Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Perusing Pastor Rob's latest rant, imagine my surprise when, after the conflation between biogenesis and evolution and incoherent babbling about chance and causality, I stumble upon an actual point: "[T]he number one problem atheists and macro evolutionists face [is] HOW DO WE GET LIFE FROM NON LIVING CHEMICALS?!"

Of course, this isn't a problem specifically for macro evolutionists (are micro evolutionists really short scientists?) or even all atheists. It is a question, though, that physicalism — the position that phenomena can be explained by non-teleological physics — needs to answer. Happily, the answer is rather straightforward. (It's also worth noting that this question is philosophical, not scientific; it has nothing whatsoever to do with evolution or physical biogenesis.)

We might just as well ask: How do we get a galaxy from stars, none of which is a galaxy? How do we get a rock from atoms, none of which is a rock? How do we get macroscopic temperature, pressure or entropy from gas molecules, none of which have these properties? The Moon isn't an orbit, but if we take away the Moon, where's the Moon's orbit? How do we get Bibles from books, books from chapters, chapters from paragraphs, paragraphs from sentences, sentences from words and words from letters? How do we get meaning from marks on paper or sounds in air, none of which are intrinsically meaningful?

The obvious answer is that "life" is an abstract, emergent property. It's a property our minds ascribe to aggregations of matter that do particular things, things like move around, reproduce, use energy in a particular way, etc. There is no such thing as "life" as an independent, intrinsic, fundamental property: There is only the abstract property of "being alive" that we ascribe to aggregations of matter.

Abstract, emergent properties stand in contrast to concrete, intrinsic properties, such as mass* or extension in space*. Concrete, intrinsic properties are irreducible and additive: We cannot take away the mass of an atom without taking away the atom itself and the mass of an aggregate of atoms is the sum of the mass of the individual atoms**.

*Yes, I'm oversimplifying somewhat.

The concept of abstract, emergent properties poses some interesting philosophical questions, but it's very difficult to simply dispose of the concept and speak exclusively about only concrete, intrinsic properties (and perhaps simple relative properties such as relative velocity). Talking about abstract, emergent properties is just too valuable and useful a technique to dispose of it just because it gives an answer you don't like.

(Another way of looking at the issue is that, in some sense, life is matter in motion, and motion is a concrete, intrinsic property of matter.)

Commenter ubercheesehead had an interesting take on the issue. He abandoned the notion that emergent properties were impossible, and instead argued that emergent properties were evidence of intelligent design. The argument, I imagine, would go something like this:
  1. Not counting terrestrial organisms, all of the objects we can observe that have complicated emergent properties are artifacts of (human) intelligent design.
  2. Terrestrial organisms have complicated emergent properties
  3. Therefore terrestrial organisms are the product of intelligent design.
It's not the worst argument in the world, it's superficially appealing, but it fails on a number of points.

It's an evidentiary argument (complicated emergent properties are held as evidence for intelligent design), but evidentiary arguments have to account for all the evidence; it's not enough to just cherry-pick the evidence that supports your case. And, of course, there are many dissimilarities between terrestrial organisms and human artifacts: Human artifacts show lateral transfer, lack persistent trivial functional flaws, change dramatically over short periods of time, and operate cooperatively, not competitively. Other than having complex emergent properties, terrestrial life forms lack few similarities, especially features of human artifacts that we can identify as entailing from their intelligent origin.

More importantly, this sort of argument fundamentally misuses the evidentiary mode of argumentation. Showing the misuse is subtle and complicated, so I'll address it in my next post.


  1. You should be a teacher in Florida. They're teaching evolution as a theory now, you know.

  2. Evolution is a theory. Just a damn good one, without a good rebuttal.

    Oh, except that beauty is relative to a perfect beauty which implies a designer which means evolution, if it exists, must be guided which means you're wrong and god exists so there nyah.

    I don't think I'll ever be able to stop having fun with that one.

  3. Um, Kelly?

    Even if you are emotionally in love with evolution--it's still a theory. So the state board of education is simply trying to head off another potential, "flat earth" fiasco before Columbus sails the ocean blue.

  4. All of science comprises theories, Rob. Indeed every bit of human knowledge about the world, even the notion that there is a real world, is a scientific theory.

    There are only scientific theories, mathematics, and fantasies. If we want to be anything more than sessile plants, we need scientific theories.

    No the state board of education is simply trying to head off another potential, "flat earth" fiasco before Columbus sails the ocean blue.

