“I don’t understand” is not equal to “Not True”

A little while ago, I wrote a post about the book “Divinity of Doubt” by Vincent Bugliosi. I’m very happy that Bugliosi’s book exists as I think one of the things frequently missing from the atheist/theist debate is agnosticism.

I’m not happy with Bugliosi’s reasoning on several points, however. While he spends much of the book railing against the seemingly nonsensical beliefs of Christians (I’m with him there), he also spends some time criticizing atheists. He’s writing a defense of agnosticism and as such, that is entirely appropriate. My issue is with how he structures his arguments.

He devotes one chapter to evolution and his problems with evolution. His problem with evolution, however, springs completely from a near complete failure to understand evolution.

For instance, he says:

It is well known that Darwin’s theory has been accepted by the scientific community as one about which there can no longer be any reasonable doubt. In other words, his theory has been accepted as fact by most scientists on how man evolved and they therefore reject the notion that God created man. Although they may be right, I can say that viscerally I find it difficult to conceptualize the notion of bacteria evolving into Mozart or, for that matter, any human.

Later, he goes on to question, as so many creationists have, the issue of transitional fossils:

As the New York Times observes, “The Known Fossil Remains of man’s anscestors would fit on a billiard table. That makes a poor platform from which to peer into the mists of the last few million years.” ….if man’s search for his definitive anscestry has so far been in vain, is the reason that he has none?

I’m going to ignore the fact that the quote from the Times is wrong because that is hardly the focus of my objection to his almost completely unscientific response to the question of evolution.

His basic argument is based on an inability to wrap his head around how natural selection works. He claims to have read several books on the subject but reading them is not the same as understanding them. Similarly, a failure to understand natural selection is not the same thing as proving it wrong.

You can’t understand how we went from single celled organism to Mozart? How about from a single celled organism to a multiple celled one?

If that is too hard for you, how about accepting that biologists know more about how evolution works than you do?

I took physics in college and I was pretty good at it. For the first several tests of the term, I had the high score for the class by a pretty good margin. Then we got to fluid dynamics.

Man, I could not get my head around fluid dynamics. I thought I understood it but no amount of study time and homework would result in the correct answer. I just bombed that section of the class. It was embarassing.

I can’t recall a moment during that class that I figured the problem was with fluid dynamics. I didn’t say to myself “well, I can’t get my head around this stuff so everything this physics professor is saying must be wrong.”

Saying such a thing in response to a physics professor is ridiculous. Saying it in response to a biology professor is commonplace.

For some bizarre reason, Bugliosi cites a 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll in which 2/3rds of Americans do not believe in evolution. There was a time not so long ago when more than 2/3rds of the civilized world believed the Earth was flat. Scientific fact is not a popularity contest.

The refuge of the creationist (and in at least one instance – the agnostic) is the idea that we humans are just too complicated to have happened by random chance.

As Jerry Coyne points out in his excellent book “Why Evolution is True,” natural selection is not random. Natural selection is the process by which genes that provide an organism with the best chance of survival are selected in favor of other genes that do not. This process is not random.

Coyne points out that the creationist argument regarding transitional fossils (also aped by Bugliosi) is complete bunk. We may not have a huge number of transitional fossils but we have a lot. More importantly, if we look at a particular date in the fossil record, we find exactly the kind of fossils we expect.

I’m not a biologist but the basic idea here is that – say – somewhere between a fossil of a prehistoric fish and the fossil of an early land animal we ought to be able to look into the fossil record and find evidence of some sort of amphibious creature. That is the theory that can be tested if we know the age of the rock that held the fish and the age of the rock that held the land animal.

When a biologist has information like this and goes looking for their transitional form in the rock that is older than the rock with the fish and younger than the rock with the land animal, they almost always find what they are looking for.

If they don’t, it is typically because there aren’t any well preserved fossils in that strata of rock. We could assume that is a point where god meddled or we could note that making fossils is actually pretty hard to do and if the climactic conditions aren’t right, we could see a gap of a few million years because there just aren’t that many fossils from that time period.

The entire argument is an argument from ignorance. A failure to understand a process does not discredit the process.

I don’t really understand how cars work. Does that mean I can’t drive? My failure to understand the human digestive system has not yet resulted in an inability to digest food.

Arguing that god might exist because you don’t understand evolution is nonsensical. Do I need to understand every step between a single celled bacteria and Mozart for evolution to be true? No.

The logic doesn’t follow. Why is it that we are so willing to accept the word of geologists (Bugliosi doesn’t question geologists’ claim that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old), cosmologists and physicists but the field of biology is the one that is open to second guessing by people who don’t know what they are talking about?

