Archived blog post

Open thread on evolution

Posted by Ben on Sunday, November 06, 2005 | Permalink
 

See how good I am to you people? Someone calling him/herself Field - who appears to be the founder of Tiscali, unless there's some other reason for claiming it as a homepage - left a comment about evolution on a post about the MCB and censorship, and I'm moving it here, responding to it and giving the go ahead for everyone to just go nuts and hammer on at each other about evolution.

On to the comment, which I'll present in the done-to-death Fisking format despite deeply disliking that way of responding to arguments. Yet another example of atheist inconsistency and hypocrisy, huh?

I notice that on one of your earlier entries you say that Richard Dawkins is a hero of yours. Did you see the recent Horizon programme which presented scientific evidence that genes are directly affected by the environment and that these environmental effects can be transmitted across generations?

This? No, I didn't. Was it good?

This is a form of Lamarckism and directly contradicts Dawkins' position of conservative NeoDarwinism i.e. that the gene is simply a random blueprint that natural selection allows to exist and replicate.

Well, I'm not a scientist and Wikipedia isn't a scientific journal, but the entry on epigenetics does say "There are no Lamarckian characteristics to epigenetic inheritance." Considering Dawkins' position at the broadest level is thetheory of natural selection, I don't think that view got overturned on BBC2 the other night. I've also seen it discussed without 'arrgh the sky is falling!' hysteria at Pharyngula, and that lad is a scientist, and very much on the side of natural selection.

Wondered if you have any thoughts on that and whether perhaps it might induce in you a degree of humility when addressing some of these questions.

Initial thoughts as above. Some of what questions? Humility? Eh? Because you believed my 'hero' had been contradicted, you thought maybe I'd be a bit more understanding of offended religious types, is that what you're saying? Not likely, atheism is all about the smugness, intolerance, dogmatism and communism, didn't you know? My own worldview wouldn't be shattered if he was shown to be wrong on something- and considering his first book was released in 1976 I'd guarantee he was way off on some stuff - and neither would his, as he stated in Unweaving The Rainbow. Good science is as much about disproving theories as making them, it's the religious bunch that get upset when something contradicts their holy scripture.

Seems to me that you have a tendency to confuse and conflate (a) religion, (b) the opinions of religious believers (which may be rather crude paraphrases of the religion) and (c) what science is able at this point in time to tell us about the cosmos.


I'd like you to point out where I've confused religion, the religious and current science, and there my response ends.

Ok everyone, Field included - fill your boots.

Comments [ hide comments ]
I notice that on one of your earlier entries you say that Richard Dawkins is a hero of yours.

Did you see the recent Horizon programme which presented scientific evidence that genes are directly affected by the environment and that these environmental effects can be transmitted across generations?

This is a form of Lamarckism and directly contradicts Dawkins' position of conservative NeoDarwinism i.e. that the gene is simply a random blueprint that natural selection allows to exist and replicate.

Wondered if you have any thoughts on that and whether perhaps it might induce in you a degree of humility when addressing some of these questions. Seems to me that you have a tendency to confuse and conflate (a) religion, (b) the opinions of religious believers (which may be rather crude paraphrases of the religion) and (c) what science is able at this point in time to tell us about the cosmos.
Field, 06.11.2005, 8:37pm #
Sorry about the tiscali bit - hangover from another site.

YOur slightly hysterical tone does you no favours I would say, but to get to the meat.

I don't claim to be a scientist either but the programme seemed to be saying that scientists had found far fewer genes than expected in humans and it now seemed that
the way those genes were ORGANISED appears much more important.

Now, as for "epigenetics", it seems this is a question of how you define it. If you define it as below you get the result you want:

"However, in none of these cases does a cell reprogram its DNA to produce genes that increase its ability to survive in a given environment. There are no Lamarckian characteristics to epigenetic inheritance."

However, the programme seemed to be sayign this is an old fashioned approach. The important thing is how the environment is getting the genes to express themselves through INHERITABLE processes. Thus people who starved at a crucial stage in their lives were passing on in the gene structure certain traits.

Lamarck wrote before the existence of genes was known, so they can hardly "define" him away in this manner, since all he was saying was that environmental processes (interaction between the animal and its environment as opposed to simply natural selection) would lead to inheritable effects. It is clear that epigenetics comes within that definition.

It seems to me that epigenetics is going to undergo a revolution in the next few years and we will find that not any adverse environmental effects cross the generations, but also positive ones that aid survival.

I of course fully accept that natural selection has a part to play in evolution, but probably far less important than previously thought as organisms become more complex.

Remember Darwin started with the idea that natural selection was like breeding. But the lesson of that surely is that we get a whole range of very different organisms from the one wolf gene pool of dogs - not that new genes have been created.

In any case when one comes to gene mutation one sees that this is really a reuslt of environmental influences. They are created by various environmental triggers eg. solar and other radiation not by any "struggle for survival".

As for you atheism I would ask you these two questions:

1. Do you think you have thoughts?

2. If yes, where exactly in the four dimensional cosmos are these thoughts located and observable by scientists?
field, 08.11.2005, 1:36pm #
I see you also asked me to justify my comment about conflation.

From reading your site it seems to me that you seem to assume a critcism of religion is the same thing as a criticism of the thesis that there is a God when it plainly isn't. You might as well say that the behaviour of scientists in their professional facutlies at universities reflects on the truth or otherwise of their theories.

You also seem to assume that science supports atheism, which seems a rather old fashioned idea. In truth the more fundamental science is, the more it points to some very strange aspects of the cosmos far removed from the mechanical systems of old. These strange aspects are quite compatible with the idea of some kind of deity. Remember - as an atheist you have to be against the possbility of ANY type of deity.
field, 09.11.2005, 8:45am #
I'll knock together an answer to your first response later, but as for the second, you seem to be assuming a hell of a lot of assumptions on my part.