    No, the Florida State Board of Education is trying to find a way to fraudulently indoctrinate students in religious belief in direct contravention to the First Amendment to the Constitution. See Selman v. Cobb:

    Claiming that evolution is "only a theory" without explaining that a scientific theory is a "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena" and thus different from "theory" as understood in a colloquial sense to signify "conjecture", "speculation" or "opinion" is a common creationist tactic.

    After a trial, the sticker was found by Federal District Judge Clarence Cooper to violate the establishment clause of the US Constitution. However, this was overturned on a technicality by appeals court, who sent it back to the original district court. It was then settled out of court. ... Cobb County school officials [agreed that they] will not order the placement of "any stickers, labels, stamps, inscriptions, or other warnings or disclaimers bearing language substantially similar to that used on the sticker that is the subject of this action" and would not undermine science education in the future.

    (See also Kitzmiller v. Dover)

    You're a good American and you support the Constitution, don't you, Rob? You're free to argue to repeal the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, but to simply ignore the Constitution seems un-American.

  5. Hey Barefoot, couple funny lines in your post about Animism -- "imagine my surprise when, after the conflation between biogenesis and evolution and incoherent babbling about chance and causality, I stumble upon an actual point" <-- See, you're funny when you want to be.

    However, as they say, every joke has a grain of seriousness in it so Iran some of our dialogs past my 10 year old and he seemed to find all kinds of actual points. He just kept asking why you answered some and ignored others.

    Funny lines continued..."It's a property our minds ascribe to aggregations of matter that do particular things, things like move around, reproduce, use energy in a particular way, etc." <-- This has to be humor, right? Or at least a movement from the scientific, as you say, to the philosophical. Life is a little bit more of a problem than to simply say our minds just give the term "life" to animated matter."

    But, ok, I'll go with that simplistic statement and rephrase the problem.

    Why can't evolutionists just animate matter?!

  6. See, you're funny when you want to be.

    I'm a funny guy, but looks aren't everything.

    Why can't evolutionists just animate matter?!

    Here, catch.

  7. Rob Singleton2/20/08, 11:57 AM

    Absolutely, I'm for the constitution.

    Simply show me how calling evolution what it is -- a theory not a fact (not taking the teaching out of schools) does anything near what you suggest. The state board of Florida is not putting ID teaching in schools with this motion -- just keeping slick talkers honest.

    A better pursuit for you and your commenter would be to prove it to be any more than a theory then we can relabel it.

    Until then...

    It's a theory...

    Actually, it's a religion for some of you.

  8. P.S. Funniest thing you've said to date;

    "Here, catch."

    My wife and I cracked up at that. But she still had a question...

    "How do evolutionists get life from nothing?"

    I agree, they can't answer it, nor can creationists prove God scientifically (although I think they make a better case for all we see than "natural selection.")

    Not to over simplify (but, heck, why not -- much of this has been over complicated already) too much but the whole debate is like 2 groups (one led by you the other by me) discovering that Van Gogh I mentioned several days ago.

    Your group: "This arrived here over trillions of years of natural processes. The lessor art works were not able to survive, here you have the survival of the Van Gogh -- appearing before us in all its intricate detail by mere chance.

    My Group: "It's a nice painting. Must have had a painter."

  9. Why can't evolutionists just animate matter?!

    Cuz then they'd be robotics engineers?

  10. Simply show me how calling evolution what it is -- a theory not a fact

    What's objectionable is singling out Evolution as somehow different from all the other scientific theories that we teach in science class: physics (force, momentum, inertia), gravitation, astronomy, biology.

    You yourself show that you don't really understand that "scientific theory" means a coherent body of statements and not unsupported conjecture. As long as the meaning of "theory" is accurately communicated, I have no problem at all calling evolution a theory (or a collection of theories).

    Actually, it's a religion for some of you.

    Not unless you're willing to stretch the meaning of "religion" to the point of vacuity. Religion requires faith: belief without sufficient evidence. The evidence is there for evolution.

    How do evolutionists get life from nothing?

    We don't. We get life from chemistry. No scientific proponent of evolution believes that the first life form appeared ex nihilo. It's just already-existing chemicals getting more and more complicated.

    "It's a nice painting. Must have had a painter."

    It's a lot easier to make specious assertions entirely unsupported by arguments than it is to actually rebut such egregious bullshit.

    That's what pisses me off the most about you, Rob. You make gross, intellectually dishonest oversimplifications and outright lies and count on the audience to fall asleep before they can be rebutted.

  11. rob’s rant,

    Rather than Paley’s Wat--…er… a “Van Gogh” Painting, you may be interested in this parable regarding the comparison of evolution (NOT natural abiogenesis) and creationism I found and posted here.


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