Intelligent Design Vs. Evolution: Letters to an Atheist

Intelligent Design Vs. Evolution: Letters to an Atheist by Ray Comfort

After a somewhat lively and candid discussion regarding my own atheism, a friend dropped by with this book asking if I’d give it a look see and we could discuss.

Before I even begin reading this book I must note that I’m starting from the point of view that the two areas being debated are not even within the same realm. Intelligent Design (ID) is not a science, it is rather a poorly cloaked version of creationism. It is a faith-based approach to explaining the origin of man and the world and universe around us. It presumes a designer, usually due to the logical fallacy that the proponent of ID is incapable of conceiving that the wonders that we observe could come about by selective pressures that are neither sentient nor singularly directed.

Evolution is a science-based approach to explaining, not the “why” of man and our environment but rather the “How” and “What”. Evolution does not encompass the “Origin of the Universe”, that is the purview of cosmology. But, once the universe exists, evolution deals with how something as wondrous as a bug, not to mention a man would come into being.

Someone having faith in a higher being is not an issue to me. But I do take issue with extending that faith to making claims about the real world. Faith, as meant in the “I believe in a higher power that exists outside of space and time and it gives me comfort” has no place in science by definition it is untestable and subjective. Once you fall back on “because of X then Y happens, but you don’t have to worry why X happens because God made it so”, then you put the brakes on research and can smugly assert you now have all the answers. It is simply a conversation stopper.

A great quote that I heard recently was meant to disparage evolution, instead it turns out to be a keenly insightful expression of exactly what evolution is all about. I’m sorry I cannot attribute it, if you can tell me the author I’ll gladly update this entry, but he said “Helium is an odorless, colorless gas that, if given enough time, turns into people”.

If you can wrap your head around what that implies, then you are on your way towards understanding evolution.

Our brains evolved to deal with time scales that are on the order of generations. 25 years is a pretty significant amount of time for us. Enough to be born, educated, marry and start a family of your own. 50 Years will get you grandchildren, put you on the brink of your autumn years and set you in your ways. 75 years will put you well into retirement, surround you with great-grandchildren and have you marvelling at the incredible changes that you’ve seen in your lifetime. Most people do not make it to 100 years.

I don’t know how old you are but I do know that, regardless of your age, you can cite examples of significant change that’s occurred within your own lifetime. Be it that your favorite computer game has seen several great new sequels released or maybe you’ve witnessed several world wars, seen the advent of Penicillin and witnessed the fall of the U.S.S.R. arguably one of the most powerful nations that the earth has ever seen. Nearly all of us can probably name species of animals that have gone extinct. Change happens. A lot of it. And it’s happening all of the time and it happens very rapidly.

We do not live in any special time. There are events going on right now that will shape this planet economically, socially and even geologically for generations to come. There have *always* been events going on with similar impacts. Talk to people in cold-war or mid-depression America or the U.K. at its colonizing peak or in Rome as Nero came to power or in Egypt as the they were laying one of their Pharaohs in his tomb and all would tell you that events of incredible magnitude were taking place at that moment and they would all be right. We still feel the effects of many of these events rippling through our world, be it in the spacing of train tracks (ever wonder why the rails are that far apart?), the currency that we use, or the nuclear arsenal that the United States of America houses.

All of human history, every iota of it is encompassed in a period spanning perhaps 30,000 to 60,000 years (maybe 200,000 years depending how you define mankind). RECORDED history, where we actually have human-recorded records of events that happened, span only a fraction of that time. Beginning with the first cave-man drawings and culminating so far with the latest mash-up videos on YouTube.

This familiar map humorously highlights our propensity to see our immediate environment in detail and to compress everything else into the background.

Darwin’s Finches took scant years to differentiate into distinct species. What do you think could happen over one thousand years? Ten Thousand? One Hundred Thousand? One Million? And at one million years, we’re *still* only talking about vastly less than one four thousandth of the time the planet earth has existed.

We routinely reject all this and demand a simple, pat answer that we can get our head around. The irony is that this answer often comes in the form of a supernatural being that is responsible for everything that exists but must itself be so awesome and terribly powerful that we cannot even consider it without recoiling.