1)You haven't supplied any examples, where am I conflating religion and the religious? Can't this website discuss both? Or have you seen the title 'Religion is Bullshit', seen some posts attacking religious people, and decided I must be conflating things?
2)Saying an idea is old-fashioned is not an argument for or against it. I think some science does support atheism.
3)Atheism is not believing in god, which is different from denying any possibility of a deity.
Aaand 4)Compatibility with the idea of a deity doesn't support that idea, that's like saying because quantum physics doesn't rule out the tooth fairy, it proves she exists. So either your argument is pointless, or you think I think that all science rules out a deity.
Ben, 09.11.2005, 2:23pm #
1. Well unfortunately I have a day job so maybe I was going on a general impression. I'm prepared to be open-minded adn and accept for the purposes of this discussion that your criticisms of theism, religion and non-scientific knowledge are discrete elements.

2. True. Agreed. But in science it often does indicate a theory that has now been abandoned.

3. This seems a strange definition of atheism. I mean I have always had the impression that atheists are convinced that there assertion that there is no God/god/deity, is true. Be that as it may, if you are saying that your atheism is merely a scientific hypothesis that may or may not be supported by evidence, your criticism of religion seems a little foolhardy since people may by intuition recognise scientific truths before scientists get round to proving them.

4. I am not arguing FOR theism, in the sense that I think it is definitely true. If scientists could come up with a credible
intellectual basis for believing in atheism I'd be prepared to give it a shot.
I suppose I am arguing for the necessity of an extra-cosmic dimension to existence. What that dimension (I mean it in a non-technical sense) is exactly, we have no idea. But there are clues all over the place that it exists I would suggest.
field, 10.11.2005, 8:58am #
Field said:

"As for you atheism I would ask you these two questions:

1. Do you think you have thoughts?

2. If yes, where exactly in the four dimensional cosmos are these thoughts located and observable by scientists?"



I'll jump in here.
In response to #1.
I'll answer it this way, I'm sure that my brain/neurological physhiology allows me to experience "thoughts" ie. responses to internal/external stimuli.

For #2.
Scientists can observe brain/neurological responses to stimuli, ie. the "thought process" with sophisticated instrumentation.


Whatever exactly compromises a "thought" may be hard to define though, which is why in my response #1, I defined it as a stimuli response. In reality it's all I "think" we have to work with. No hidden forces or deities required.

AA
AccursedAtheist, 12.11.2005, 6:11am #
OK AA, since Ben seems still to be scratching his head over this...

You say you are sure you have this experience. I don't doubt you have the experience either.

Now most atheists I think it is fair to say - and you sound like one - are physicalists i.e. they believe that all reality is ultimately physical in nature.

So according to you, your EXPERIENCE of a thought - not just the thought itself - must exist somewhere in the observable cosmos as a physical entity. If it doesn't then it must exist somewhere outside the observable cosmos.

To point to your neurons as being your experience is absurd. If I asked you to describe your subjective experience of a a piece of music you wouldn't start talking about the movement of air molecules (i.e. sound waves) would you? So why if I ask you about your subjective experience of your thoughts do you talk about the neurons which - on your understanding - are generating your thoughts. Are you saying that the "I" that experiences these things is an illusion, that it is non-real? If so then it is you who are resorting to mysticism. With no evidence whatsoever, you annul the identities of billions of people with a wave of your hand!

The "I" is precisely what most people feel defines their understanding of reality. You are telling them it doesn't exist as subjective experience.
field, 13.11.2005, 2:12pm #
1) Well that's damn decent of you, but don't you think it's slightly bad form to start spouting accusations and then go 'I haven't got time to read it all, I'm busy!' when you're called on it?
2) But we weren't talking about a scientific theory, were we? We were talking about the idea of science supporting atheism.
3) Sorry, but it's not a strange definition of atheism. Atheism is 'lack of belief in gods'. A lack of belief is not the same as denying any possibility of a deity. People do define atheism in different ways, however, perhaps you're just using the one that best helps your arguments.
4) You refer to 'believing' in atheism, again showing a slightly muddled idea of what it is. It's a lack of belief - as the saying goes, if atheism is a belief then not collecting stamps is a hobby.

5) With regards to your earlier comment - I think you might be confused about natural selection. You say 'In any case when one comes to gene mutation one sees that this is really a reuslt of environmental influences. They are created by various environmental triggers eg. solar and other radiation not by any "struggle for survival".' The theory of natural selection doesn't say that the struggle for survival is what causes gene mutation (although I remember reading about selection of genes that are more likely to mutate), but is what selects those mutations that increase the survival chances of the organism. That gene mutation can be caused by environmental influences is not controversial.

As for that stuff about thoughts, I'll say this - consciousness is a very tricky, and very interesting subject, but any internet conversation about it between non-experts will be long, dull and painful, akin to those with fundies who demand that we explain 'love' in a godless world or some other equally tedious word game. AA answered your questions pretty well, I thought.
Ben, 13.11.2005, 11:37pm #
Looking over the comments, I get the impression the name-calling and hair-pulling will soon begin, which would be a shame. So to keep things constructive, I've got a reading recommendation. You say 'the programme seemed to be saying that scientists had found far fewer genes than expected in humans and it now seemed that
the way those genes were ORGANISED appears much more important.' If you've not already read it, Matt Ridley's Nature Via Nurture is an excellent book that explores these findings.
Ben, 13.11.2005, 11:49pm #
Field said:
"So according to you, your EXPERIENCE of a thought - not just the thought itself - must exist somewhere in the observable cosmos as a physical entity. If it doesn't then it must exist somewhere outside the observable cosmos."


Of course it's a physical entity. Are you asking is science capable of detecting or reading the contents of my thoughts or experiences? I don't think so. Perhaps never and in fact I hope not. Science will never be able to do or know everything. Impossibilty comes with the reality package. I can't comment on what happens outside the observable cosmos, if anything even does.

You follow with:
"To point to your neurons as being your experience is absurd."


Why? I have no credible evidence accessible to me to prove otherwise that my neurological physiology is not responsible for my 'experiences', thoughts and memories or for any others on this planet.

