditional Darwinian picture explains everything its strongest proponents — Richard Dawkins, Michael Ruse — claim for it.

Here are other things I believe: denying tenure in order to promote intellectual homogeneity is dangerous to academia in general; Intelligent Design, while poor science, can’t simply be brushed off by calling it the ‘new creationism’; and that rather than being paragons of superhuman virtue, scientists are sometimes as petty as all other human beings.

But what I really think is lost in the overall debate — not just about tenure, about Intelligent Design, about Guillermo Gonzalez — is the relationship of science and scientists to society at large. Science isn’t just the value-neutral investigation of the natural world, an investigation worth pursuing purely for its own sake. Science plays an ineliminable role in our vision of ourselves as a modern, liberal, clear-thinking society. I want to stress that last part: clear thinking. Scientists — much like basketball players, movie stars, hotel heiresses — need to view themselves as role models for society; it is from scientists that we learn to think and reason clearly about issues.

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Tenure and Intelligent Design

Tenure is a special thing for everyone involved in academics. It’s a reminder of the power and importance of the role of professors and teachers in society, and of the traditions that uphold that role.

So it’s reasonable to try to protect the institution of tenure from outside attacks by dangerous fools.

But what’s not reasonable is to try to protect tenure by keeping people out arbitrarily, by denying tenure for political reasons. As a strategy it’s great and perfectly understandable — but it also undercuts the very reasons tenure is important.

Tenure is designed to protect people from recriminations for saying unpopular things. As a society, we benefit from a wide and diverse range of opinions, but that doesn’t mean that we, as individuals, want to hear these diverse opinions. So it’s natural to use intimidation to try to shut down dissenting voices, starting with the loudest. Academics, for a variety of structural reasons, often have political agendas, loud voices, and usually work on the public dime — and so make excellent targets for intimidation. The purpose of tenure is to protect those academics who have shown themselves to be responsible from this outside intimidation.

Trying to deny conservatives and Intelligent Design advocates tenure is just a form of preemptive intimidation aimed at junior researchers and teachers. But tenure doesn’t just exist to protect a single, unitary political class — college professors — from external threats like the boneheaded Horowitz. It also exists to protect diversity within the set of professors. The discipline of economics benefits from having a wide range of positions, because internal debate — much like competition in markets — is the best way to find good answers to economic questions. The same is true in biology, in sociology, in philosophy. The same ought to be true English, in Women’s Studies, in Science and Technology Studies.

So to deny a good researcher tenure because they have outré, or even wrong, beliefs — when that researcher has proven to be capable and responsible in their main area of expertise — is to damage the very methods we use to gain knowledge and learn true (or mostly true, or truth-like) things.

I also think the fastest way to refute Intelligent Design — is to take it seriously. The IDers can ignore scientific refutations of ID because they are mostly located outside of real scientific practice — and they are forced there by shenanigans like this.

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Easy Mistake about Free Will

The problem of Free Will isn’t really my bag, even though the Florida State University philosophy program is highly ranked in the area. But I do know one thing: the existence of free will doesn’t entail the falsity of materialism. So when we find evidence that even lowly insects show signs of free will, this can’t be taken as a sign that Darwinism is false.

The mistake we find in this post on Uncommon Descent starts here:

Though many Darwinists shy away from the implications of their beliefs as they apply to ascribing responsibility for human behavior, their position demands that all behavior is determined by the genetic heritage of selfish genes.

This is simply wrong. Darwinism only entails that all of our genetic inheritance (our genotype) is due to natural processes, the most important of which is natural selection. Our physical structure, with hands, feet, brains and so on (our phenotype) is at least partially influenced by our genotype. To say that “all [our] behavior” is determined by our genes requires more than a Darwinian account of the origins of our genes. For this further claim to be true, it needs to be that our mental structures are wholly determined by our genes and that our behaviors are wholly determined by our mental structures, much like the route of a train is wholly determined by the placement and orientation of the track on which it runs.

But this isn’t part and parcel of Darwinism. There is no “demand” that we move from Darwin to behavioral determinism. There are some Darwinians who accept the move, but there are also Darwinians who reject that move; I know, because I am one. But neither camp thinks that Darwinian natural selection entails behavioral determinism. To think that there is behavioral determinism is to think further things about the structures of our brain, the influence of neurons on behavior, and so on.

So to say:

But if free will exists in flies, can it be denied in humans?

… is, I think, true. But it doesn’t imply the following:

If free will in fact exists, it must exist outside the deterministic universe of materialism.

If free will in fact exists, this simply shows that it most likely has a Darwinian origin, due to selection pressures. If free will exists — and I think that it does — and if Darwinism is true, then free will is compatible with Darwinism. To say otherwise is to simply beg the question — to assume that free will is only free if it was a gift from God.

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