Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Episode 87 The Unintelligent Design of Sex

The design argument may be the most intuitively appealing argument for the existence of God. Creationists often point to organs such as the human eye as examples of complex systems that could not have arisen by chance. But take a closer look at nature and one will find several instances of "unintelligent design"--design flaws which reveal the blind processes of natural selection at work. For this episode Justin Schieber kicks the design argument in crotch when he brings the debate over design into the arena of human reproductive biology. Also in this episode: Will rejecting belief in free will make you a bad person? We'll look at the latest attempt to discredit determinism for a new installment of "God Thinks Like You" plus Dr. Galen gives his book review of "American Grace" and Zeus makes his debut on Polyatheism.

Check back soon for links to articles and research from this episode.


zacch.m said...

to all those confused about what atheism is because of the reference to atheist churches, atheism is not a religion. if you stuck a priceless gem inside of a sheath, would you call it a sword (i originally thought of using a stick in the analogy, but the priceless gem thing seemed more fitting) and speaking of sheaths and swords, if you haven't listened to this episode yet you should give it a try.

MH said...

Thank you for another great episode.

I think the reviewer's comment about Putnam that Luke was talking about was particularly curious, because the theoretical idea that Putnam has built his research career around - social capital - is precisely and entirely about social belonging and not about what the social interactions are about.

In a previous book, Making Democracy Work (1994), religious affiliations had a negative and not a positive correlation with good social outcomes. If memory serves, MDW is a book that explained good governance in Italy with social capital: governance worked better, when people read newspapers, participated in voluntary organizations and so forth. Southern Italy was an exception: social capital did not seem to contribute to good governance. The theoretical explanation for this was that in the south, social networks were more of a religious nature. Again, the problem was not the religious quality of social interaction as such, but that such social ties were too strong.

I just summarized from memory and probably got the details wrong, but I think it should be pretty clear that Putnam's theory is sociological through and through, and whether people believe in Allah or the FSM is irrelevant for his work.

Best wishes,

Trout Fishing on Oahu said...

You made a good case for the obvious design flaws in the human, particularly male, reproductive system, but if the design is bad (you did make your case), it seems the source of the flaw would have to be natural selection. How is ‘bad design’ an argument against a God you believe does not exist?

However, if your only point is that bad design demonstrates that Christians can’t, or shouldn’t, argue for intelligent design, then it seems that all you’ve proven is the (some) Christians have made a bad argument. I don’t see how it proves anything about God one way or another.

Jeremy said...


I find that there are some believers who have no problem accepting religious claims either solely on faith or what they perceive to be a preponderance of evidence. Yet these same believers will call on the atheist to prove his case beyond any doubt. Luckily centuries of work in philosophy have equipped us fallible humans with tools of logic and investigation that allow us to reason carefully about the world even in matters that do not permit total certainty. The arguments offered on this show are not intended to be a complete refutation of all possible variants of Christianity/Theism that exist. Instead we target specific claims made by apologists and offer counter arguments using a variety of reasoning strategies . What Justin presented in this episode is a type of argument called an "inference to the best explanation." In an IBE you examine certain facts about the world that all parties should be able to agree upon and then evaluate competing theories to see which one can give the best accounting of all the data (there's slightly more to it than that, but that’s the gist). In Justin's argument we find that the human reproductive system fits the blind process of natural selection much better than the idea of a Christian god who created man and woman to be a "one flesh unity." It's not supposed to be a knock-down argument against all religious belief or even this single claim. IBE's are inductive inferences, they cannot prove their case with total certainty, but nevertheless they make it clear that some beliefs are much more reasonable to hold than others given the evidence (this form of reasoning is employed in the sciences all the time). One could think of this entire show as one large cumulative case against the supernatural drawn from a broad scope of academic disciplines--a huge, 87 hour-long Inference to the Best Explanation. We try to demonstrate that time and time again natural explanations do a better job accounting for the data of experience than supernatural explanations and for that reason we feel justified in believing supernatural beliefs to be human creations, not absolute truths. I hope you will continue to listen to our back catalogue. It most likely will not change your mind. But it is my hope that you will come away understanding that not all atheists strike at religion merely out of anger or ignorance…often their doubts are quite reasonable.

