Permission to Deny: Part #2

For at least the time being, I will skip Kelemen’s second argument, entitled The Cosmological Approach, instead moving on to his third argument, entitled The Teleological Approach.

To begin, I’d like to assert the obvious — more than 80% of people could not define the word teleology if you’d stop them on the street a la Jay Leno, so let’s define it.  Teleology, as Wikipedia puts it, defines that philosophical approach to understanding the universe in which the end results retroactively promote the origins — basically, an argument by design.  Whether or not such a concept can be supported from scientific findings remains to be debated, but religion certainly makes the claim that it is so.From no less than Heshy’s favorite synagogue song we are provided with an insight into this idea: sof ma’aseh b’machshava techila — “the end result of the toil was in fact the initial thought in the toiler’s mind.”  As R’ Mordechai Becher puts it, teams of architects/contractors think fist of putting up a chic edifice that will give great weight to their personal and company names around the globe.  They think about how far the building will extend upward to pierce the sky and how reflective the full-glass exterior will be, how it will appear to those driving over the adjacent major city bridge, etc.  They then move on to thinking about more practical things, such as how many floors there will be and how many elevators need to be installed to properly service the inhabitants.  The things not on their mind initially are how they will go about securing the proper zoning, that they will need permit X and certificate Y, etc.  Yet when they actually begin to do what they plan on doing, one of the last thing that happens is being able to appreciate the blindingly-bright full glass exterior, and just near last is finally naming the building The Valerie after the architect’s mother, which might very well have been the architect’s primary goal in the first place.  But the first thing they do, after months of sketching and measuring and lots of other stuff they mus do and redo?  Proceed to the municipal office downtown to secure rights for the groundbreaking — everything is flipped, like a giant at bash.

So as R’ Jonathan Rietti puts it, Genesis begins with a focus on the entire Universe, and after only 5 verses, the focus shifts to a nominally insignificant speck called Earth.  And then after a chapter and a half, the focus narrows to just the people God has created, and everything else, from mention of rivers to mountains, is really mentioned only in the context of people.  Six more chapters, and God limits his focus to righteous people, and then to a more limited focus onto those who dedicate their lives to him by following his dictates.  So when Medieval Jewish thinkers grapple with the skewed frequency distribution of biblical commandments — the existence of which we use to explain the primary premise of there being a Torah at all — and why Genesis bothers to exist when there’s only a pittance of law within it, one of the explanations provided is to support the idea that God cares about who we are, what we do and why we do it, despite the overabundance of evidence that reveals humankind to be but a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what actually exists in the universe; God cares about people and he reveals his thought process by taking all that time to discuss it.

And now…onto the argument:

A lecture I once heard on the reconciliation, as it was referred to, of science and Torah began quite well until 4 minutes into the speech, when the noted lecturer began with specific examples that not only revealed his gross unfamiliarity with science but also served to undermine his credibility for the remaining 56 minutes.  I think the title of the lecture was something like “God in Everyday Life: How What We See is Not What We Get” — and at the four minute mark, the rabbi was using the discovery of sub-atomic particles to explain how what we once thought of as fact (i.e. atoms are indivisible) is now un-fact.  But the rabbi spoke of how “positively and negatively charged particles are condensed into a central space and other particles hover and fly around them at super speed” — I mean, come on — every day school 10th grader knows that electrons are not in the nucleus and no matter (excuse the pun) which atomic model you choose, it would be the electrons that are doing the hovering and/or flying.  My point is that this rabbi went out of his way to show his familiarity with scientific details to establish some sort of credibility with the audience…and blew it big time!

So when Kelemen opens with the analogy of DNA and computer bits, stating that there can be only two types of rungs on the DNA ladder — type A (adenine + thymine) and type B (cytosince + guanine) — it immediately makes me want to question any parallels he will draw, any concepts he will conceive of and any insights he will present about an argument on scientific design because, frankly, who is Kelemen to make any comments about science if he hasn’t got a clue?  In fact, only one strand of DNA is used as a template for RNA manufacture (the complimentary strand is just that — complimentary) and so, each of the four bases on the strand that is read stands on its own.  There are thus four code types (not 2) and I haven’t even finished the third of 51 paragraphs in his teleological approach to the existence of God and already I want to close the book.  Kelemen obviously doesn’t know how to evaluate the information he gets from his advisers, and that is of great concern.

