XFiles Friday: Mount Rushmore and the Man in the Moon

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 5)

One of the common criticisms you hear of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion is that Dawkins isn’t really qualified to talk about religion because he doesn’t have a doctorate in theology and philosophy. Christian apologists like Geisler and Turek, however, feel no qualms about reversing things and lecturing us about how science should be done, despite their obvious lack of training in the field.

That raises an important question: if we can’t directly observe the past, then what scientific principles can we use to help us discover what caused the first life? We use the same principles that are utilized every day in our criminal justice system—forensic principles.

“Divide and conquer” is an attack strategy used to overcome a stronger enemy, and it’s not surprising that Christian apologists would seek to use this kind of tactic against science. Unconquered science has always been at odds with gullible faith.

But the fact of the matter is, the scientific method is still the scientific method, undivided, and unconquered. Creationists try to create separate categories for “observational” science versus “forensic” science, so that they can claim that the latter is unreliable and ought to be given no greater weight than their own superstitious origin-of-life scenarios. But the fundamental scientific principle is the same: truth is consistent with itself, whether you’re making observations in a laboratory that are (or are not) consistent with the hypothesis, or whether you’re observing the past through a telescope, looking for observations that are (or are not) consistent with the hypothesis. These are not separate, alternative branches of science called “observational” and “forensic.” It’s all just science.

Let’s watch as Geisler and Turek try and make it sound like “forensic” science is unreliable.

The central principle in forensic science is the Principle of Uniformity, which holds that causes in the past were like the causes we observe today. In other words, by the Principle of Uniformity, we assume that the world worked in the past just like it works today, especially when it comes to causes. If “Take out the garbage—Mom” requires an intelligent cause today, then any similar message from the past must also require an intelligent cause. Conversely, if natural laws can do the job today, then the Principle of Uniformity would lead us to conclude that natural laws could do the job in the past.

Perhaps you were not taught any “Principle of Uniformity” in school? If so, that’s most likely because there’s no such thing. The concept sounds vaguely like uniformitarianism, which holds that the laws and processes of nature have operated consistently in both the past and the present. But notice the subtle biases Geisler and Turek saddle the concept with: it’s now the “central” principle in “forensic” science, and it focuses on the notion that the same causes must have operated in the past as the causes we see today. Not just the same natural laws and principles, but the same causes, e.g. intelligent agents versus natural laws. This is stacking the deck again, because they want to say that “forensic” science is less reliable, but just in case it isn’t, they want to say that “forensic” science assures us that we must be the product of Intelligent Design.

And what would Intelligent Design be without an appeal to the Mount Sinai of the ID movement: Rushmore!

Now consider another geologic formation: Mount Rushmore. What caused it? Common sense tells us that we would never suggest that the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore were the result of natural laws. Erosion couldn’t have done that. Our “common sense” is actually the Principle of Uniformity. Since we never observe natural laws chiseling a highly detailed sculpture of a president’s head into stone at the present time, we rightly conclude that natural laws couldn’t have done it in the past, either.

So our naive intuition is actually a “scientific” principle called the Principle of Uniformity! How cool is that? But the scientific question (and the question that Geisler and Turek fail to ask) is how can we know objectively whether or not our intuitive, “common sense” conclusion is actually correct? And therein lies the rub, because while Mount Rushmore is an easy case (since we know its history), other “face” and “head” shapes do occur naturally, and quite a few man-made sculptures do appear rough, crude, and eroded. Not that it isn’t fine art, of course, but it does tend to complicate the process of distinguishing between the natural and the artificial.

What about the Man in the Moon? Common sense also tells us there is a face visible in our largest natural satellite–distorted and monochrome, but a recognizable face. Does this also require an Intelligent Designer? Geisler and Turek don’t mention the Man in the Moon because this presents them with a bit of a problem. On the one hand, we know (now) that the “face” was produced by the pattern of impact craters and other natural processes. On the other hand, the Intelligent Designer is supposed to have created everything. And isn’t it rather spooky the way that face never turns away? I mean, it’s like it’s sending us subliminal messages about an unblinking, all-seeing Watcher looking down on us from the heavens. Is it really so implausible (from a creationist perspective) to suppose that the Man in the Moon is also intelligently designed for a specific, devotional purpose?

The best that “ID theory” can do is to suggest the question: there are no tools in the ID toolbox that equip us to make a non-naive, non-subjective, non-intuitive determination of the actual facts. Certainly, this so-called “Principle of Uniformity” does not equip us to do so. In fact this so-called “Principle” is used mainly to distract people from seeking objective and verifiable answers.

Natural laws have never been observed to create a simple message like “Drink Coke,” much less a message 1,000 encyclopedias long.

Why then do Darwinists come to the conclusion that the first life generated spontaneously from nonliving chemicals without intelligent intervention? Spontaneous generation of life has never been observed.

First of all, as we saw previously, Geisler and Turek have shipwrecked their own theory by labeling DNA as a “message,” because if DNA is a message, and new DNA messages are routinely generated by ordinary natural laws and processes every time sexual reproduction occurs in any species, then clearly they are not telling the truth when they claim that natural laws have not been observed to produce messages.

Secondly, while their question was intended to be rhetorical, it does have an answer, and a pretty scientific one at that. Scientists believe that living systems arose from non-living (and pre-living) systems, because that conclusion happens to be consistent with the properties and behaviors we observe in organic molecules. If life were something magical that needed to be intelligently created, we ought to expect that there would be a clean break between living structures and non-living structures. But there isn’t. We have viruses and prions and other naturally-occurring processes that, in some ways resemble life processes, and in other ways do not. We have DNA “messages” that aren’t simply arbitrary arrangements of symbols, but whose structure and function arise as a natural result of their intrinsic electrostatic properties and the way they bond, repel, fold, and interact. And so on.

Geisler and Turek don’t want to know the answers. They want to divide up science into smaller, more vulnerable subdomains that can be isolated from one another and dismissed in favor of mock-rhetorical questions and naive, “common sense” intuitions and superstitions. Christianity and Intelligent Design cannot tell us whether or not the Man in the Moon was as designed as Mount Rushmore—not in any objective and verifiable way, at least. Geisler and Turek merely invite us to assume that our own naive perceptions are the Truth, and that the scientists who have actual expertise in this area are all just wrong.

But don’t let Dawkins turn around and make any critiques about religion. After all, you wouldn’t want anybody speaking outside their area of expertise.

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