Saturday, May 16, 2009

Michael Egnor Misses the Point

Whenever the Discovery Institute wants to hire a new spokesman, I imagine a conversation like this:

"Who can we get who is abysmally ignorant, illogical, and not afraid to show it?"

"Casey Luskin?"

"No, we already hired him. How about Michael Egnor?"

"Great idea. He has the added bonus of the arrogance of a surgeon. I'll send the invitation off right away."

Michael Egnor read my recent piece criticizing Margaret Somerville's article in Academic Matters. Somerville claimed that when parents decide to abort a child with Down's syndrome, that is a "eugenic" decision. "Only the decision not to abort when the fetus has Down's syndrome", Somerville claimed, "is not a eugenic decision". I pointed out that Somerville was doing here exactly what she decried earlier: labeling a decision she doesn't like as "eugenic", and therefore bad, without explaining why it is bad. I also pointed out that many parental decisions, such as choosing whom to have children with, could be considered "eugenic" in exactly the same way, yet I imagine Somerville would consider those acceptable. Following Somerville's logic, only picking someone at random for your mate "is not a eugenic decision."

But of course, Egnor missed the point entirely (and also managed to misspell my name). The point was not about eugenics, or Down's syndrome children at all; it was about Somerville's hypocrisy.

There are lots of other fallacies in Egnor's piece; you may enjoy spotting them all. Here are a few:

Here is how Egnor defends religion: "The existence of God is not a “ridiculous and unverifiable claim;” it's the conclusion reached by the vast majority of human beings living today and who have ever lived, and is a viewpoint held by most of the best philosophers, ethicists and scientists in history." Here he is using both the Fallacy of Appeal to Belief and the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority. Two fallacies in one sentence; truly a remarkable achievement.

Next, he claims there are thoughtful arguments for atheism (but doesn't provide a single example of an argument he believes is "thoughtful"). Then he dismisses the arguments of "Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers, and Hitchens" as "puerile". (Of course, like Somerville, he doesn't give a single reason why he thinks this.) This is the Fallacy of Appeal to Ridicule.

He then invents an argument against Christianity -- ‘some bad things have been done by Christians, therefore Christianity is untrue’ -- and implies it is something that I believe (or that Dawkins et al. believe). This is the Fallacy of the Straw Man.

Next he goes on to smear Planned Parenthood, the National Organization of Women, and the Pro-Choice Resource Project as "eugenic". There's no denying that the word "eugenic" has a nasty reputation in our society, and Egnor doesn't hesitate to exploit it. (For the same reason, creationists love to associate "Darwinism" with both fascism and communism; they know how effective a smear can be to incite the Fallacy of Appeal to Emotion.) I can't resist pointing out that along the way, Egnor confuses "inference" with "implication".

Why does "eugenics" have a nasty reputation? It is not because the goal - to have healthy offspring - is something any parent would disagree with. After all, parents of Asheknazi Jewish heritage get tested for the Tay-Sachs gene, but I don't see Egnor labeling Dor Yeshorim as "eugenic" (but he would have to if he were consistent). No, it is because "eugenics" is equated in many people's minds with the centrally-directed, government-enforced, coercive eugenics advocated by the Nazis. It is one thing - and I think entirely acceptable - for parents to decide to not have a child with Tay-Sachs; it is another thing entirely for the government to murder or sterilize people perceived to have defective genes. Labeling both as "eugenic" is facile -- par for the course for Egnor -- but misses an essential difference.

Egnor goes on to say "In the atheist/Darwinian view, eugenics is moral, even virtuous." Here he is committing yet another fallacy: the Fallacy of Is-Ought. Darwinists (more properly, any scientist or person who understands the theory of evolution) are what they are because they hold to a scientific theory, not a description of ethical behavior.

Egnor then gives three reasons against parental choice. Unfortunately, none of them are very good. His first is "I have fairly traditional Christian beliefs, and I find the assertion that people should be bred and culled like farm animals to be repugnant." But when partners decide not to have children because (say) they both carry a gene like Tay-Sachs, or decide to abort a fetus that will have the disease, that has nothing to do with "be[ing] bred and culled like farm animals", unless the farm animals Egnor is thinking of are breeding themselves. By equating government-enforced eugenics with parental choice, Egnor commits the Fallacy of Equivocation. Furthermore, since 80% of pregnancies end unsuccessfully, with about half that figure attributed to genetic defects, it may be fairly said that Egnor's god is the Great Eugenicist in the Sky.

The second is "eugenics has stained my profession". But again, the eugenics that stained the medical profession consisted of, e.g., forced sterilization, not parents deciding whether to have children or to abort a fetus with a severe defect.