Then you say:
"If I asked you to describe your subjective experience of a a piece of music you wouldn't start talking about the movement of air molecules (i.e. sound waves) would you? So why if I ask you about your subjective experience of your thoughts do you talk about the neurons which - on your understanding - are generating your thoughts. Are you saying that the "I" that experiences these things is an illusion, that it is non-real?"



No. What 'I' experience is mine and mine alone, it exists as far as I know only in my physically-generated conciousness. For others it's all their own. Subjectivity on my part is based on my collection of "experiences", let's call them memories, and perhaps brain chemistry. How those sound waves stimulate my memories or neural receptors colour my perception or take on the music.

Then you follow with:
"If so then it is you who are resorting to mysticism. With no evidence whatsoever, you annul the identities of billions of people with a wave of your hand!"


If I said it was an illusion, but I've implied no such thing. Reality is all there is. How each of those billions perceives reality matters not one iota to reality though, just to to the 'I' who observes it.


AA
AccursedAtheist, 14.11.2005, 4:47am #
AA -

Well as I thought you might, you appear to be missing my point. I don't doubt there is neuron activity that corresponds in some way to your thoughts. There will equally be muscular activity that corresponds to your experience of running. However, I would never say that the contraction of your muscles is the "same thing" as your subejctive experience of running.

What I would like to know is this:

Are you saying that your SUBJECTIVE experience - not its objective correlation - is in principle an observable phenomenon in the cosmos? Since you accept that your feelings about things you experience are real, surely they must be observable by me (in principle) if you think that everything real is to be found in this cosmos.

Ben - Unlike AA you seem disinclined to engage in any debate on anything which is strange given the pugnacious tone of your comments.

It's absurd to make a debating point about my graciousness on the conflation point. I was jsut saving time. But I wasn't saying I was wrong. If you like I'll spend a bit of time looking around this site and see what I find.
field, 14.11.2005, 8:47am #
Oh don't be a tedious fucker. If two comments, one responding to at least some of your points and the other actually trying to stop things descending into a slanging match and recommending some reading isn't your idea of engaging in debate, then you're as confused about that as you are about atheism. As for tone:

"..you have a tendency to confuse and conflate.."
"Well unfortunately I have a day job..."
"..since Ben seems still to be scratching his head over this.."
"Well as I thought you might, you appear to be missing my point.."

I'd take a pugnacious tone over condescending insults any day.
Ben, 14.11.2005, 12:34pm #
Ben -

Since you don't seem prepared to respect the rules of civilised discussion (why sweear at someone who has simply put some questions), I think I better go back to this issue of conflation first. This is the first sentence I came across in the archive from you:

"Why is God considered an explanation for anything? It's not - it's a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an 'I dunno' dressed up in spirituality and ritual."

It seems to me this illustrates very neatly that you do conflate and confuse these issues. Here you are throwing into the same pot and stirring around several different things.

Firstly, let's take the idea of God. Obviously you don't like the idea. But equally obviously plenty of scientists do. They see God as a reasonable epxlanation for the creation of the cosmos and teh laws of nature. Now, are you saying that the existence of God is simply a thesis you are not prepared even to entertain as a possibility?

You assert that God explains nothing. Well how does a "singularity" explain anything in terms of the creation of the cosmos?

Then you throw in a reference to sprituality and ritual. Well ritual must be irrelevant to the reality. Science has its rituals - publication, peer review etc - none of it relevant to the truth or otherwise of scientific statements.

Similarly with spirituality. People can be "spiritual" - if that word is to have any meaning - and still be atheists. There are lots of examples form the world of arts, music especially.

As for your remarks I find it rather amusing that there you are a person - a self - who only has any knowledge of anything through that self and yet you are unable even to hazard a guess about where we might find in the observable cosmos your subjective experience.

The last people I talked to on the web who said that one had to defer to experts on this sort of subject because it was too difficult for the ordinary person were true believing Muslims. I'm sure you're very happy in their company.
field, 14.11.2005, 1:20pm #
hello again AA. hmm, spiritual people inspire me, religous people scare me. shitless.

nuff said?
Shaggy, 15.11.2005, 12:06am #
Further to my previous posts I saw part of Jonathan Miller's programme on atheism.

There were several points about this that are relevant to this discussion/non-discussion.

1. Miller clearly thought it was possible to talk about atheism and the reasons for adhering to atheism for the benefit of the intelligent viewer. He didn't seem to think it was a pointless exercise or that such matters should be left entirely to experts.

2. Miller identified consciousness as a mysterious entity that he was not able even partially to understand and for which he offered no explanation. He identified the (current) inability of science to explain consciousness as the weakest link in the argument for atheism (or against belief in God, as he would prefer it, reasonably enough). This shows that it is not at all irrelevant of me to raise this issue of consciousness on a site apparently dedicated to the case for atheism. Further, it is not improper of me to probe your understanding of consciousness. Whereas Miller seemed disinclined to offer any explanation for consciousness (at least in the part I saw).

3. Rather amazingly I thought in the end Miller seemed to be arguing that belief/disbelief in God was a matter of temperament. For a rationalist this seemed a rather absurd conclusion I must say. I think there is quite a good correlation between how things stand on the front and how belief in God stands (and belief in what type of). It seems to me that the tide was very much flowing the atheists way from about 1700 to 1950 because of the rise of science, but that since then certainly in the West this tide has begun to turn slightly, in response mainly I think to people beginning to absorb some of the findings of science in relation to the quantum level and also at the cosmic level.

Ben

To return briefly to your post with respect to evolution .

I fully understand the difference between natural selection and gene mutation. The point I was making was simply that (compared to Darwin's original theory which knew nothing of gene mutation) we already accept a huge environmental influence in evolution i.e. via gene mutation. My point then was simply that environmental influence per se is NOT excluded by modern evolutionary theory it is simply an issue of what type of environmental influence or disallowed.

Shaggy, I would tend to agree with your distinction between the spiritual and the religious.
field, 15.11.2005, 8:34am #
Field has defeated Ben in this argument. Field 1 atheists 0.
Timnot4me, 16.11.2005, 2:08am #
Field said:
"AA -

Well as I thought you might, you appear to be missing my point. I don't doubt there is neuron activity that corresponds in some way to your thoughts. There will equally be muscular activity that corresponds to your experience of running. However, I would never say that the contraction of your muscles is the "same thing" as your subejctive experience of running.

