Evolution, God of the Gaps, and Fine Tuning

Thought I would respond to some more excerpts from Gnu activist Jerry Coyne’s new book. I got these excerpts from a fanboy review on Amazon.com

He argues, “evolution doesn’t show the signs of teleological guidance or directionality proposed by theistic evolutionists. Evolutionary biologists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march culminating in humans.”

Here it all depends on what one is looking for when it comes to teleological guidance or directionality. After all, teleological guidance or directionality does not necessarily mean inevitable. Thus, that biologists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march culminating in humans, is not all that relevant to the issue of teleology and evolution. Look at it this way. Let’s say that you have figured out a way to rig a poker game such that you are more likely to win. The tricks that you used to rig the game are examples of guidance or directionality. But does that mean it should now be inevitable that you win every hand? Of course not. Similarly, evolution itself might have been rigged to make it simply more likely that humans would eventually evolve. Maybe it was just rigged to make it more likely metazoans would emerge. That itself would be sufficient for establishing a teleological aspect to evolution. Whether this would count as evidence for God would be a separate question.

If one considers all species together, the AVERAGE complexity of organisms has certainly increased over the 3.5 billion years of evolution, but that’s just because life began as a simple replicating molecule, and the only way to go from there is to become more complex.” (Pg. 138-139)

A self-replicating molecule would not qualify as life, even if they ever did once exist. But that’s not the important point. Coyne is basically arguing that life forms have become more complex over time, on average, simply because they began as simple life forms. But this type of analysis if far too simplistic. For the first 2 billion years, the only life forms on this planet were prokaryotic – bacteria and archaebacteria. And there was no increase in complexity among the prokaryotes for almost 2 billion years (the majority of life history). So the logic Coyne cites does not hold for most of life’s history. As far as we can tell, the prokaryotes from 1.5 billion years ago were not much more structurally complex than the prokaryotes from 3.5 billion years ago. Then, something stunning happened – the one time origin of the eukaryotic cell through symbiosis. This event essentially entailed the “redesign” of the cell and this new cell had the potential to generate complex life forms, including the eventual appearance of animal life. Once animal life emerged (metazoans) sometime prior to 600 million years ago, we can toss out Coyne’s argument as it was no longer true that the only way to go from there is to become more complex. At that point, organisms could become simpler or more complex. All in all, evolution cannot be summarized in some simplistic formula of “start simple and there is no place to go but to become more complex.” Evolution is more interesting than that.

He admits, “But there are also difficult problems that science hasn’t yet explained—the origin of life and the biological basis of consciousness are two—and, given their difficulty, some may never be solved. These lacunae constitute openings for theology: opportunities to propose God as a solution. These are, of course, the famous `god of the gaps’ arguments… the problem of proposing a god as the solution to obstinate scientific puzzles is … science has a history of filling the gaps and displacing gods…” (Pg. 153)

So Coyne is arguing that even if the origin of life and the biological basis of consciousness are never solved and remain Gaps, they cannot be considered evidence for God because the God-of-the-Gaps argument has failed elsewhere. It would seem to me if Gaps are never filled, it would make them different from Gaps that have been filled. In fact, given the success of science at filling gaps, the places where success is lacking become more and more significant over time. It would suggest the gap filling procedure no longer applies. Of course, all of this is amusing given that Coyne tells us he would count Gaps as evidence for the existence of God (for example, his 900 foot tall Jesus).

He contends, “there are other explanations for fine-tuning that don’t invoke God. The simplest is that if we inhabit the only universe there is, we simply got lucky: that our universe had the right physical constraints to permit and support life as we know it… in the bridge game of cosmology, we drew a nearly perfect hand…

Sure. But I’m not sure why any theist is supposed to consider extreme luck a better explanation than God. After all, “we simply got lucky” is an unfalsifiable explanation that could be invoked for anything. If Coyne thinks we are obligated to eliminate such unlikely luck as an explanation, then the cards have been stacked such that theism is never allowed. Is it mere coincidence that an atheist activist would play it this way?