It is one thing to be an agnostic. It is another to support your agnosticism through ignorance. Moreover, the arguments can be used support a radical fringe who are much worse because they don’t misunderstand the evidence, they ignore it.

About Petsnakereggie

Geek, movie buff, dad, musician, comedian, atheist, liberal and writer. I also really like Taco flavored Doritos.

3 responses to ““I don’t understand” is not equal to “Not True””

  1. Albatross says :

    Part of what frustrates me about the creationist line, apart from what you’ve observed, is their blithe dismissal of billions. Of years.

    The human brain is arguably incapable of encompassing numbers greater than about 150. After that it mentally becomes ‘a lot.’

    So attempting to grasp the concept that the planet Earth has basked in the sunshine for BILLIONS of years is understandably difficult. And further grasping that the oceans of Earth were full of a Saganplex (billions of billions) of cubit meters of amino-acid infused water for most of that time is even harder. And the idea that each cubic meter of that water was a little laboratory for a Saganplex of randomized exothermic chemical reactions for that entire time is increasingly impossible.

    But the idea that out of that impossible laboratory there finally emerged a bilipid bubble containing self-replicating amino-acid chains that began what we call life… given those conditions is nearly inevitable.

    But because creationists can’t, and won’t, try to understand what all those billions mean when rolled together. the rest of us are supposed to obey their anthropomorphized projections in the sky instead, and teach fables as fact to our kids.

  2. chris says :

    First of all, the quote from the NY Times is correct. Here is the entire quote:

    “In 1978 Mary Leakey discovered at Laetoli in Kenya a fossilized trail of 70 humanlike footprints marked out some 3.7 million years ago. But with this notable exception, the known fossil remains of man’s ancestors would fit on a billiard table. That makes a poor platform from which to peer into the mists of the last few million years from which the hominid line suddenly emerged.”

    The point being made is that, although many fossils are produced and touted as evidence, few actually pass true peer review scrutiny. So on this point, VB is correct to quote the NYT.

    Second, it’s a bit disingenuous for you to agree without hesitation VB’s disemboweling of religion but to find so many faults with his treatment of atheism (although you clearly state that you are an atheist, I thought you might be a bit more even handed). Regarding his comments on the New Age atheists, VB brings up points and observations that few others seem willing to do, giving the likes of Richard Dawkins and his ilk a free ride. Dawkins is very careful about who he will debate because his arguments cannot survive in the light of day.

    Regarding VBs critique of religion:

    Organized traditional cultural religion not only does not best represent who and what God is, but actually leads people further from the truth.

    For example, you cannot find a Christian who is not convinced that they are going to heaven for their eternal reward in a mansion, but this concept is not biblically supported. Actually, according to John’s Revelations, God intends to leave the heavens and live on the earth with Man. There are many such erroneous non-scriptural concepts taught by religion for hundreds of years.

    It’s difficult to find fault with VB’s diatribe. He is extremely well-read and did considerable research for his book. After reading it (several times) I found myself saying “yeah, you’re right, but…”

    The big problem with VB’s book is that, while his research was quite broad, it was not very deep. He refuted what organized religion interrupted the Bible to say, rather than conducting real biblical research. For example, Vince makes a big deal out of the fact that there are two dissimilar genealogies for Jesus. The reason that the genealogies for Jesus in the New Testament do not match or add up the same is because one is for Joseph and one is for Mary. Both are from David but Mary is not a descendent of Solomon.

    A little digging would show many more examples but even this one demonstrates his lack of true scholarship. It’s a shame. The book could have been more than it was. But in the end, it becomes only another straw man.

    Atheism spends most of its time attacking its favorite whipping boy – religion – but has never yet been able to provide proof of its belief in no God. How is this different from another religion? VB is most reasonable to take a agnostic path.

    • Petsnakereggie says :

      A few points. I don’t believe the NYT was quoted incorrectly, I believe that the quote is not entirely correct.

      Second, I stated that I agree with his opinions about religion, which is a statement of fact. I don’t entirely agree with the structure of his arguments. There is nothing disingenuous in stating that I agree with part of his point of view but not all of it.

      I don’t like his arguments against religion any more than I like his arguments against atheism (or – in this post – his arguments against evolution). I simply happen to agree with his opinion.

      You call me out here when I am not, in fact, disagreeing with his arguments about atheism. I’m disagreeing with his arguments about evolution.

      Finally, I find the statement “atheism is just another religion” to be tiresome and born of ignorance. It is not the same thing at all. If you read my other post on VB’s book, you would know that I acknowledge that there is, to my way of thinking, no conclusive way to disprove the existence of god. However, I feel the chances of god’s existence are so remote that calling myself an agnostic is really just splitting hairs.

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