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Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 21 & 22

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 21, St. Augustine; St. Thomas and Chapter 22, Twelve Earthy Salts.

Chapter 21

A common creationist tactic these days is to ask, 'Were you there?' in regard to discussions of an ancient planet. This passage from McCann certainly reminds me of this tactic.

Professor Osborn does not know. Mr. Bryan does not know. St. Augustine did not know. Nobody ever knew. Each of us is permitted to speculate to our heart's content but none of us may ask another to accept an inference as a FACT. St. Augustine himself has no power to command acceptance of his suggested theory of evolution. (McCann 268)

Just for reference, here's the Talk Origins response to these types of arguments. I've also covered it in detail in my essay, Confidence in Historical Knowledge. Basically, we infer the truth through evidence, no matter where the evidence comes from. This is how we determine the truth of anything, not just past events. After all, it's not as if anybody has seen the Earth orbiting the Sun, but all the evidence certainly indicates that it does. Direct observation is certainly not a requirement for considering something true (and given the cognitive biases we're prone to, direct observation isn't always even a suitable condition for considering something true).

Chapter 22

I'd be rather hesitant to cite Arthur Conan Doyle in discussions on superstition.

Even H. G. Wells limits his bold assurances concerning man's origin to man's body. He avoids discussion of the origin of man's soul, as if the soul might not be mentioned among intellectuals for fear of incurring the charge of superstition, yet A. Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, and a host of others classified as intellectuals suffer no timidity when, as spiritists, they proceed to their demonstrations of the survival of the soul after the body and the persistence of life beyond the here into the hereafter. (McCann 269)

The Cottingley Fairy incident certainly hasn't helped Doyle's reputation in these matters. I also wouldn't be including seances as evidence for an afterlife, when so many mediums have been shown to be frauds taking money from people in distress (or, at the very least, convinced of what they were doing based on very poor evidence).

McCann even had an early version of the tornado in a junkyard creating a 747.

If the living body, after death, is reduced to these twelve earthy salts, it certainly does follow that it was composed of them, but it does not follow that it came into existence out of them spontaneously. Otherwise a ship which is wrecked and broken up into firewood should have no orderly design or efficient workmanship behind it, but rather should have sprung into existence automatically out of a lumber pile. (McCann 269-270)

These arguments are just silly. Nobody suspects that the first life was very complex at all - just complex enough to self replicate. And there are plenty of hypotheses as to how it could have come about. I'll just direct readers to Talk Origins on this one.

Ah - an argument from consequences.

The Soulless THING!

Confronting the phenomenon of free will, they are obliged either to admit the existence of the soul or to deny free will entirely. They argue that: psychical energy is merely mechanical energy and thoughts are nothing more than the movement of atoms. It is futile, therefore, to struggle against crime on the ground that the exercise of free will, which doesn't exist, can make choice between good and evil. There is no good or evil, they say, but whatever they say there is much evidence to prove that the idea of the futility of struggle against crime flows naturally out of contempt for the soul and free will.

If man regards himself as nothing more than a highly developed ape and is convinced that he must inevitably yield to the impulses inherited from the ape, however gross, it is not difficult for him to find comfortable justification for any act or any crime that he can commit without discovery. (McCann 270-271)

First of all, consequences have no bearing on the truth of an idea. For example, nuclear weapons may be terrible, and the suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been horrible, but nobody would ever think those bad consequences are an indication that nuclear physics is wrong.

Second, I've never understood this line of argument. As far as morality, it doesn't matter where we came from, but what we are. We know our actions have an effect on the others around us, and we know that others experience feelings just like us, so that's why we try to behave in a way that doesn't harm others.

McCann also underestimates the morality of our fellow apes. This time, I'll link readers to a different article from Frans de Wall, Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior.

The issue of free will, though, is an interesting question, as is how our understanding of it should affect laws and how to treat criminals. But first, people have to define what they actually mean by free will. Surprisingly, I seldom see people present a cogent definition that doesn't rely on intuition.

Definitions aside, we have to ask ourselves if the purpose of courts and jails is strictly for punishment and vengeance, or if the ultimate goal is a safe society. I would go with the latter, which makes the justification for jails clear even if free will is only an illusion. If people behave violently, you must isolate them from the rest of the population to keep society safe. If the threat of being jailed acts as a deterrent, then that's an additional method by which they safeguard society.

There's actually a very interesting discussion of this issue at the website* Why Evolution Is True, in the entry titled Free will, the brain, and the law.

There's not much significance to this quote, except that I think 'monkeyfied' is pretty funny.

Of course if there is no God, and no soul, and no free will, and nothing but a monkeyfied descent from the lemur, then it follows that conscience itself is a mere movement of atoms; that it cannot hold in check man's greed or his lust, his passions or his nameless instincts. (McCann 271)

This doesn't make logical sense. Even if free will were necessary, you have to jump from free will to a soul, and then even worse, from free will to a god. How does McCann make a god a necessary precondition for the existence of souls?

The following reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA - non-overlapping magisteria.

Science admits that it can find no cause of life existing upon this earth. Philosophy interrupts to remind science that the cause of life is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one, and that the cause of life must be looked for outside the earth. The creation of matter, the creation of life and the creation of the mind of man, of his intelligent soul, are not zoological problems. (McCann 274)

This stance has always bothered me. Practically nothing is outside of scientific investigation, especially those questions that have objectively true answers (for subjective answers, science can at least give us statistics on how many people feel a certain way about something, or inform our decisions with the full facts). If we threw up our hands in the air every time something seemed too mysterious and left it up to the philosophers, we wouldn't know a thing about quantum physics or dark matter. (I've covered this issue of science being the best method of answering objective questions in the entry, 'Scientific' Facts.)

The origin of life definitely happened somehow. There's an objectively true answer to how it happened, meaning that it's open to scientific investigation. Philosophers can still ponder what the significance of the origin of life might be, but their ponderings are baseless if they're not grounded in evidence.

*According to practically everyone else, Why Evolution Is True would be called a blog. But its author, Jerry Coyne, insists on calling it a website.


Proceed to Chapter 23

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