Why do we need the middleman? The difference between such a being, whose thoughts are so meta that they are unknowable to us, and a universe where we have an incomplete understanding (and that’s putting it mildly) is… none. If you do not understand all the variables in an equation, you cannot predict the outcome, if you cannot know the mind of God then you also cannot predict the outcome.

But back to the book. I must say I found it a difficult read. The writing style was exactly what you would expect from hastily crafted emails cobbled together into a book. The arguments are not well reasoned and the tone is, at times, belligerent on both sides. There is a lot of context missing (presumably previous emails that were not included to save space or were deemed not relevant or obvious). This is especially obvious when they accuse each other of misinterpreting earlier statements to which we have no access.

I note some points of interest below but I’m not really intent on debating the issue as I don’t believe there is any issue at all. You believe in God, you’re spiritual, that’s great. You believe in science, you’re rational, that’s great too. You’re both, that can work and that’s great. But don’t pull out a bible or any other holy book and wave it in the air as authoritative proof for anything physically manifest in the world. Tangible reality is within the realm of science and subject to proof by the scientific method.

I am not finding Mr. Franz’s defense of Evolution very cogent. The fact that Ray Comfort chose to debate Evolution with someone who is also a lay person rather than someone with a solid grounding in science does little to raise the argument beyond that of an uninformed barroom discussion.

It’s pretty obvious from the outset that this is not a “debate” in any sense of the word. Franz sends wordy protestations to Comfort hoping for something that he can use against ID, Comfort coyly refuses to rise to the bait and pithily makes related but only mildly relevant statements in response.

The very first paragraph of the book looms large in its ignorance of the evidence in support of evolution. In addition to the fossil record (which has gone beyond those early, stupid hoaxes) there is the much more comprehensive evidence in the molecular biology realm which is not even mentioned.

I suppose it’s redundant of me to point out the use of other “theories” such as that of “Entropy” used in support of ID are, after all, just theories :). Yet Mr. Comfort has no problem using them as fact in his arguments.

Further, misuse of “Entropy” as an argument against evolution is a common misconception. Just like lay people misinterpret “Global Warming” to mean “every spot on the planet is going to be warmer” so it is with “Entropy”. Within a system, “the universe”, entropy can carry on completely undiminished by localized regions of increasing order. The increasing order is always accompanied by the input of energy. Thus a leaf producing sugars from less ordered materials could be argued to violate the principals represented by entropy if you discount or ignore the larger picture of that enormous fusion reactor hanging over our heads driving the process forward. In the cold depths of interstellar space you may see the effects of uniform entropy, but that is certainly not the case here within our little nuclear powered solar system.

I do have to say I *did* like Franz’s dare to Comfort to test his faith through cyanide…

Footnote 10 – logical fallacy of argument from final consequences.. The sun’s just far enough and just close enough for us to exist. Therefore it was put there for the purpose of creating life here.

Footnote 21 – Cute, but for the atheist the bullets in this Russian roulette analogy are also imaginary.

A lot of interesting logic in rationalizing why a benevolent God would condemn non-believers to hell. My favorite one is the analogy of the law of gravity and failure to believe in a parachute being akin to the law of God and failure to believe… well Ray doesn’t say in what exactly… nor does he indicate where this law of God comes from (God…). He is absolving God of the responsibility for creating a system that punishes folks who do not abide by it. To me this is fine, God gets to set the rules. Don’t be inconsistent about who is ultimately responsible for them. Your “crimes” are not the cause of you going to jail, rather it is the laws that define your actions as crimes and, let’s face it, actually getting caught, that get you sentenced. Similarly, God creates the laws and defines what is and is not acceptable. He’s all seeing and all powerful so you don’t really stand a hope of getting away with anything (amazes me that devout Christians try) and so you are condemned at your final reckoning. By God.

Footnote 32 – Dr. Hovind appears to be a pretty muddled thinker. His $250,000 challenge is riddled with inaccuracies from the get-go. Most glaring of this is that he doesn’t seem to realize that the science of evolution has nothing to do with the creation of the universe.