Jeremy (co-host of RD)

zacch.m said...

of course the classic example would be the vas deferens (which carries sperm). even though the distance between the scrotum and the penis is only a few inches ± a bit, the vas deferens unnecessarily loops upward through the body and crosses over some other tubing, before it reaches a total length of just under a foot (30cm). this can easily be explained through evolution, with an ancestor in which the layout of those tubes would be simple and ordered. why would an all powerful omnipotent god make a mistake like that? of course, theists only proclaim belief in such an interloping god until they are forced to make testible and objective statements about their god. also; those who deserve to be criticised should be. fools and kooks need to be taken down a notch.

Anonymous said...

Science tells us that the world is not deterministic. To understand why this is the case one must call on both quantum mechanics and chaos theory.

Quantum mechanics introduces a source of randomness in the form of the wave function collapse which in principle it cannot be eliminated. Einstein was greatly disturbed by this which prompted his famous quote "God does not play dice with the universe." It turns out he does. Radioactive decay is probably the most familiar example. Consider an atom of carbon 14. The half is ~5700 years which means that any particular atom has a 50% chance of decaying after 5700 years. This is the strongest statement science can make about carbon 14. One might assume that each atom of carbon 14 is created with a count down timer that just happens to produce the observed statistics, but no measurement even in theory has been proposed which expose this timer. All interactions below the Planck scale exhibit the same randomness whether they are the molecular processes in your cells or the light from a florescent light bulb.

Microscopic randomness is not quite enough to defeat determination. It is possible to conceive of a world which is highly stable such that minor perturbations are canceled out. That does not describe our world. There are several dynamic systems in our world which are chaotic. Some examples include weather, population dynamics, economics, etc. What chaotic systems have in common is that any uncertainty in the variables of state at some earlier point will lead to a complete loss of specific knowledge of the state after some future time.

Since quantum mechanics introduces some randomness and the world is guaranteed to amplify any uncertainty, one must conclude that the future state of the universe is not completely defined by the current state. Thus the world is not deterministic.

zacch.m said...

quantum mechanics =/= macroscopic effects and complex systems =/= random events.
and none of your examples seemed to contradict a deterministic brain. would any sort of randomness be the same thing as free will? i think not. but because i wouldn't want to present a false dichotemy, do you have any alternatives to determinism and free will you would like to offer up?

Dr Alan said...

I was not trying to make a statement about free will. I was trying to point out that materialism does not lead to determinism. You are correct that one does not recover contra causal free will by adding a random number generator to a clockwork brain.

Your objection "quantum mechanics =/= macroscopic effects", can be addressed by a thought experiment know as Schrodinger's thyroid. Imagine that a nuclear reactor melts down in Japan an spews radioactive Iodine into the environment which slightly raises the rate of thyroid cancer in North America. In almost all of these cases the cancer is due to a single ionizing event caused by the decay of a Iodine isotope. To the person affected this is very much a case where "quantum mechanics == macroscopic effects".

Formally Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Right but in that case the micro event (random emission of a particle that cannot be predicted in terms of exact time etc) when added together across atoms is very deterministic and predictable. thats where we get a half life from. we don't know which one, but such and such a number will have decayed by X time. So to suggest that things are indeterminate at the quantum level does not mean that they are not deterministic at a higher level. If that were true, then why should i study psychology at all because people will behave randomly.

John Danaher said...

Really enjoyed the analysis of the free will experiments in this episode. Look forward to the references being provided ;)

One thing that has always bugged me about these studies, and which I have brought up before on other blogs, is that they always seem to focus on the negative implications of determinism. I'd really like to see a study done on the (potentially) negative implications of libertarianism for choice. For example, why not prime experimental subjects with something like the problem of present luck and see how this affects their choices? And If such a study has been done, I'd love to pointed in its direction.

(In case you're wondering, I've discussed the problem of present luck on my blog before. Here's the link: Present Luck and Little Agents - apologies for the self-promotion)

Unknown said...

First, randomness doesn't get rid of determinism. It changes the mechanism of it. The particle doesn't randomly flip to "up" and stay there. We know that interactions are what triggers the "changes", so without the interaction nothing "happens".