What I would like to know is this:

Are you saying that your SUBJECTIVE experience - not its objective correlation - is in principle an observable phenomenon in the cosmos? Since you accept that your feelings about things you experience are real, surely they must be observable by me (in principle) if you think that everything real is to be found in this cosmos."




In principle Field they may be observable. As I said earlier-Of course it's a physical entity.Are you asking is science capable of detecting or reading the contents of my thoughts or experiences? I don't think so.
That doesn't mean in the future they won't be able to. However, even if it cannot be empirically quantified, it doesn't default that conciousness is the result of a 'God'. Reality is all we have to work with.

If you doubt that one's conciousness is a physically generated occurence, take away one of its physical support mechanisms, for example, a proper oxygen supply, and see how long it lasts. Subjectivity is no doubt somehow connected to physiology. Kill the objective physicality and the subjective ceases as well. However I'm not volunteering! ;)


Shaggy- Hi, right back at ya, it's been a while since I posted here. Been really busy at work.


AA
AccursedAtheist, 17.11.2005, 7:01am #
AA -

If you are a physicalist, subjective experiences HAVE to be observable (in principle).

You haven't made it clear whether you are a physicalist but it sounds like you are.

Your assumption that consciousness must reside in the brain is just that - an assumption.

Supposing you were from some isolated tribe who had never seen a radio. You come across one in the jungle switched on and blaring out some music you don't like. You hit the radio with a stick and eventually the thing stops.

Later you talk to someone who tells you that the radio is for picking up invisible messages from the air.

You laugh at him and explain that you were able to stop the music by hitting the machine with your stick.

I hope by now you are getting the analogy. Just because there is a strict correlation between machine (radio circuitry/brain) and output (radio station content/consciousness) does not mean that the one is identical to or even "causes" the other: radio do not "cause" radio stations.

On our present state of knowledge we can be no more certain than the ignorant isolated tribe with the radio about precisely how consciousness is caused.

I am not arguing for God. I am arguing that the God thesis on our current state of knowledge is perfectly reasonable and should not be subject to the sort of uninformed abuse that Ben offers here - confusing Crazy Clerics and Silly Superstitions with reasonable theology or philosophy.

I am not sure you have yet quite got to grips with the issue of subjectivity. I am not asking where can I observe an objective representation of your consciousness (neuron activity or whatever). I am asking where can I observe the SUBJECTIVE experience - the feelings you have.

It seems to me I could only observe them if I was you. But that begs the question of where is this YOU? Is it in this physical world like your brain or is it somewhere else?
field, 17.11.2005, 10:59am #
"I am arguing that the God thesis on our current state of knowledge is perfectly reasonable" - no, it's a case of "I cannot currently fully explain this, it must be down to God". That is an excuse, not an explanation. You can't suggest that "God" is an explanation for anything unless you have already prooved that this God actually exists!
Tim, 17.11.2005, 11:51am #
Tim -

It seems to me that you have a very poor understanding of how science works. On your approach no scientist could
ever have theorised about a force of nature because "you can't suggest that X is an explanation for anything unless you have already proved that this X actually exists."

Also, you misrepresent my position. I have not said anywhere that if you can't explain something it has to be a work of God. I have simply said that it is unreasonable to exclude the God thesis on the basis of our current state of knowledge. Anyway what is the atheist/physicalist alternative at present? To say that the explanation MUST be uncaused forces of nature which have emerged out of nothing. Is that really any more persuasive than the God thesis on the basis of our current state of knowledge?

What I would say is this: if science eventually has to resort to explanations that lie outside the observable cosmos then they are in effect moving into "God" territory since that is precisely what most people mean (in part) by God: something not observable and outside our phsyical, four-dimensional cosmos, which appears to us mysterious.

It seems to me that eventually science will be driven to seek such explanations. God might have been getting "smaller" in recent years but equally science has been merrily painting itself into a corner.

We are seeing some very interesting devleopments. One theory I read about in Scientific American recently referred to how our three spatial dimensions (and gravity with it) might be an "illusory" product of a two dimensional base reality. Very strange and not I imagine the sort of thing that the confident, materialist atheists of a bygone age meant when they talked about this law-obeying cosmos.
field, 18.11.2005, 8:35am #
Field,

I understand the concept of subjectivity as you're presenting it. As I've stated before in principle subjective 'thought' might be observable, but I don't think science has developed a process to filter the 'thoughts' from the physical brain in order to make them observable to others. Given time and resources it might well do so. If so, then science has LESSENED the possibility that our thoughts ARE NOT DUE to our brain's physical functions. Or they might not. Doing so or not doesn't prevent there being a God or not.

Your analogy to the radio station could make sense if the 'subjective' component of our thought process came from outside our physical being. That said, the assumption that this happens would also allow science if given enough time to eavesdrop in on that ability. Along the lines of a phone tap between a caller and a listener as an analogy. This though WOULD lessen the possibilty that our thoughts ARE DUE to our brain's physical functions. Again not proof of a God or not.

However, common observation backs my 'assumption', as you call it. When the physiological system is shut down, or taking the stick to it, (ie. the radio transmitter's circuitry/objective) and thereby one's neural network (radio waves) of an individual, all observable components of that individual's 'thoughts' (ie. the radio receiver's speaker output/subjectivity) vanishes as well. A long line of the formally living kind of backs up my 'assumption'. I've not come across any thing they've 'thought' recently. Kind of sways it away from the supernatural's corner.

As for being a physicalist, I'd let probability be my guide to atheism. Probability in my case includes the physical, as it's all I can observe, therefore negating the supernatural (no room for agnosticism) in the equation, so it rules my choice on the matter. As per the science community developing the "'thought' filter" as I called it or the "phone tap" type of device to determine conciousness, I'm putting my money on the filter!