The third reason is that Egnor knows children with cognitive defects and finds they have value. That's nice, but nobody's claiming that these children should be killed or their parents made a mistake. What Egnor misses entirely, because of his sectarian religious viewpoint, is that for many parents, the decision is not between "having this child who will die a painful and gruesome death from Tay-Sachs before age 4" or "not having any child at all", but rather "having this child who will die of Tay-Sachs" or "not having it, and having a healthy child later on".

Finally, recall that my original question was "Why, exactly, would the world be better off with more Down's syndrome children?" Egnor says in response "The world is made better by every person." Even if we ignore the fact that Egnor's Pollyanna claim is clearly untrue (how was the world made better by Hitler or Pol Pot?), his response doesn't address the question. Parents are faced with limited resources. If they choose to raise a healthy child instead of an unhealthy child, why does Egnor want to refuse them that choice?

If Egnor really believes that the world would be better off with more Down's syndrome children, he should be doing everything he can to promote their production. As a medical doctor, he should be counselling couples to postpone having children until the wife is at least 40; after age 45, that increases the chances of having a Down's syndrome child to 1 in 19. Similarly, he should be encouraging older men to have more children, since paternal age is apparently a factor, too. Since he does not, it is clear that even Egnor does not believe that the world would be better off with more Down's syndrome children.

About 90% of parents decide to abort after a Down's syndrome diagnosis. If I shared Michael Egnor's fondness for logical fallacies, I would say that is evidence he is wrong. Instead, I will simply point out that most parents do not view having a Down's syndrome child as a good way to spend their limited parental resources. I don't demand that parents choose the way I would under the circumstances; I have great sympathy for parents faced with such a difficult decision, and I support their right to choose, no matter how they decide. Despite his attempt to tar me with the eugenic brush, it is his viewpoint that has more in common with totalitarian thinking.

And like the totalitarian, Egnor chooses to attack me from a forum that does not allow comments. What is he afraid of?

24 comments:

Phil said...

""The existence of God is not a “ridiculous and unverifiable claim;” it's the conclusion reached by the vast majority of human beings living today and who have ever lived" from Egnor

Maybe he should watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iMmvu9eMrg

Though I doubt his type will learn anything from it, I personally found this video quite interesting and worth the watch.

Eric Burnett said...

One nitpick: you say that "80% of pregnancies end in miscarriage", but the link you cite specifically says John Opitz testified "that between 60 and 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are simply flushed out in women's normal menstrual flows unnoticed. This is not miscarriage we're talking about. The women and their husbands or partners never even know that conception has taken place; the embryos disappear from their wombs in their menstrual flows."

Other than that, good critique!

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Sorry, I edited that part several times and somehow it ended up inaccurately; I changed it now.

MrFreeThinker said...

"Here he is using both the Fallacy of Appeal to Belief and the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority. Two fallacies in one sentence; truly a remarkable achievement."Of course you claimed the existence of God was "ridiculous and unverifiable" (which is an appeal to ridicule). I think Egnor has a point. You cannot dismiss a belief held and debated by thousands of educated people with 3 words like like that.

"He then invents an argument against Christianity -- ‘some bad things have been done by Christians, therefore Christianity is untrue’ -- and implies it is something that I believe (or that Dawkins et al. believe). This is the Fallacy of the Straw Man."have you ever read Sam Harris or seen someone like Hitchens debate? They tend not to focus on evils done by religious people (which I admit there are plenty of ) and somehow jump to the conclusion that religion is false. In fairness you didn't make that argument but a lot of people happen to.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

MrFree:

If you think the existence of the Christian god is verifiable, feel free to provide proof. And yes, I think ridiculous is just the word for a religion that claims talking snakes, virgins giving birth, etc.

The number of people who hold a belief has nothing to do with how true it is. Millions of people still believe in witches, but hopefully you don't expect me to take that belief seriously, either.

Neither Hitchens nor Harris (both of which are more erudite than Egnor) ever made the argument that you and Egnor claim. It is a straw man.

Sorry, Mr. Free, you're not living up to your phony name.

MrFreeThinker said...

"Next, he claims there are thoughtful arguments for atheism (but doesn't provide a single example of an argument he believes is "thoughtful"). Then he dismisses the arguments of "Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers, and Hitchens" as "puerile". (Of course, like Somerville, he doesn't give a single reason why he thinks this.)"Egnor does give examples of poor arguments forwarded by these people in his article.