In reality, the randomness of quantum mechanics is apparent only. It appears as random to outside observers, but is actually deterministic.

I will instead try and keep this short. Randomness assumes an ultimate background that all systems exist on, such as a map or a grid. As with relativity, there is no background as there is no evidence and no necessity to assume one. Hence, systems can only be defined in their relationships with one another.

As interactions take place, the relationships change depending on the value of one of these systems. As such, when one interacts with a system to determine its value, one isn't actually determining its value, one is determining the relationship between it and them. Attempting to describe the system without a relationship to anything else (an isolated system) is like trying to describe how long an object is without a ruler. Once the ruler is introduced the value then magically "appears". When a different ruler is introduced a different value appears. This isn't randomness, it's determinism without a background.

Unknown said...

P.S. Guys, great podcast! I loved the discussion quite a bit. Kudos.

Also, the comment about chaos theory and quantum mechanics not being able to predict the final state from the initial state is misleading. This is possible if one has complete knowledge about everything. This is outlawed by the uncertainty principle. You can't describe the universe in totality not because of randomness, but because you can't describe the universe in totality.

Dr. Alan said...

According to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics
the measurement of a QM system has a degree of non-determinism that cannot be resolved with even perfect prior knowledge. Stated another way, QM introduces a degree of non-causality that does not exist in classical mechanics.

This is not the same as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which he derived from the wave function of a particle. The non-determinism is instead related to the collapse of the wave function.

A Different Jeremy B said...

I thought I would add one more poor design element that I don't recall hearing in the podcast.
This is when meiosis goes wrong and leads to mutations. Sure, when the mutations are beneficial, they can help evolution. But a perfect designer does not need evolution. When they are neutral no one cares or notices. When they go wrong and create problems like trisomy, it shows that there was not a perfect designer. While duplicating a gene may be hard to avoid, you would think there would be a system check for an additional chromosome. Now if the perfect designer put this problem in intentionally, he/she/it was just being a colossal dick.

Nik K. said...

I seem to notice atheists making a lot of arguments which they claim are arguments against the existence of God which, in reality, are merely arguments about His nature and what the atheist thinks about that nature. The argument about the irrational design of this or that part of nature is one of these. This argument does not refute God's existence. The God I believe in is naturalistic, He works through evolution by natural selection, he isn't affected by this argument. As to Jeremy B's argument above, arguing that "God is a dick" is an argument that, by its nature, takes his existence into consideration, and therefore cannot refute this existence.
As to free-will, I've noticed that supernaturalists often claim their supernatural models (usually the existence of a non-physical soul)as the source of free will, but they don't indicate how the non-physical component of a person is any less susceptible to deterministic arguments than the physical component is. The soul too must have been created with some kind of inherent nature, and shaped by environmental factors, so how does the addition of another component to the agent provide for indeterminacy if the component added is as determined as the rest of the agent?
Along the same lines, it seems ridiculous to argue that, having made a decision, if you could go back and do it again, with all variables identical you could choose differently. If every single factor was exactly the same, how could you possibly argue that you might choose something different? What would be the reason for that change? If there is a reason for it, then it is determined, if there isn't a reason for it then it's capricious and random and is not really the kind of free will most people mean when they claim free will as a possession.

Greg Esres said...

Nik K wrote:

"The God I believe in is naturalistic, He works through evolution by natural selection, he isn't affected by this argument."

In other words, your "God" is just another name for the laws of the Universe. A change of labels, nothing more.

Nik K. said...

Greg Esres wrote:

"In other words, your "God" is just another name for the laws of the Universe. A change of labels, nothing more."

There may be something to that, but I argue the change of labels is profoundly valuable, if for no reason other than the injection of poetry it provides my scientific naturalism. Also for its explanatory power as metaphor. You may say that it's a trivial "change of labels", but labels matter, the change is powerful and beneficial.
But I don't think it's quite that simple. My God is more than just the Laws of the Universe. He is that Universe itself, and time, space, thought, nature, etc. He is, in Spinoza's words, "the imanent cause of all things. When I see nature in her clockwork beauty I am in awe of God. Why rob the experience of it's power by relabeling that experience in dry atheistic language like "I appreciate the Laws of the Universe"?