AA
AccursedAtheist, 19.11.2005, 6:10am #
Field, when you said to Tim:
"if science eventually has to resort to explanations that lie outside the observable cosmos then they are in effect moving into "God" territory"

If doing so can be backed up with falsifiable predictions that can be observed, qualified and quantified, than it moves back into science's corner. If not then it's an interesting thought experiment.

Field said:
"but equally science has been merrily painting itself into a corner."


To this I say, and when it does - maybe it also find ways through walls.

For some really weird behaviour of matter in our own observable universe, look into the possible quantum behaviour of supersolids.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supersolid

From the link "The significance of this experiement is that, it heralds the observation of a new Quantum phase of matter." And... "In short, a supersolid is a vacancy in a solid that has physical properties, allowing to to pass through other solids."

And you thought superstring hypotheses and holographic universes are weird. We learn more every day and God seems to be doing less and less of his mysterious works.

AA
AccursedAtheist, 19.11.2005, 6:54am #
AA -

Actually I don't think you and I are that far apart. I'm jsut not sure why you call yourself an atheist - unless it's just a "preference" as to what you would like science to discover in the future.

Anyway, I am still not entirely surely you appreciate the strength of the subjectivity test. Assuming I've got your "thought filter" right then I guess you are suggesting that science could in some way allow us to experience someone else's subjectivity. I would agree that is a possibility but it does not solve the problem of where the subjectivity resides. Unless it resides outside the cosmos, it must occupy some position in the cosmos, and I don't think it has been shown that that is any way to be identified with the neurons or electrical acitvity or whatever.

Regarding your comments on the radio station analogy I would make the following points:

1. Have you never woken from sleep walked around for a couple of hours and THEN remembered a dream? All the evidence suggests that we do dream even though clearly to what extent we are conscious of dreaming seems variable. How can we be sure that "we" don't carry on in some way dreaming when there is no longer any neuronal activity - i.e. when we are dead. I am not saying that is a fact - I am simply saying that the mysteries of dreaming and sleep suggest caution is advised. I appreciate you will say there is a link between neuronal activity and dreaming which I accept.

2. Clearly if a radio is smashed it no longer receives the station output but that does not mean the output (radio station broadcasts) does not continue.

3. Whilst I am not claiming communication with the dead, reincarnation etc. billions of people do believe in such things. I personally have had experiences suggestive of some of these things. Again I would advise caution whether for or against.

Regarding your second post, on the point about the weirdness that science is now continually turning up, I think that is very much a half empty/half full example. You may say that science is getting to grips with all these mysteries and showing them to have explicable causes. I would say that science is revealing just how mysterious and unknowable (to science) the cosmos is or getting closer to God.

Seems to me that a lot of this comes down to definition. You seem to be relaxed about the idea of dimensions of experience beyond the observable cosmos. To my way of thinking that is really taking you into the God concept - something outside the governance of the forces of nature we are familiar with. We would probably both agree I imagine that it is impossible to conceive that at the end of all this inquiry we would find a kind of Old Testament God who spoke Hebrew and had a personal relationship with humanity.
However, we could find that there is indeed some "superdimensional", "self-sustaining" and "supernatural" entity. And on our present state of knowledge we cannot I believe rule out the idea that our individual consciousnesses are somehow embedded in that entity.

I agree science may ultimately find a way through the "walls". I don't see it as an enemy in anyway and am happy for it to carry on inquiring deeper and deeper, as long as through its applications it does not destroy humanity through weaponry, ill advised experiments or robotisation.
field, 19.11.2005, 12:30pm #
Unless something particularly egregious pops up, this'll be my last comment on this thread, the arguments below can stand or fall on their own. This is a long “un by the way, so Timnot4me can feel free to skip straight past the detail and just post something inane, he obviously did last time.

I did ask for an example of conflation, and Field's responded, so I'll address it. He (I'm assuming to avoid a rash of s) quotes me €œWhy is God considered an explanation for anything? It's not - it's a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an 'I dunno' dressed up in spirituality and ritual. and argues that this is conflating the idea of God and religious practices. I'm willing to accept that it can be read that way, but personally I think it takes some determination to take it as such, and it's not what was intended. What I'm saying is that saying “God did it does not cannot explain anything. If you think that it does, then you're also probably satisfied with “the stork's a explanation for where babies come from, or an earthquake as a sign that god is angry. It's an argument from ignorance. Anybody saying it simply doesn't know, and the second part of my sentence was describing how this ignorance is dressed to look less like ignorance and more like authority. As a further point, any scientist in the field of cosmology who accepts god as an explanation for the creation of the cosmos is a pretty crap scientist, and a biologist who accepts god as an explanation for the many forms of life on earth isn't much cop either, because theyre falling back on a supernatural solution, and thats not science, it's giving up.

The comment about true believing Muslims doesn't really deserve a reply but screw it, let's live dangerously. I didn't actually say you have to defer to experts because it's too hard for the man in the street, but Field's got an uncanny knack of interpreting things in a way that benefits his own arguments scan the comments for the number of variations on “you seem to be saying before he assumes that you are and thunders off down that path as well as some slightly-off definitions of atheism and science, more of which later. Anyway, there's two points to make here. One is that what I actually said is that any internet conversation between non-experts would be a nightmare. The subject of consciousness is, as I said, extremely tricky and messy. To think that a bunch of non-experts can achieve any kind of resolution on it by hammering back and forth on teh interweb is not a fine idea, and I've got no time for it. The second point is that I actually do think we should listen to the experts, and here's why they're sodding experts. They've done the research, spent their careers thinking about whatever subject they're involved in. The difference between listening to them and accepting what they tell us (with a very important caveat) and the deference the mullahs demand is that anyone willing to put in the hard work can also become an expert the knowledge is not jealously guarded, and the experts aren't saying “Because we said so but Because we've done the work and you haven't. If you disagree then do the work yourself and see what you think.,They'll even help you, bless '“em. The caveat, of course, is that you shouldn't accept informed opinion blindly if you think it doesn't stack up - you should look into things and make up your own mind.

