Thursday, December 22, 2011


Stories, like the one in this link, sometimes get passed around as emails, sometimes appear on science vs. religion web sites, or sometimes actual people try them out. They are pretty crazy, but if you haven’t thought about them much, they can almost sound plausible.

It is a made up story where a student outsmarts a professor, but I would like to cover what would most likely happen in real life. This may be elementary for some, but hopefully a good exercise for others. I’ll even skip the part about the professor taking an attitude that he knows everything and his students are just empty vessels that need his wisdom. Certainly there are professors like that, just as there are priests like that. Fortunately, either one of them leaning into a student’s face and challenging them is becoming more and more rare.

The first argument that silences the professor and the class would not stump even the most elementary of philosophers. Terms such as “cold” are abstractions. If you want to get scientific about it, hot and cold are properties that are expressions of temperature. The OTHER STUDENT is right, “cold” is not really a scientific term. Temperature is relative. Cold to a person is hot to a polar bear. None of that matters. If the student has demonstrated anything, it is that some words are abstractions. I’m sure the philosopher would agree that “god” is a word that expresses something that is difficult to express. The same goes for the terms “light” and “dark”.

The next argument is at least two arguments meshed together and that mixing of arguments continues from here on. The OTHER STUDENT claims the professor is working on the premise of duality. What he then describes is actually a logical fallacy called a false dichotomy. The professor is somewhat guilty of that. A false dichotomy presents two options, God exists or he doesn’t, demonstrates one of those is false, or can’t be proven, and concludes the other must be true. This leaves out the possibility of any other options or of either option being partially true. Philosophy professors love playing with these possibilities, so it is unlikely one would act like the one in this story.

Before discussing any of this, the OTHER STUDENT has already moved on to using a lack of scientific knowledge as proof. Specifically, science has yet to map a thought, or even understand exactly what one is. That only proves that we don’t know everything. To leap from there to believing that there is a powerful being behind creation is no argument at all. That form of argument is called “the argument from ignorance”, when faced with a lack of knowledge, make something up that is simple and easy to digest and claim that it is true. He then tries another abstraction about “life” and “death”.

Without taking a breath, he moves on to immorality and fires a couple more abstractions. In the story this puts the PROFESSOR on his heels, in reality the PROFESSOR would be thinking, “abstraction, abstraction, abstraction”. He would also be thinking about how “good” and “evil” can’t be used as properties in the same way that “hot” and “cold” are. But thinking he has the PROFESSOR in a corner, he pulls out the Bible. He needs it, because he is entering another area that science has not figured out, free will. He will need an authority to support anything he says about that and Biblical teaching relies on free will extensively. The OTHER STUDENT tries to use his “some things only exist as the absence of some other thing” argument and say the existence of immorality proves God’s existence, but this is so unbelievably flawed, that he needs to throw in a new question before the PROFESSOR can respond. In a classroom, or just about anywhere, that would be addressed.

Instead, the OTHER STUDENT is allowed to go on with more questions about whether or not evolution has ever been observed. It of course has been observed. One of the first accounts is by Aristotle who noticed hair color being passed on from one generation to the next. Darwin used the long observed practice of breeding dogs for desired traits as part of his research. Since Darwin, more and more transitional species have been observed in the fossil record. Darwin could not explain a mechanism, but Watson and Crick did. Since then observations of DNA have demonstrated how evolution occurs. High School students breed fruit flies in test tubes and observe the traits being passed on from generation to generation. The OTHER STUDENT apparently requires seeing something like a monkey begin to talk, as in the latest installment of the Planet of Apes series, as the only possible evidence for evolution. This discussion never happens in the story because the PROFESSOR is turning red and making sucking sounds through his teeth.

As an aside, humans did not evolve from the monkeys that we see in zoos today. Both of us evolved from a common ancestor a few hundred million years ago, some little furry butted thing that might have looked like a lemur. It is actually worse than monkeys. Before the lemur, we were fish and before that we were vegetables.

This leads to the crescendo, where the OTHER STUDENT proclaims, “SCIENCE IS FLAWED”. His final proof, a good joke that a 4th grade boy might be able to pull off on his little brother, but would never get past a PROFESSOR. The idea that the PROFESSOR has no brain because no one has ever observed it. Instead of teaching children that these kinds of jokes can be used as serious arguments in a university setting, we should be teaching them how we know things. It is this very flaw in arguing that leads to millions of dollars being invested in museums that show people in robes and sandals running around with dinosaurs.

We begin with our five senses, but we need a lot more than that to fully understand the universe. When Galileo extended our ability to see, he figured out that some of the lights in the sky were planets and we could finally fully understand why they moved the way they did. When we figured that things fit patterns that could be explained with formulas, we also figured out that those formulas could help explain things that we couldn’t observe directly. Epistemology is really pretty interesting, something you might learn at a university. Or just look it up.

Just as a simple example, here’s how we know the PROFESSOR has a brain. First we rely somewhat on the authorities. Just a few hundred years ago, people still accepted that Aristotle was right, and the brain was there to cool the blood. Emotions came from the heart or the gut, thoughts came from the soul. Now we point to our heads when we say “think” and little children pick this up and never question that it is the center of our nervous system. We accept that everyone needs a brain to remain an upright, walking, talking person. The PROFESSOR does not appear to be a robot, a hologram, a figment of our imagination or anything other than a real person. We accept that the university had some sort of process to determine that he was intelligent enough to teach the class. All of this would require a brain. So, barring any far fetched notions and implausible scenarios, he has one. If as a philosophy student, you want to argue that is not 100% positive proof, that’s fine, and exactly what philosophy is all about. As a proof that science is flawed, it is a misunderstanding of science.

Even if all of the other arguments of the OTHER STUDENT were accepted as sound, in the end, he has only proved that the existence of God cannot be disproved. Some scientists would argue that when enough evidence has been examined, a lack of evidence constitutes proof. We don’t really need to go there. We can at least say that there is not enough evidence to constitute a valid theory of God. Assuming we agree on the understanding of what a valid theory is. I’ll leave that for later.


  1. Great analysis!

    I also found the cartoon interesting. I have heard that argument before -- i.e. the argument there are two kinds of evolution, micro and macro, and that only micro has been observed. Of course, the definition of micro as "changes within kinds" begs the question of how to define "kind". I have not yet seen a proponent of that notion provide an adequate definition of a "kind".

  2. I'm assuming they mean "species" and I assume they are assuming that different species are defined by some inability to create offspring or something. The trouble is "species" is not that well defined, except at some point everyone agrees to name things as different species, and sometimes new facts arise and those names change. This is fodder for creationists. As are terms like "micro" and "macro" that are nearly 100 years old and not used much. Evolution is a process, the small steps lead to the big differences, any dividing line is arbitrary.

  3. I at first assumed they meant "species", too. But I learned they mean something different. A "kind" can include several species. For instance, dogs and wolves are both members of the same kind.

    Consequently, they allow that wolves can evolve into dogs, since they are members of the same kind. But apes cannot evolve into humans since apes and humans are not members of the same kind.

    A friend of mine -- a biologist -- pointed out a problem with their notion of a kind. The problem, in a nutshell, is they are unable to define "kind" in any way that makes biological sense. In other words, the categories are arbitrary.

  4. I was never very good at that Kingdom, Class, Phylum, Order thing either. But "Kind" is definitely not a sciencey term. The critical word here is "observed". He then follows up, that direct observation is a requirement for science. What he is really saying is, if he can't see it, he can't understand. That would really limit what we are able to know. For millions of years it limited us to not knowing that we were on a planet floating in a vast universe.