Neon Genesis said...

One of the arguments I've heard against determinism is that if you believe in determinism, then you shouldn't try to convince others to believe in determinism because they were determined to believe in free will and nobody takes seriously the arguments of someone who makes an argument they were forced to make or something like that. How do you respond to these arguments like these? They seem really silly to me but I can't think of any good response to it.

Unknown said...

That argument doesn't make any sense. I could similarly say, "If you believe in free will, why bother telling anyone? You can't control what they will or will not do."

Their argument was, "If you believe in determinism, why bother telling anyone? You can't control what they will or will not do."

If one believes in determinism, one simply believes the source of decisions are environmental. This actually provides more incentive to talk to people about it, not less.

Alan said...

We experience our own exercise of free will on a daily basis so subjectively we do have free will. Materialist tend to get into trouble when they let contra causal free will become a surrogate for the dualist position. Contra causal free will is a bit of a mouth full so by mutual convention it is abbreviated to just free will. At this point the exchange goes something like this:

Dualist "Do you believe that free will exists?"

Materialist "No. Of course not!"

Observer "What an idiot!"

All our experiences are by definition subjective. As a materialist I assume that free will, the self, the moral sense etc. are all constructs of the biological machine known as the brain. Some dualist will claim that that makes free will just an illusion. But illusions are also constructs of the brain which would make them illusions. Therefore free will is just an illusion of an illusion of an ...

Let's not concede defeat by letting the dualist write the dictionary. Instead we should define free will as the subjective decision making process. This is a definition that can be accepted by both the materialist and the dualist, and everyone will agree that it exists.

Contra causal free will is defined as the decisions made by an undetectable, immaterial substance that goes to commune with Jesus, Ali, Satan, etc. when we die. Again this definition can be accepted by both sides as well, though the dualist will try cloak it in some flowery rhetoric to hide the absurdity.

Anonymous said...

Another great podcast. Would it not be awesome to have transcripts of RD shows?

Anonymous said...

yeah, i basically believe in a colossal dick god now.

Neon Genesis said...

And it's called Care-A-Lot guys, not Care Bare Land. Atheists may know more about religion but you guys clearly don't know your Care Bare terminology.

Fletcher said...


I hang my head in shame. You are correct and I was wrong.

Greg Esres said...

Nik K wrote:

"Why rob the experience of its power by relabeling that experience in dry atheistic language like "I appreciate the Laws of the Universe"?

Because I think it's a bit disingenuous for you to claim you have rose when, upon further questioning, you only have a rock.

Insomniac said...

"Why rob the experience of its power by relabeling that experience in dry atheistic language like 'I appreciate the Laws of the Universe'?"

Forgive the cliché, but wouldn't this just be a rose by another name? If the universe is so spectacular, why should "dry atheistic language" rob it of any power? If something like a law of the universe is so fundamental to our existence and endlessly elegant, I would think that a statement of our best understanding would be just as reverent, if not more so.

You could turn this around in favor of using spiritual language, but we start to run into a problem. Religious terminology and spiritual designations have a lot of cultural baggage. This is most evident when we have the "God is a dick" argument. The religious naturalist might believe in a higher being that allows/doesn't interfere with natural selection, but the term "god" is fraught with the Western depiction of an old man peering through the clouds or Zeus hurling thunderbolts. Saying "I believe in God" without a complete discussion of why that means "the total poetic majesty of the universe" and the implications thereof can make the layperson default to the first and the nonspiritual naturalist contest the second.

Meredith E. said...

Nonstampcollector made a funny video on this theme. ;-)


Nik K. said...

Greg Esres wrote:
"I think it's a bit disingenuous for you to claim you have rose when, upon further questioning, you only have a rock."