And as for Dawkins, from the university of waterloo site I can see there are philosophers (like E. Jennifer Ashworth) who specialize in medieval philosophy and the study of Aquinas. I dare you to show her the chapter of "The God Delusion" where Dawkins deals with Aquinas' 5 ways and ask her what she would do if an undergrad submitted a similar paper to her.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mr. Free:

"Egnor does give examples of poor arguments forwarded by these people in his article."No, he doesn't. He makes up one out of whole cloth and calls the other one poor without explaining why.

Mr. Free, repeating a false claim doesn't make it any more true.

"I dare you to show her the chapter of "The God Delusion" where Dawkins deals with Aquinas' 5 ways and ask her what she would do if an undergrad submitted a similar paper to her."Oh dear, I see you are very confused. It is Egnor and now you who are making the claim; therefore the onus is on you to support it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mr. Free:

I should add that if you find Aquinas' arguments convincing, then there really is no point arguing with you.

MrFreeThinker said...

To summarise my objections let's say I came up to you and said atheism was ridiculous. You would rightly point out (as you have). that many intellectuals have questioned God. If religion is so ridiculous you have to answer to the fact that intellectuals like Plato , Gottfried Leibiniz, Rene Descartes to modern people like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne as well as many ethicists think religious ideas are valid. And there are many ethicists who critique atheistic naturalism too.

And as to Dawkins and Aquinas, It is not that I find Aquinas' arguments particularly compelling,it is just that Dawkins' grasp of medieval philosophy is very poor. (To be fair not many people study medieval theology but he should have stayed away from what he doesn't understand)

And as for what convinces me, I don't think there's "proof" with a capital p but recently I've been fascinated by the cosmological arguments (like Kalam) and the fine-tuning of the universe as good evidence for God. Out of curiousity do you think there's any argument by Harris , Dawkins et. al that you find convincing? And by that I mean an actual argument against the existence of God or truth of religion and not an argument that religious people do bad things.

(minor quibble)And of course witches exist. Witches are practitioners of witchcraft just as a Christian is a practitioner of Christianity, Saying witches don't exist because you don't believe in magic is like saying Muslims don't exist because you don't believe in Islam.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

You cannot dismiss a belief held and debated by thousands of educated people with 3 words like like that.
Please enlighten us, MrFree Thinker, how many words are necessary to point out an argumentum ad populum? Do you feel an equal number of words would be necessary to dismiss astrology?

Anonymous said...

The entire eugenics debate seems to me to be a vast oversimplification, which really doesn't do justice to how difficult a decision this is for these parents. For some reason, the debate is always portrayed as parents making the decision between having an abortion and having an otherwise healthy child with Down Syndrome (someone like Corky from the show "life goes on", for example).

Consider, for example, the odds these parents are facing. Few people realize that there is a very high rate of miscarriage associated with Down Syndrome. This means that, for parents that decide to continue their pregnancy after testing identifies Down Syndrome, there's a reasonable chance that their baby will miscarry before birth anyway (it's about 50-50, says this study). Taking this into account, the decision for parents is essentially between aborting a baby that may never make it to birth, and continuing the pregnancy knowing that there is a reasonable chance that their child will die before birth. Supposing that the child is born with Down Syndrome, there is still about a 25-30% chance that the child will die in the first year of its life.

Some simple arithmetic shows that parents are essentially facing a choice between having an abortion and continuing a pregnancy that has perhaps a 40% chance of producing a child with Down Syndrome that survives past one year old.

Facing these odds and the potential for the heartbreaking loss of a child, it is not unreasonable to expect that some people would even consider aborting a child without Down Syndrome, and simply trying again. Pro-choice individuals in particular might find it easier to abort a fetus three months into a pregnancy, rather than risk losing a child shortly after birth.

Obviously, the fact that the child will have Down Syndrome plays a major role in the decision, but to believe that it is the only factor is oversimplifying things.

All of this is really just to say that this is an incredibly complex and difficult decision for the parents. When I try to put myself in the parents shoes, I can't help but think that this idea of "eugenics" or discrimination just seems to be grossly missing the point.

Alex said...

MrNonThinker:

"To summarise my objections let's say I came up to you and said atheism was ridiculous. You would rightly point out (as you have). that many intellectuals have questioned God."


Nonsense. A rational response to such a claim would be to ask WHY you think it's ridiculous, and then offer a refutation of your points. Only a fool - or someone thoroughly indoctrinated under an illogical belief system - would attempt to support a position based on who thought it up, or who believes in it.