OK, I’ve got to stop commenting on the footnotes now. The statements are so completely ludicrous it would take me hours to refute them all, once I saw the classic “Chicken or the Egg” argument in Footnote 39 I realized there was really no hope of keeping up. As with most ID debates / arguments – the most effective strategy is to pepper the argument with so many known bad arguments that there is positively no hope to address them all. The audience and the debater become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of time it would take to scrutinize and dismiss each invalid point. It comes down to, not a lack of evidence, but a lack of bladder size (for anybody who’s ever attended a meeting after having too much soda at lunch…).

We keep falling into the trap of believing that we must have all the answers RIGHT NOW. And if we cannot explain all the details about something then we must make the leap out of the realm of tangible science into the supernatural. Many years ago, before germ theory was understood, God punished the wicked by visiting plagues upon them. I’m pretty thankful that we didn’t just give up and pray at that point but rather figured out what we didn’t know and then developed antibiotics and vaccines. The egocentricity of mankind to believe that, just because we happen to be alive at this point in time means that this is the be all and end all and all answers must be available to us is simply astounding. We are a tiny chapter on a vast continuum that stretches immeasurably into the distant past and will stretch into the promising, hope-filled future. Let’s stop stifling that growth and wonder by arrogantly claiming that we are at the very pinnacle of knowledge and participate in the process to ensure that the riches visited upon future generations will be at least as glorious as those that have been visited upon our own by the scientific giants that preceded us.

*groan* more proof that Mr. Franz is completely out of his element. When he begins to talk about “trillions” of years – even though just in a hypothetical sense – he’s doing a disservice to the magnitude (and reality) of the universe’s age being only in the tens of billions of years. This also highlights our inability to deal with such big numbers. You would never confuse “ten” years with “one hundred” years when describing when an event took place and that’s merely one order of magnitude of difference. “Billions” to “Trillions” represented THREE orders of magnitude. Or the difference between your birthday last year and the birth of Christ 2,000 years ago…

Of course Mr. Comfort’s response at this point does nothing to promote the idea that these two are even arguing two sides of the same coin when he responds “I believe that the chances of life simply occurring are nil. Zilch. Non-existent. Zip.”. That pretty much ends the argument as far as I can see. You have science on the one hand with evidence and theories and faith on the other hand with belief and feeling. If neither acknowledges the other, then you are certainly not going to be able to sway the other side much less come to middle ground.

Mr. Comfort later tries to confuse the definition of faith (page 49) by equating it with having faith in one’s computer. I would suggest that having faith in something because you’ve seen it work before and can consistently get the same results to occur for the same actions is different than having the kind of faith where one believes something in the absence of tangible proof. The latter is very often touted as being “real” faith that a “true” believer exhibits and is considered more noble. Again, in the spiritual realm that’s fine. But having faith in something that is demonstrably false is not something I can laud.

On page 53 Mr. Comfort, while relating the story of how he became a religious person, muses “I remember wondering why I instinctively said “My God…””. I think it should be clear to most people that our epithets are derived primarily from our environment. Hurling the Shakespearean “I bite my thumb at thee” insult would, today, bring peals of laughter from the intended victim. “My God” or similar invectives have meaning, not because they are significant in their own right, but rather because they are understood by all involved to have a particular meaning. An Egyptian slave yelling “Jesus Christ!” when upset about something would have received a remarkably different response than would someone in Roman Catholic Quebec in the 1800’s or again even today.

Later Mr. Comfort uses a classic argument from incredulity with his statement “It made no sense at all that everything I held dear to me was going to be ripped from my hands by something much greater than me-death”. He goes on to lament that science is spending so much effort on pursuits other than resolving the problem of death. It is pretty clear that Mr. Comfort does not appreciate a) the wondrous diversity of life on this planet (regardless of its origin) would naturally lead to folks exploring mysteries for which he has no appreciation and b) that there is a tremendous amount of progress that can be made in narrow areas of science by applying knowledge gained in any number of disparate areas.