Finally, Field's sticking with his definition of “atheist as someone who denies all possibility of God. I'm sure it's a very useful strawman in debates like this, but that's not what atheism is, as I've said before. As a great philosopher once wrote '“ he can be found at UK Politics on the Left, an infrequently updated but most entertaining blog ' certainty is bollocks. It's convenient for Field to paint atheists as certain, but it just ain't right, sadly. His definition of science is also a struggle, because there's room for God in it. Science involves itself with natural processes and events, not supernatural. As AA said to Field [resorting to explanations outside of the observable cosmos] can be backed up with falsifiable predictions that can be observed, qualified and quantified, than it moves back into science' corner. Science, by its definition, does not resort to supernatural explanations“ if something is still unsolved, then “we don't know, but we're working on it' is the answer.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who's contributed so far, this has been a huge improvement on “OMG you guys are so dumb, god is REAL and you faggits are gonig to BURN!!!!111
Ben, 19.11.2005, 6:49pm #
BEN SAYS: €œUnless something particularly egregious pops up, this'll be my last comment on this thread, the arguments below can stand or fall on their own. This is a long '“un by the way, so Timnot4me can feel free to skip straight past the detail and just post something inane, he obviously did last time.

I did ask for an example of conflation, and Field's responded, so I'll address it. He (I'm assuming “he to avoid a rash of “he/she's) quotes me €œWhy is God considered an explanation for anything? It's not - it's a failure to explain, a shrug of the shoulders, an 'I dunno' dressed up in spirituality and ritual. and argues that this is conflating the idea of God and religious practices. Im willing to accept that it can be read that way, but personally I think it takes some determination to take it as such, and it's not what was intended. What I'm saying is that saying 'God did it' does not cannot explain anything. If you think that it does, then you're also probably satisfied with “the stork' as a explanation for where babies come from, or an earthquake as a sign that god is angry. It's an argument from ignorance. Anybody saying it simply doesn't know, and the second part of my sentence was describing how this ignorance is dressed to look less like ignorance and more like authority. As a further point, any scientist in the field of cosmology who accepts god as an explanation for the creation of the cosmos is a pretty crap scientist, and a biologist who accepts god as an explanation for the many forms of life on earth isn't much cop either, because they're falling back on a supernatural solution, and that's not science, it's giving up.

FIELD REPLIES:

You do seem to be suffering from an Ayatollah complex: declaring by fiat the terms of any debate and seeking (unlike AA) to close down some debate. It is ridiculous to imply by your stork analogy - I am frightened of the results of scientific enquiry. I am not at all. I am happy to accept the well attested findings of science. It is simply a prejudice to say that anyone who accepts God as an explanation for the creation of the cosmos must be a crap scientist. A supernatural solution to the right problems is a reasonable thesis given the present state of our knowledge. Supernatural means just that above and beyond what we know as nature “ the four fundamental forces and the basic constituents of matter.

BEN SAYS: “The comment about true believing Muslims doesn't really deserve a reply but screw it, let's live dangerously. I did't actually say you have to defer to experts because it's too hard for the man in the street, but Field's got an uncanny knack of interpreting things in a way that benefits his own arguments “ scan the comments for the number of variations on “you seem to be saying before he assumes that you are and thunders off down that path “ as well as some slightly-off definitions of atheism and science, more of which later. Anyway, there's two points to make here. One is that what I actually said is that any internet conversation between non-experts would be a nightmare. The subject of consciousness is, as I said, extremely tricky and messy. To think that a bunch of non-experts can achieve any kind of resolution on it by hammering back and forth on teh interweb is not a fine idea, and I've got no time for it. The second point is that I actually do think we should listen to the experts, and here's why “ they're sodding experts. They've done the research, spent their careers thinking about whatever subject they're involved in. The difference between listening to them and accepting what they tell us (with a very important caveat) and the deference the mullahs demand is that anyone willing to put in the hard work can also become an expert the knowledge is not jealously guarded, and the experts aren't saying “Because we said so but “Because we've done the work and you haven't. If you disagree then do the work yourself and see what you think. They'll even help you, bless '“em. The caveat, of course, is that you shouldn't accept informed opinion blindly if you think it doesn't stack up - you should look into things and make up your own mind

FIELD REPLIES:

Your stance on this is quite absurd. On the basis of your argument no scientific theory (including social scientific) however absurd could ever be criticised. (Actually you couldn't even criticise a Steven Spielberg film unless you'd been to film school and writing school and acting school.) Science is littered with examples of theories that were way off the mark and the truth is that scientists can get wrapped up in their own belief systems at times. Am I really supposed to take the multiverse theory seriously when I can see all sorts of rational objections to it that the proponents of the theory never seem to address e.g. what are the conditions for bifurcation of the universe, won't the theory lead to an infinite number of universes and so on. The fact that the proponents can come back and spray me with equations does not alter the fact that I have never read a convincing account of the theory, whereas I have read pretty convincing accounts about say how the Big Bang might really be true, or how quantum theory might actually reflect reality despite the difficulties of defining what is going on.

Your position is exactly analogous to that of the Mullahs. They wouldn't prevent anyone becoming a Muslim scholar. All you have to do is make your profession of belief and then study the Koran. That is open to anyone.


BEN SAYS: €œFinally, Field's sticking with his definition of “atheist as someone who denies all possibility of God. I'm sure it's a very useful strawman in debates like this, but tha's not what atheism is, as I've said before. As a great philosopher once wrote he can be found at UK Politics on the Left, an infrequently updated but most entertaining blog certainty is bollocks. It's convenient for Field to paint atheists as certain, but it just ain't right, sadly. His definition of science is also a struggle, because there's room for God in it. Science involves itself with natural processes and events, not supernatural. As AA said to Field If [resorting to explanations outside of the observable cosmos] can be backed up with falsifiable predictions that can be observed, qualified and quantified, than it moves back into science's corner. Science, by its definition, does not resort to supernatural explanations if something is still unsolved, then “we dont know, but we're working on it is the answer.