Put another way: If you tell a physicist that General Relativity is ridiculous, he won't yell back "OH YEAH? Well Einstein said it's true!". Instead, he'll point you at the mountains of evidence supporting the theory. The problem with religion, of course, is that it HAS no evidence, and therefore MUST rely solely on the reputation of it's proponents. The phrase "What would Jesus do?" is emblematic of this mindset. To a Theist, the source is more important than the message.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

" If religion is so ridiculous you have to answer to the fact that intellectuals like Plato , Gottfried Leibiniz, Rene Descartes to modern people like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne as well as many ethicists think religious ideas are valid."No, I don't. People believe all sorts of ridiculous things. Henry Bauer, for example, wrote a good book debunking Velkovsky -- but he also believes in the Loch Ness monster, as well as being an HIV-AIDS denier. You can stack up all the "intellectuals" you want (Alvin Plantinga an intellectual? Ha.), but that doesn't mean their ideas need to be taken seriously.

"...it is just that Dawkins' grasp of medieval philosophy is very poor." Once again you criticize without giving an examples. It's easy to call something "poor"; let's have some specific criticisms here.

"Out of curiousity do you think there's any argument by Harris , Dawkins et. al that you find convincing?" I find nearly all of their criticisms to be spot on, with the exception of Dawkins' argument about the complexity of the Designer. But the main argument that convinces me is the argument from evil. If you want to believe in some supreme being that enjoys tormenting people, go right ahead - at least that is consistent with the evidence. But no serious person can maintain simultaneously that their god is both all-powerful and completely good -- at least not without redefining what we understand as "good".

"And of course witches exist. " I am always mystified when people misunderstood what seems to me perfectly plain. I was not talking about people who call themselves witches. Rather, I was talking about people who can supernaturally achieve results through witchcraft -- you know, fly through the air on a broomstick, turn people into toads, cast spells that actually work, turn themselves into other animals, etc. You know, the kind of witchcraft that millions of people believe in? Try not to be so dense next time.

MrFreeThinker said...

Perhaps to take your analogy a bit further, imagine you interviewed a large number of professional medical researchers in HIV and found a large number were HIV denialists and some had doubts. Imagine if a large number of marine biologists accepted the existence of the Loch Ness monster in Scotland and even many who did not accept it thought it was rational to accept it.
Then those positions would not be looking so ridiculous, huh?

And of course Alvin Plantinga is a leading intellectual and philosopher. His argument against naturalism is taken very seriously by atheist philosopher and it is chiefly due to his treatise on the problem of evil that most atheist philosophers realise the argument from evil is not deductively valid (though some do use inductive versions of the problem of evil ).

"I find nearly all of their criticisms to be spot on, with the exception of Dawkins' argument about the complexity of the Designer."I agree that that one is pretty bad.

But the main argument that convinces me is the argument from evil. If you want to believe in some supreme being that enjoys tormenting people, go right ahead - at least that is consistent with the evidence. But no serious person can maintain simultaneously that their god is both all-powerful and completely good -- at least not without redefining what we understand as "good".There are many different forms of the argument from evil.Do you think the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of a perfect God (which would be the deductive form) or that evil is just evidence against God but not a disproof (which would be a more inductive version)?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mr. Free:

1. I think we've wandered quite far afield from the point of my post, and with each passing step I find it increasingly boring.

2. The argument from authority that you propose is not logically valid. But I agree that -- generally speaking -- I value the opinion of experts more than the opinions of the average person. But there are lots of exceptions: I wouldn't trust the opinion of an astrologer on the validity of astrology, nor would I trust the opinion of a chiropractor on disease. Similarly, I do not trust the opinions of philospohers or theologians on the existence of god - no matter how eminent you think they are.

3. I do not believe your claim about "atheist philosophers". No philosopher I know takes Plantinga seriously. It is precisely his argument about evolutionary naturalism that I was thinking of. It is so evidently flawed that even a high-school student can spot the flaw.

4. I think natural evil is logically incompatible with the idea of an all-good all-powerfuly deity.

5. I note you still have not given a single example of Dawkins' misunderstanding of anything, despite being challenged on this point.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

And of course Alvin Plantinga is a leading intellectual and philosopher. His argument against naturalism is taken very seriously by atheist philosopher...
Ah, is that the one where he says that naturalism is incompatible with evolution? That one makes me chuckle, and reminds me of all those who, when Dawkins' book came out, accused him of being philosophically and theologically shallow. Plantinga's understanding of evolution and natural selection is laughably bad. If you want a poster boy for someone wandering outside their own field of expertise and making a fool of themselves, I'd pick Plantinga over Dawkins any day.

MrFreeThinker said...