He then goes on to discuss the exasperatingly complex vertebrate eye and some other fascinating feats of biology, chemistry and physics, and falls into a common trap of those who marvel at science yet don’t understand it.  He speaks of the wonder of the universe’s chemical elements in just-appropriate proportions and Earth’s average temperature being just able to sufficiently maintain itself with such equilibrium that life is able to exist as we know it — so what?  What kind of argument is that?  Without nitrogen, the world could have very easily come to exist in another fashion — it’s just so foreign to us that we cannot begin to fathom what it would be like.  I like to compare it to most every ridiculous space alien depiction ever conjured up — it’s always something like one of these: an exact duplicate of a human being but with pointy ears, an exact duplicate of human beings but an extra few feet tall and blue skin, or some similar modification to some other organism that we all know and love (buggers by Orson Scott Card, big-headed blue guys a la MARS ATTACKS!, etc.).  This is because we don’t even know what to think about when we try to think about something we’ve never thought about — we just can’t do it and fail miserably lmost every time we try.

He then attacks Darwinism and neo-Darwinism for drawing parallels between organs, limbs and structures — but he is really attacking evolutionism, not evolution.  Even if every scientist possesses an agenda, science itself has no agenda — it is merely observing the world.  So when science states that it is more parsimonious to say that flight evolved thrice independently among bats, birds and flying insects rather than saying they all share close common ancestry and it was their different types of flight apparatuses that evolved, it’s a mere concern of what’s more reasonable — even though it might very well (excuse the pun) fly in the face of the listing of what was created on which day as recorded in Genesis.

And then comes my favorite fallacy of the entire argument: the statistics.  Let me say this with no lack of clarity — people don’t understand statistics.  What I mean by this is that if we’d put all the people in the world who understand statistics on one side of a balance scale and everyone who doesn’t on the other, the former would not displace the latter — and Kelemen’s assertions, were he to even understand them himself, are so zany that I guess I can imagine why he put them in the book: the reader will have no choice but to read his words, open his or her eyes widely in surprise and buy the whole story without any chance of a challenge, because he or she won’t be able to critically analyze even a bit of it.

In determining the probability that I am writing on Heshy’s blog — well, I am actually doing so right now, so it’s a probability of 1.  But isn’t it really odd that I know Heshy from Manhattan Day School, he left in 1994 after 7th grade and I haven’t seen him, heard from him or had anything to do with him since then up until a few months ago when I so randomly happened to find his blog and now he let’s me contribute?  Wowee…now what are the odds that I’m writing an article to be featured on Heshy’s blog?!  Well, it’s 1, because I am — all that’s unlikely is in the past.  So it doesn’t matter in the least how unlikely something is after we experience it happening, because the chance is absolute once it has occurred.

So when Kelemen quotes fancy scientists from fancy universities stating how unlikely it is that the world would have become what it did, it’s completely misleading because we’re only surprised about what has already happened as though it hasn’t happened yet.  Here are some of these silly points:

  • If a try to randomly assemble a typical enzyme were performed every second for a billion years, the odds of it occurring would be 99.99% — but that’s a single enzyme.  A bacterium contains 2,000 enzymes, so the chance of life evolving from non-life is 1 in 1039,950.
  • The odds of producing a human being from continued random mutation is close to 1 in 101,250,000,000,000 — about the same as the odds of a gambler rolling 100 trillion consecutive double-sixes.

For starters, the many people don’t remember how to unravel scientific notation, and so the two odds listed above might as well be the same — suffice it to say that the denominators are preposterously large for both.  Now let’s take the second bullet — everyone can understand what it means to roll dice because we’ve all played Monopoly at some time or another, and WOW…that sure seems like a lot of double-sixes, doesn’t it?  But what most people don’t think about is the following: it is just as likely to roll 100 trillion consecutive double-sixes as it is to roll 100 trillion dice rolls conforming to any previously drawn up list of dice throws, assuming we use dice of different colors and make sure that the die we want falls on the number we want.  It follows from this that if we were to actually roll two differently colored dice (to take care of the problem of decreasing the demand by allowing each die to compensate for the other) 100 trillion times and recorded the throw data, the odds of throwing such a list of dice throws again is also 1 in 100 trillion.  But that’s only prior to us throwing the dice — once the list has been made, the probability of having thrown such a set is absolutely, perfectly 1.

So I’m not saying there’s no God, and I’m not saying that science has all the answers; on the contrary, science is missing many of the answers.  But it’s not science that should be attacked, it’s scientists (perhaps).  They are the ones with an agenda (perhaps) and it is from them that emanate the claim that there is no God (perhaps).  Science only makes observations about the world as we see it, and it usually does so with a premise that “the results hithero observed will happen always following the causes hithero observed.”  Without such a clause, maybe the observed thing had a miracle and thus the result cannot be predicted because it follows no natural order — it’s supernatural.  So science has no choice but to build on a foundation of observation, parsimony and prediction.  Everything else is religion and Kelemen tries to thwart the mind with skillfully collected snippets of arguments that the reader will likely not be able to refute because it just seems so iron-clad that “who am I do now deny God’s existence?  I mean, it says right here in black-and-white that there are 2 types of DNA codes, so it must be true.”

We shouldn’t need to delude people into believing in a God.