FIELD REPLIES:


Well I think if you asked any average person on the street that would be exactly the definition they would give. My dictionary also offers: One who does not believe in God. Who was it said a word is whatever I want it to mean? Humpty Dumpty I think. Well, if you choose to decide it means €œsomeone who favours the idea that there is no God but is not absolutely certain on the point that is your privilege as a free person. However, I think that is really just a variation on agnostic, which is what I would describe myself as (but at the other end of the scale one who thinks that the likelihood there is some sort of supernatural deity in the sense of a cosmos-causing, self-sustaining entity).

I would also point out that your definition of science fails Poppers falsifiability test. Under your approach anything that is discovered by science is by definition non-God. On your approach even if science were to discover that there was a place outside the cosmos called Heaven with an old bloke with a white beard in front of a control panel determining the movements of the stars and planets and answering people prayers over the intercom, that would still be a victory for atheistic science. I think if science discovers there are dimensions beyond this cosmos of whatever nature, that is a clear victory for religion which has always claimed that, usually to the ridicule of atheists.

And yes I am a bloke.
field, 20.11.2005, 2:25pm #
BEN SAYS: "Field's got an uncanny knack of interpreting things in a way that benefits his own arguments"

FIELD SAYS: "It is ridiculous to imply by your stork analogy - I am frightened of the results of scientific enquiry"

BEN SAYS: Arf!

Sorry, I know I said I'd shut up but that one was hard to resist.
Ben, 20.11.2005, 5:21pm #
Ben -

To return to the issue of epigenetics and your hero worship of
Dawkins and defence of neo-Darwinism, I think your answer in the intro to this thread is scarcely a riposte.

Here is a summary I found in the Faculty of Health Sciences website (University of Witwatersrand, JOhannesburg):
Over the last 20 years the DNA-centered view of heredity has been undermined by a bourgeoning field of study known as epigenetics. As coined by Waddington in the 1940s, epigenetics refers to the process by which the genotype begets the phenotype. Since then, epigenetics has come to increasingly refer to non-DNA based systems of heredity “ so call epigenetic inheritance systems (EISs). EISs are critical to the process by which genotype begets phenotype because they are mechanisms of cell differentiation.

The most intensely studied EIS is the chromatin-marking system. Chromatin consists of DNA, histones (a type of protein) and non-histone proteins, wrapped around each other into a “beads-on-a-strin-like configuration. What biologists have found is that not all chromatin is packaged in the same. Its configuration/structure is regulated by covalent modifications of DNA and histones, which vary across development and between different cell types.

Epigenetics is revolutionizing how we think about disease and evolution because the origin of epigenetic variation e.g. variation in chromatin modification is the environment; and this variation can arise non-randomly. From a disease-perspective, epigenetic variation explains a number of phenomena associated with complex disease: variable expressivity, incomplete penetrance, age-of-onset, persistence-and-rate of certain illnesses with very low fecundity, and transgenerational effects of environmental toxins. Epigenetics also affects how we think about evolution because epigenetic variation can be inherited. The implication of this is that some heritable variation can be induced by the environment and that not all variation arises randomly. This idea is revolutionary because biologists used to believe that only random DNA-mutation was important to evolution and that the only role played by the environment was in the selection of variations.

From a philosophical perspective, epigenetics is a challenge to genetic determinism and the so-called “Nature versus Nurture debate. Both debates make sense only if the hereditary material is a static information carrier. However, chromatin is far from static. It is a dynamic response-system that is capable of monitoring and responding to the environment. For example, mechanical and chemical signal transduction pathways continuously relay information about a cell environment to the nucleus and the genome responds in an appropriate way. For example, if a growth factor appears in the extracellular environment the genome may respond by remodelling its chromatin in a way that facilitates differentiation into a particular cell type. Differentiation occurs because chromatin remodelling results in the repression or expression of certain genes important to this process.

Thus, DNA does not determine anything on its own because whether a particular stretch of DNA produces anything at all depends on the environment. This also implies that the traditional boundary drawn between nature and “nurture is too simplistic because heredity and the environment are not independent of each other i.e. there is no absolute boundary."

If something is capable of monitoring and responding to the environment and then passing on that info. to future to generations, I think any fair minded observer would say that was a form of Lamarckism not Darwinism. I have heard Dawkins lecture and I can assure you that he never for one moment suggests that heredity can interact with the environment in this way.

I have read quite a bit about modern epigenetics now
and it seems to me quite clear that the simple picture painted by propagandists like Dawkins is far removed from the truth.
This isn't difficult to find out: you don't need to be a scientist to understand the conclusions that scientists have written in plain English.

Do you dispute any of the following:

1. That Lamarck theorised that animals developed attributes through interaction with the environment which they passed on to their offspring.

2. That modern research has shown already how in a number of ways animals develop attributes through interaction with the environment and pass them on to
their offspring.

Having research this matter I can see why you were so keen to close down debate on this thread.
field, 23.11.2005, 8:57am #
Further to my previous post, here is an extract from an article in the University of Pennsylvania's Almanac (Research Roundup):-

"A report on the study appears in the November 1 issue of Genes & Development.

In their experiments with fruit flies, Dr. Jumin Zhou, an assistant professor in the gene expression and regulation program at Wistar and senior author on the new study, and his colleagues investigated certain regulatory elements involved in controlling the homeotic gene complex, a large and complex gene region responsible for the proper development of the basic body plan. These vital genes have been highly conserved in evolution, appearing in species as divergent as fruit flies, mice, and humans. Large genes often employ highly sophisticated regulatory mechanisms: a mandatory promoter that activates transcription of the gene, enhancers that send instructions to the promoter, and specialized regulatory DNA elements such as insulators that can block or augment communication between enhancers and the promoter.

Dr. Zhou's team studied a regulatory element called the Promoter Targeting Sequence, or PTS. They showed that the PTS overcomes an insulator to facilitate, but also restrict, the activity of distant enhancers of a single promoter. They also found that while the PTS required the insulator to target its designated promoter, the insulator could then be removed from the system without effect: with the PTS alone, no activity was seen. With the PTS and the insulator, the PTS effectively targeted its promoter. Then, with the insulator removed, PTS continued to target its promoter.