@Bayesian
Oftentimes I hear people claim that the argument is flawed have never listened to Plantinga's lectures or read his books on the argument but I'm sure you guys are familiar with his stuff since you know t is flawed.
Anyway there is a volume out called Naturalism Defeated where Plantinga presents his arguments and 11 philosophers in philosophy of mind and epistemology critique it and Plantinga addresses their objections. He also has has published debates on it with Daniel Denett ,Micheal Tooley and Paul Draper. These argument are taken very seriously.
And how is Plantinga's understanding of evolution is flawed?
And Dawkins' argument is pretty bad.
Even if we buy Dawkins' assumption that in order to posit theism as an explanation we have to explain where God came from (according to this logic if Stephen Hawking was to find a final "theory of everything" he would have to explain where that law came from for the theory to be valid . Every scientist would not only need an explanation for their observation but an explanation for that explanation so on ad infinitum) and his dubious assertion that a design must be more complex than its design ( How does he explain the fact that human genetic engineers have produced organisms with more biological complexity than humans?)
The crux of Dawkins' argument of the Blind Watchmaker is that God is very complex. But if we looks at Dawkins' definition

"Let us try another tack in our quest for a definition of complexity, and make use of the mathematical idea of probability. Suppose we try out the following definition: a complex thing is something whose constituent parts are arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone. To borrow an analogy from an eminent astronomer, if you take the parts of an airliner and jumble them up at random, the likelihood that you would happen to assemble a working Boeing is vanishingly small. "
Richard Dawkins ,Blind Watchmaker
Now from what I see most theists believe God is an nonphysical ,immaterial being with no material parts so according to his definition("arrangement of parts") God would have to be simple. At most this could be an argument against Mormons who do believe God is a material being with biological complexity.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mr. Free:

I think you're very naive if you think simply because scholars write articles refuting a bad argument (such as Plantinga), that means they "take it seriously".

I have a long paper with Elsberry coming out in Synthese critiquing Dembski's reasoning. That doesn't mean I "take it seriously". I only "take it seriously" to the extent that I took the time to write an article carefully explaining all the flaws in the logic. The argument itself is very very wrong in many ways; almost childishly so.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mr. Free:

I'd like to see some evidence for your claim that "human genetic engineers have produced organisms with more biological complexity than humans".

What, precisely, is your definition of "biological compexity" and what are these organisms?

It is my experience that those who prattle on about "biological complexity" haven't the foggiest notion of what they are talking about.

But since you have steadfastly ignored all of my challenges so far I don't expect much of an answer to this one.

Anthony said...

Can you elaborate on the disagreement with Dawkin's argument about the complexity of the designer? Is the issue that he thinks an evolutionary process is necessary to create the designer? Or that the recursion of who designed the designer is sufficient to refute the existence of a designer? I enjoy your blog, feel free to point to an old posting that may already contain your answer. Thanks!

larryniven said...

This should be fun - maybe you can tell me, MrFreeThinker, what's wrong with my responses to the evolutionary argument against naturalism. You can read the first here, but you might as well skip to the second two.

MrFreeThinker said...

I'd like to see some evidence for your claim that "human genetic engineers have produced organisms with more biological complexity than humans".

What, precisely, is your definition of "biological compexity" and what are these organisms?
I was going by a crude estimate of number of genes.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=scientists-sequence-rice
Genetic engineers have produced genetically engineered rice with more genes than humans do but according to Dawkins , this shouldn't happen.
And I think even without this example , it is conceivable that someone could create something of greater complexity than himself. If complexity increases with duplication wouldn't it be a trivial task for a designer to increase the complexity of something through duplication of information?

And with respect to Dembski I would think that the fact that Dembski had his ideas published in an academic monograph reputable series on probability in Cambridge and having his ideas cited favorably by other mathematicians would indicate he had ideas of some worth. (Not to say that he is right. He could probably be wrong)

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Mr. Free:

Dawkins is wrong, but not for the reason you cite. I don't know anyone (biologist or mathematician) who thinks that "number of genes" is a good estimate for complexity. And you do understand the difference between sequencing an organism and genetic engineering? I hope you're not claiming that scientists invented de novo the 45,000-63,000 genes in rice.

WRT Dembski: I don't know a single mathematician who has actually read Dembski carefully who agrees with him. The very small number who have said positive things have refused to justify their claims to me. As for getting a monograph published, it is remarkably easy to get academic drivel published. I have shown elsewhere on this blog that Dembski's mathematical work has virtually no citations in the literature.

waldteufel said...

Back to Michael Egnor for a moment. He, like the other clowns at the Disco 'Tute, is an intellectual coward. That's why he posts at a "blog" that doesn't allow comments. Nothing complicated about it.

More than anything, the DI fellows remind me of Josef Goebbels' propaganda machine: Tell lies, tell them again and again. Pretty soon, the credulous will believe them.