Frankly, I enjoyed the description of how Mr. Comfort came to Christianity and what it meant for him. I have personally flirted with such experience when I was in University and will agree that it is definitely something that our psyche is built to crave. It is the extension of this spirituality into the real world in the form of terrible restrictions based on 2000 year old ideas of the universe that is very repugnant to me. Also, any institution that is based on human honesty and character MUST have checks and balances to protect against those of bad character and those with lapses in their normally good character. Ordinary, fallible folks raising themselves up to be God’s righteous representative here on earth are simply begging for corruption.

Footnote 84 is so egregious that I simply have to point out that the very “flaw” in science that Mr. Comfort highlights – the fact that theories can change as new evidence is determined – is, in fact, its greatest asset. By not assuming we have all the answers and by integrating new information into theories as it becomes available scientists can get closer and closer to describing and understanding reality. Conversely (and perversely), simply stating that something is so because it is in a two thousand year-old book and refusing to acknowledge new understanding and new discoveries is exactly what a theocratic approach to “science” is all about. It is an argument from authority making statements that are demonstrably incorrect and ends up castigating those that dare question the “science” as god has stated it.

Overall the book is an OK read if you already have a grounding in science. It certainly adds nothing to the argument for intelligent design (ID). ID can generously be called an “opinion” but has nothing more credible than that standing behind it. Filtering through the morass of arguments on both sides one may be able to gain some insight into why folks may choose to be religious or not. But, as that was not the book’s point, I felt it did not achieve its goal.

Posted under Books

This post was written by Marc
on May 6, 2007 at 2:14 pm


4 Comments so far

  1. Peter Rabbatts May 7, 2007 5:52 pm

    Have you read any Richard Dawkins? Blind Watchmaker & Climbing Mount Improbable?

  2. Marc May 7, 2007 8:03 pm

    I haven’t *read* any of Dawkin’s work but I have seen a couple of his interviews (here’s a short one that I posted recently

    And, of course there’s the Southpark take on him which wasn’t overly flattering but still entertaining ’cause that’s just Southpark 🙂

    But I really like what he’s doing for the non-theistic movements.

  3. Peter Rabbatts May 8, 2007 12:03 pm

    Now an interview between Richard Dawkins and George Bush would be interesting. A analytical scientist and…. how do you define a man who is just one one part of a many sided coin that justifies wholesale slaughter of his fellow beings by invoking faith in the inexplicable??

    I agree with your review of Intelligent design vs Evolution. I am on the side of Dawkins. You made no mention of “irreducible complexity” which always gets a mention in any talk of ID.

    I think you are right when you say that the human brain struggles to conceive of geological time so evolution is difficult. The other difficulty we have is understanding “nothing”. What is beyond what there is? If we try and describe an empty space with nothing in it we have to contain it in something. As cosmology takes us closer and closer to the beginning there comes a point when we will have to conceive of something before time and matter. Even “before” is a term relative to time and if there was no time how can there be a “before”

    On November 24th this year there is an experiment being conducted at CERN to establish a link between matter and energy. ie is matter formed out of energy. As our governments have spent over 6 billion on this one event we should all take a keen interest.

  4. Marc May 8, 2007 6:52 pm

    I can’t really comment on GWB’s religious views. I don’t generally regard as sincere most values that politicians put forth as aspects of their “elect me” façade.

    The “irreducible complexity” argument is a tired one and was not, so far as I saw in that book, mentioned. After about the halfway point I do admit that I began to skim somewhat and so may have overlooked it.

    I suspect that we may just find that our current view of physical reality is simply not sufficient to “bracket” or otherwise contain what we would consider to be our “universe”. It may not even be valid to try to do so but is rather a requirement brought about by the view rather than the reality that it purports to represent. Much like you need to resort to non-Euclidean geometry to simplify representation of some aspects of our physical reality, our very conception of “beginning” and “end” and even “here” may be fundamentally inadequate foundations upon wish to pursue such inquiry.

    I wasn’t aware of the experiment to which you refer to at CERN. I had thought that was already pretty well established by the various atomic fission / fusion experiments validating Einstein’s famous formula. The most exciting thing that I knew of coming down the pipe (and I must admit that I don’t follow this as closely as I would like) were some experiments to find the elusive Higgs boson particle.


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