The odds of this are immensely increased, however, if there is more than one universe… The concept of a `multiverse’—many universes that are independent of one another—falls naturally out of several current and popular theories of physics, including string theory and the idea of cosmic inflation… Further, the constants of physics will differ among those universes. Given that, it becomes probable that some universes will have the right physical constants to allow life as we know it, and lo, we happened to evolve in one of those…

I don’t explore this topic much, but it would seem we need to know just how many other universes exist. If there are only a few thousand, I think we’re back to “getting lucky.” So does anyone know how many other universes exist?

Now, it’s not clear whether we can actually SHOW that there are multiple universes, for they might be undetectable from our own…

An unknown number of undetectable universes. I can understand how one can fall back on luck or advance the unknown number of undetectable universes in response to the fine-tuning argument, meaning that it fails as some type of proof, but I see no reason for thinking these are better explanations. In the end, it looks like we simply have a choice.

[But] even if multiverse theory is hard to test, the alternative `God theory’ is IMPOSSIBLE to test, for it makes no predictions.” (Pg. 163)

Duh. There is no such as the ‘God theory’ in science. Basically Coyne expects us theists to embrace Pure Luck or the Unknown Number of Undetectable Universes because God belief is…….not science. I’m so impressed.

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5 Responses to Evolution, God of the Gaps, and Fine Tuning

  1. jayman777 says:

    Some short thoughts:

    1. Is evolution directed towards the survival of the fittest? If so, that is directionality of some kind.

    2. How do we objectively determine simplicity/complexity?

    3. Chance or luck is not a cause. It is an admission of ignorance. When I say I drew a certain hand by luck it merely means I don’t know the exact chain of events that caused that hand. But the hand was caused by how the deck was shuffled, the decisions of other players, and so on.

  2. Dhay says:

    > [Jerry Coyne] argues, “evolution doesn’t show the signs of teleological guidance or directionality proposed by theistic evolutionists. Evolutionary biologists long ago abandoned the notion that there is an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march culminating in humans.”

    I’m probably nit-picking, but for a hard determinist like Coyne, for whom the state of the universe this instant is entirely determined by its state eg one second ago, and that state entirely determined by its state eg one second previously, and so on and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang — for a hard determinist like Coyne the state of the universe one second ago, two seconds ago, one hundred thousand years ago, two billion years ago, four billion years ago, and even thirteen-odd billion years ago must inevitably result in the state of the universe at this very instant (and all future instants).

    Given an arbitrary or random set of starting conditions, I can agree with Coyne that there is no “inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march culminating in humans”.

    But Coyne should not, if his hard determinism is to be consistent, be claiming that: for a hard determinist like Coyne the starting conditions are not arbitrary but are wholly determined by the end-conditions — given one, the other is calculable or reverse-calculable; so given hard determinism, and with present-day complex life and humans at this end of the chain, the conditions at whenever time one arbitrarily chooses as the starting end must have been such as to inevitably end in present-day complex life and humans; and there must indeed have been “an inevitable evolutionary march toward greater complexity, a march culminating in humans.”

  3. TFBW says:

    Perhaps it is charitable to assume that Coyne is talking hypothetically in this case. That is, had the starting conditions of the universe been otherwise, humans may not have arisen. That is, humans — or life forms of similar complexity — are not an inevitable result of evolution, even given that life begins. That said, if the evolutionary march towards greater complexity is not inevitable, then it must have been either (a) significantly lucky or (b) the result of teleological guidance that humans arose in the case of our universe. In general, those who appeal to a naturalistic account of things also want to claim that there is nothing terribly unexpected about our universe, given the laws of physics as we know them, and claiming that evolution does entail an inexorable march towards greater complexity comports well with that model. I suppose that any needed quantity of luck can be invoked by appeal to the “many worlds” hypothesis, although such a conjuring act is a pretty flagrant departure from empirical science, and terribly selective in what it chooses to support with that endowment of good fortune.

  4. Dhay says:

    A recent reviewer on Amazon (22 June 2015) > As of this writing, 68% of reviews were 5 star – 68% of those who bought and read this book understood it! Hurray!

