Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Missed Teachable Moment

I attended Jonathan Witt's talk on intelligent design last Thursday here at Waterloo.

Prof. Witt made many good points. He talked about the distinction between "hypothesis", "law", "fact", and "theory". Although he didn't quote Stephen Jay Gould, I think it is fair to say that he agreed with Gould's definition of "fact" as "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent". Prof. Witt pointed out that evolution is both a fact (in the sense that common descent is well-confirmed and organisms today are different from those in the past) and a theory (in the sense that we have explanatory mechanisms such as mutation, natural selection, and genetic drift, to name a few, that explain how evolution took place). He also did a good job in exploding the silliness that is Behe's "irreducible complexity".

Prof. Witt did get some minor details wrong (like the old name of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which is now simply called the Center for Science and Culture). I also had some quibbles about his assertions that religious claims are unfalsifiable. Clearly some religious claims have that character, like "faith alone saves". But when religions claim, for example, that intercessory prayer works, or that a wafer actually becomes the body of a person, or that a statue cries tears of real blood, these can be tested. Even claims about the afterlife, which might look unfalsifiable at first glance, can be addressed to some extent, based on our current understandings about the biological building blocks of living beings, and chemistry, and physics.

The most significant disagreement I have with Prof. Witt was during the question-and-answer period. A student told the story of a group of evangelists who, suffering hunger and poverty, prayed to the Christian god for food and dozens of fish jumped into the boat, enough to feed everyone. He asked, What did Prof. Witt make of this event? (It wasn't clear to me whether this was the Bible story or a claimed modern-day story.) Prof. Witt answered that "Correlation is not causation", which I think was a rather weak answer.

Here is how I would have answered. First, I strongly doubt that the claimed event took place. Reports of miracles are common, but experience tells us that upon closer examination, these "miracles" almost always were entirely made up, or were wildly exaggerated, or had prosaic explanations. Remember the miracle of the juniper bush?

Second, let's suppose the event really did take place as claimed. How uncommon was it? Heck if I know; maybe fish jump into boats all the time. One would have to estimate the probability of the event, and the number of people in boats who prayed for food.

Third, science doesn't do so well in explaining one-time anecdotes. If the claim is that prayer works, how can we test that? Well, there have been a number of tests of this claim for intercessory prayer, and the results are not too favorable to the hypothesis that prayer works.

If prayer did work in a more or less consistent basis (say, 1% of all prayers were answered), this would represent a currently-unaccountable regularity of the universe that we could study. How, exactly, does this answering work? What if you pray for X and I pray for not X? Does your probability of success increase if you pray more fervently, or more frequently, or if you get more people to pray at the same time? Or if you pray for reasonable things versus unreasonable things? All these can be tested.

Ultimately, I think Prof. Witt missed a teachable moment.


Reginald Selkirk said...

Heck if I know; maybe fish jump into boats all the time.


Reginald Selkirk said...

One more Asian carp video for good measure.

Glen Davidson said...

if wishes were fishes then beggars would eat

Isn't it interesting that starving Christians praying for food generally don't receive such "miracles," while people hardly in any imminent danger of starvation are saved the discomfort of missing a meal or two? The evangelists can afford a boat, but can't fish, or what?

It's just too convenient, and might be based on some rare coincidence in which fish are jumping a great deal and some religious folk are feeling peckish. Wow.

Glen Davidson

John Pieret said...

I assume this is the Jonathan Witt who is a professor of biology at Waterloo, not the Jonathan Witt who is a Discovery [sic] Institute Senior Flack ... um ... Fellow.

tarobins said...

Jumping fish, proof by sesame street:

Robert Byers said...

There is a difference between hypothesis and theory.
If evolution is a theory and not merely a hypothesis then all evolutionists have to do is present their facts behind evolution. As long as these facts are from biology and the scientific method.
Organized creationism says this is not the case.
YEC and even ID people do note that evolutionary biology relies on speculation for its main points.

Anyways its about the evidence.
If the evidence is persuasive it will persuade.
North America has never heard a close examination of the evidence from both sides.

RTT said...

Thaaaa Wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round ....

Curt Cameron said...

If I were asked to speculate on the prayers answered by fish jumping in the boat, I (like you) would have first pointed out how stories like this get re-told and exaggerated all the time, so I would consider it very likely that the story never happened as he told it, and said that whatever did happen would likely have a mundane explanation.

But then I would have taken it one more step: ask the student if he found that story convincing. A story from some unnamed place, starving yet in a boat? And that was God's answer? Is this the best evidence God can provide for his existence? 'Cause to me, it's utterly unconvincing.

Diogenes said...

Certainly, we've never seen men tell false stories about catching fish.