The notion that epigenetic alterations can be passed from generation to generation complicates the standard model of genetics. Scientists have long held the view that acquired changes in the regulatory molecules associated with DNA are removed in the germ line cells, reset to a baseline state. Based on the current study, as well as other research conducted over the last few years, this does not appear to be entirely true.

These observations recall the theories of 19th century scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who postulated that traits acquired by parents during their lives could be passed on to their offspring. His ideas about evolutionary process were overtaken in subsequent years by those of naturalist Charles Darwin and, later, the monk Gregor Mendel. Recent advances in epigenetics suggest that Lamarck may have been at least partly correct, for reasons and in ways that he could never have anticipated."

So there you have it:

Dawkins neo-Darwinist ideology is "not entirely true" and this latest research does at least prove Lamarck "partly correct" according to this reputable site. In other words by original post about epigenetics was right.

I think the overall moral is that you should be less quick to dismiss ideas simply because
they don't accord with your prejudices.

My suspicion is that we are going to hear a hell of a lot more about epigenetics over teh next few years and that we will eventually come to a situation where we accept
what I would call interactive evolution is a more credible theory than pure neo-Darwinism. I also think that it will show that for more complex organisms genetic mutation plays a relatively small part in evolution and that "purposeful" evolution - not the Blind Watchmaker is more important.

I accept that can't be shown at the present, but the tide is certainly turning in that direction.
field, 23.11.2005, 1:39pm #
Towards the end of my last post I should have said "random" genetic mutation of course.
field, 24.11.2005, 8:36am #
bugger it, I'll bite one last time.

No, it wasn't much of a riposte, for the very good reason that it wasn't supposed to be. I'm sorry if you were after some full-blooded defence of my hero but as I said - and you ignored - I wouldn't be too bothered if Dawkins was wrong on any particular subject (and note I'm not actually conceding that he is here, just speaking generally). I count Darwin as a hero too and he was wrong on a whole bunch of stuff. Maybe you have a different definition of hero to me - not completely unlikely considering you have your own for atheist and science, both working out as 'whatever I want them to be for the sake of this particular argument' - but I don't hold every word of his to be the irrefutable truth. You do seem to be very down on him though, did he run over your dog? Or has this whole energy-sapping bout of tedium been a variation on the Dawkins vs Gould wars? Oooh, or are you a Mary Midgley fan?? Come on, something must be fuelling your 'propagandist' drivel.

As for shutting down debate - this is the second time you've said something that doesn't deserve an answer, and the second time I've foolishly supplied one anyway, if only to clarify my position. Have I deleted or edited any of your comments? Banned your IP? Not only gone home but took my ball too and closed down comments entirely? Have I fuck. You're still free to say whatever the hell you like on this thread. You imply that I'm so threatened by a challenge to what you see as the Dawkins position that I'm frantically trying to divert attacks on it (and you do, when you say 'I can see why you were so keen...etc) - and yet, miraculously, all your comments sit here for anyone to read. What you're not entitled to, and yet bleat about like a spoilt five year old, is an answer from me to every sodding point you attempt to make. No one here - including me - is owed an answer to a question and if I don't feel like replying because, quite frankly, you bore the tits off me, that doesn't count as 'shutting down debate'. I write on this blog for fun, not to give your ego a rub-down by treating each of your wibblings like an exam question that my academic future depends on. Are you so dense you don't see that if I was trying to dishonestly protect the Dawkins family jewels, leaving your points unchallenged is a pretty hopeless way of doing it? Truth is you're just the internet version of the pub bore, driving people away in droves as you try to tell them why they're wrong and bathe them in chronic halitosis, and right now you got me edging towards the jukebox.

And so finally to epigenetics. I didn't dismiss it as you claim, and it's interesting stuff. I don't know how much of a role it plays in evolution - and how can I, when I heard of it here a week or so ago and have seen all of two articles? - but from what I can see the scientific consensus on natural selection isn't being brought to its knees just now. It's revealing that just two pieces of research has you going 'there you go, it's wrong I tells you, ALL WRONG!' Anyway, there's an interesting conversation to be had about it - just not with you, because 'interesting conversation with field' appears to be something of an oxymoron.
Ben, 30.11.2005, 11:52pm #
Good work Field, excellent rebuttal.
You have clearly won this debate. Be careful in the future, because Ben is not like Tim, and will delete your comments.
I'm missing Tim and ED.
Timnot4me, 03.12.2005, 7:06pm #
Timnot4me, as far as I'm aware I've only deleted one comment and that was a witless, bad taste post on the thread about the death of WinAce.

I have, however, bent over backwards for numpties like you and moved your irrelevant comments to different threads to try and keep some order. Glad you appreciate the warnings and time spent trying to get the comments policy into your thick head so you don't get deleted.

If you miss eternal damantion so much why don't you piss off and track him down on the Rapture Ready forums for a circle jerk?
Ben, 03.12.2005, 9:14pm #
Timnot4me - I'm still here, just not writing the blog (I will eventually get round to developing other areas of this site). I didn't delete comments; I just gave up writing in the end as I felt that I was banging my head against a wall.

At least Field makes an attempt at engaging in debate. You merely pop up irritatingly to congratulate him - probably without actually understanding much of what was written anyway.
Tim, 03.12.2005, 9:00pm #
Good to see your still around Tim. Field and Ben engaged in a good debate, but I feel that Field made a better case than Ben did.
If you know how to track down ED, let me know. He was an interesting person and made some good points.
This website was more interesting when Tim was in control.
Timnot4me, 05.12.2005, 3:29am #
ED was cheap amusement :)
Shaggy, 05.12.2005, 3:35am #
Actually, while the debate was interesting as far as it went, in my estimation Ben was the more lucid.
Of course, the last word will never be in on evolution, but that is the nature of science.
While we will never prove or disprove the existence of God, science can tell us where God isn't. God isn't to be found in either the creation of the Earth, nor in the evolution of life.
benelailax, 22.12.2005, 7:59am #

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