    For that reviewer it was ‘obvious’ that the said 68% gave the book five stars because they understood it. But did they understand the book? For all that that reviewer knows, some might have given it five stars precisely because they didn’t understand the book but were enthusiastic about its New Atheist tone; or because they did understand the book and its arguments but lacked sufficient knowledge of the issues it raises to be able to assess it in an informed and intelligent manner.

    I see that FvF has at present an average Amazon rating of 4.2 stars. To put this into perspective, Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods? has an average Amazon rating of 4.0 stars. Looks like Amazon reviewers rate the two books as pretty much equal to each other.

    There’s a range of possible reasons why Chariots of the Gods? should rate as high (or conversely as low) as it does; and the same range of possible reasons why FvF should rate as high (or conversely as low) as it does.

    Has anyone got some convincing special pleading why FvF should be esteemed a more serious book than Chariots of the Gods?, when it is rated only 0.2 stars higher?

  5. Dhay says:

    > Of course, all of this is amusing given that Coyne tells us he would count Gaps as evidence for the existence of God (for example, his 900 foot tall Jesus).

    Looks like like in FvF Jerry Coyne has updated what he would count as ‘Gap as evidence’; I quote this from Nick Peters’ Facebook page for 26 June 2015:

    So on pages 118-119, Coyne tells us that he too could be convinced of the Christian God? Oh. Well this is nice. What could it take?

    “The following (and admittedly contorted) scenario would give me tentative evidence for Christianity. Suppose that a bright light appeared in the heavens, and, supported by winged angels, a being clad in a white robe and sandals descended onto my campus from the sky, accompanied by a pack of apostles bearing the names given in the Bible. Loud heavenly music, with the blaring of trumpets, is heard everywhere. The robed being, who identifies himself as Jesus, repairs to the nearby university hospital and instantly heals many severely afflicted people, including amputees. After a while Jesus and his minions, supported by angels ascend back into the sky with another chorus of music. The heavens swiftly darken, there are flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and in an instant the sky is clear.

    If this were all witnessed by others and documented by video, and if the healings were unexplainable but supported by testimony from multiple doctors, and if all the apparitions and events conformed to Christian theology—then I’d have to start thinking seriously about the truth of Christianity.”

    Presented with that utterly extraordinary event or its like, Michael Shermer is on record as saying he would prefer the explanation that it was the doing of sufficiently technologically advanced extra-terrestrial aliens; I would, too; so why wouldn’t Coyne. My last response referred to Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, a book (rated very nearly as highly as Coyne’s) which claims on alleged evidentiary grounds that the ancient gods were spacemen: it’s quite plausible then, isn’t it, that in this scenario its just that these spacemen have arrived back and are having a laugh by taking the piss out of Jerry Coyne.

    So they should: Coyne demands (as merely “tentative evidence for Christianity”) that the second coming of Christ should be to Chicago, to his own university campus (of the many that Wiki lists in metropolitan Chicago), and within the presumably ten to thirty years of Coyne’s remaining lifetime; all the details must conform precisely (or perhaps with a little leeway) to Coyne’s stereotyped image of what should occur; Jesus must immediately pop into Coyne’s local hospital to heal amputees (whether or not he ever did so in Judea) in front of the cameras; despite the legs “instantly” regrown in front of the cameras, and despite patient and family testimony, Coyne still requires “multiple doctors” to testify to the new limbs; “after a while” — presumably as soon as Jesus has finished this publicity stunt, staged to provide “tentative evidence” to Coyne personally, probably within the hour — Jesus and his retinue will do nothing further except go back where they came from, leaving the world otherwise unchanged.

    To truly require a square circle, Coyne requires that all this (“all the apparitions and events”) must conform to Christian theology.

    Coyne recently got angry and dismissive with a “flea” who, after listening to a talk by Coyne, questioned Coyne’s knowledge of theology and his credentials; Coyne then claimed to have studied Christian theology for at least two years.

    On the evidence of the above quotation, and Coyne’s sophomoric blundering — actually, one expects anyone studying theology at university to arrive there already past the stage of making such stupid mistakes — evidently Coyne absorbed and understood very little during his more than two years of studying theology.

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