I would argue that you are unjustified in calling my rose a rock. Further, just because it's a rare breed of rose doesn't mean I shouldn't call it a rose at all just because others might assume I was talking about a traditional breed.
To be clear, I'm arguing two different propositions.
1. Even if naturalistic atheism corresponded exactly with the true nature of the universe, it would still be useful to use metaphorical spiritual language as a means of explanation through analogy to better express the poetry inherent in the universe. The same reason that poetry and literature are valuable and help us to realize certain truths even though they do not limit themselves to facts.
2. I do not believe atheistic naturalism does correspond exactly to the true nature of the universe. I believe the conception of a naturalistic God offers something more to human understanding.

Justin said...

"I believe the conception of a naturalistic God offers something more to human understanding."

I am personally at a loss as to what this addition to human understanding could possibly be.

Gatogreensleeves said...

Awe, where are the links you promised... I'll just have to look for them myself :-(

Gatogreensleeves said...

Okay, I'm writing about this now, so I thought I'd share the links:

Weitnauer, C. (5/20/2011). Atheism and the Denial of Freedom. [Web log post]. Retrieved on 9/21/2011 from http://simpleapologetics.blogspot.com/2011/05/atheism-and-denial-of-freedom.html

Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free: Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. February 2009 vol. 35 no. 2 260-268. doi: 10.1177/0146167208327217. Retrieved on 9/21/2011 from http://psp.sagepub.com/content/35/2/260.short

Viney, W., Waldman, D., and Barchilon, J. (1982). “Attitudes toward Punishment in Relation to Beliefs in Free Will and Determinism” Human Relations. November 1982 vol. 35 no. 11 939-949 doi: 10.1177/001872678203501101. Retrieved on 9/21/2011 from http://hum.sagepub.com/content/35/11/939.abstract

Stillman, T. F., Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., & Brewer, L. E. (2010). Personal philosophy and personnel achievement: Belief in free will predicts better job performance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1, 43-50. doi: 10.1177/1948550609351600. Retrieved on 9/21/2011 from http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/164290.pdf

Harrington, T. (3/23/2011). Does Belief in Free Will Lead to Action? [Press release]. Retrieved on 9/21/2011 from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/does-belief-in-free-will-lead-to-action.html

Rigoni, D., Kühn, S., Sartori, G., Brass, M. (4/22/2011). Inducing Disbelief in Free Will Alters Brain Correlates of Preconscious Motor Preparation: The Brain Minds Whether We Believe in Free Will or Not. Psychological Science. May 2011 vol. 22 no. 5 613-618. doi: 10.1177/0956797611405680. Retrieved on 9/21/2011 from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/5/613.short

Weitnauer, C. (5/31/2011). Atheism and Negative Social Behavior. [Web log post]. Retrieved on 9/21/2011 from http://simpleapologetics.blogspot.com/2011/05/atheism-and-negative-social-behavior.html


Gatogreensleeves said...

Upon reviewing many of these studies and the FAD standards (http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~jcarey/fad_current_items.pdf), what I've come to think is that the real problem is that these researchers ARE aware of the moral correlations (Shariff, A.F., Schooler, J., & Vohs, K.D. (in press). The hazards of claiming to have solved the hard problem of free will. In J. Baer, J.C. Kaufman, & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Psychology and freewill. New York: Oxford University Press. http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~azim/shariffschoolervohs.pdf ) and are also delineating between "scientific determinism" and "fatalistic determinism" *within* at least some of the studies, BUT they use what Julian Baggini calls 'low redefinition' and simply lump them both together as 'determinism' when presenting the studies in their abstracts or to the public. Bad monkeys.

There are other issues with these studies. For example, Vohs and Schooler do make this concession in their ‘determinists are cheaters':

"…note that simply doing nothing is coded as cheating. Hence, the anti-free-will essay may have induced passivity generally, rather than immoral behavior specifically. Although participants were instructed to press the space bar to avoid receiving the answers, their failure to do so—counted as cheating—may not have been deliberately unethical."

So, there might have been an indifference factor: perhaps the subjects, who were doing mental calculations of math problems, did do the problems honestly, but let the answers come up on the screen below because they wanted to check their answers and were either able to do the calculations before the answers appeared or were able to avert their eyes.

Concerning the podcast, which was really great, I do have one beef (besides that you didn't post the links!): as far as I can tell, it doesn't seem like any of these studies were JTF funded nor involved with the University of Florida/Mele. Why would Jeremy say that?