Thursday, April 23, 2009

Undoubtedly Beyond Any Reason

"Beyond a Reasonable Doubt" by Rabbi Shmuel Waldman

I am ashamed to admit that I read through most of this book in the past few days. I did so because a certain Rav with whom I have a very good relationship asked me to read through it. Yes, I'm being Kiruved, but being that he is a very reasonable man whose companionship I value, I acquiesced to his request. Admittedly he is naive in having me read this, but that's his business.

In any event, I must warn you before I launch into my Kefirotic tirade. I do so, because the author of the book himself warns against reading the book, or certain parts thereof, unless it's necessary. I'll paraphrase his warning, the gist of which is as follows:

"Since I will be talking about things which Chas V'Sholom can Chas V'Sholom bring one Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom to Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom doubt any part of the Holy Toira Chas V'Sholom Chas V'Sholom, I BS"D hope, and ask that only readers who already Lo Aleibu Chalila are having Chas V'Sholom d..d..oub..ts Chalila V'Chas V'Sholom Lo Aleinu open and read this book. If you've picked up this book, and you Baruch Hashem BS"D have no Sfeikois Cholilaa V'Chas about the holy Toira, I trust you will heed Daas Toira and drop this book, never to think of it again. So only those who Lo Aleinu Nebach Chas V'Sholom have a need to strengthen their Emuna against doubts Chas V'Sholom, are allowed to read this book."

This is the warning, and having paid homage to it (in the spirit of Satmar websites banning the Internet), we proceed to 'critique' this masterpiece. The first three chapters are the main points being made; proofs of God's existence, proofs to the Torah, and proofs that there is punishment and an afterlife. These chapters and an appendix 'disproving' the theory of evolution are the main thrust of the book. Other gems of 'proofs' include 'proving' Moshiach, and the resurrection of the dead. In addition there are chapters about the uniqueness of Klal Yisroel, it's survival in exile, and the 'right' attitude towards the holocaust. I only read through the first two chapters, and an appendix titled "The Downfall of the Theory of Evolution". More than that I couldn't read, I hope the readers will forgive me.

The first thing that struck me was the lack of command of the English language. It's written as if by a seventh grader. Now, I'm no professor of English, but a book of a few hundred pages should live up to some standards. Admittedly, a book shouldn't be judged by its cover or the writer's command of the language, it's content that matters, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth. Alas, on the content front, it was immeasurably worse. I can hear the readers murmuring to themselves, "what was he expecting? It's a Kiruv book for goodness sake". True, and as mentioned I wasn't expecting much, I was reading it as a courtesy to this Rav. But this one was worse than anything else. I've read other Kiruv (or similar) books, some of them at least try to sound a bit knowledgeable of the subject matter they're discussing. Of the two main topics in the book, the theory of evolution, and the Torah's historicity and circumstances of its origin, he knows so little as to not even realize the immensity of ignorance he has to hide.

Now to the subject matter.

The first chapter, titled "Compelling Evidence of a Creator" starts of with the usual examples of the intricately complex and wonderfully interwoven systems found in nature. The orange and the banana, how they turn ripe and acquire a bright color at the same time, thereby attracting animals, as if knowing how to do so. From that he goes onto the Venus fly trap, bats and their system of echolocation, the complexity of the human body and the brain etc. All of this to show that it's statistically impossible for any of these phenomena to arise randomly. I assume all the readers know that, so I won't go into explaining why he was destroying a straw man. Waldman also realizes that for those 'tainted' by the theory of evolution as he puts it, one needs more than just showing the impossibility of generating such complex systems randomly. He writes that he intentionally didn't discuss the theory of evolution in the first chapter and left it in the appendix, so that only those who (Nebach, Chas V'Sholom) are in need for such refutations read them.

So let's get to the appendix titled "The Downfall of the Theory of Evolution" and see if that gets us anywhere. He begins by differentiating between macroevolution and microevolution, how the latter occurs within a species, and the former leads to new species. Microevolution is an observed fact, but it doesn't necessarily lead to macroevolution, bla bla bla. Here we come to this piece of brilliance:
"It's interesting to note that in the 1980's many professional scientists decided to accept the facts as they saw them, and the facts clearly pointed to a God. So they developed the "anthropic principle" which suggests that the universe is "man-centered," created by God, with one of man's functions being the responsibility to recognize the amazing design that God put into the universe."
What!?!? Does he know what the anthropic principle is. Where did here about it? I know that some people use the anthropic principle to argue for intelligent design, but scientists "developing the anthropic principle... which suggests the universe is created by God, with one of man's functions being the responsibility to recognize the amazing design that God... " how ignorant can you be. He doesn't have a library in town? A computer? But no, there is still more. Another quote:
"(theory: the Random House dictionary tells us that this is an explanation that has not yet been proven true)"
Only ignoramuses use this definition of theory pertaining to evolution, any dictionary will use the theory of evolution as an example of a scientific system, proven by observations and experiments.

The two basic problems he has with evolution, are mutations and the fossil record. Mutations, he rightfully notes, are almost always harmful. The problem is that he doesn't understand that given enough time, natural selection will favor those rare beneficial mutations, which can evolve into new species. This he conspicuously fails to mention.
The fossil problem he divides in two. The first one is summed up in the following quote:
"Even in the lowest strata we find fossils of the most complex living forms which according to evolutionists couldn't have developed until a much later date."
This claim as far as I know is not true, Waldman himself only quotes one source, also a sign that he couldn't find much more than that, because he loves to quote these type of things.
If anyone has more information on this, please let me know.

The second part of the fossil argument, is the beloved gap problem. I actually do think that there is a problem here, namely that the gaps seem to be large in many cases. What I mean is that, unlike Waldman who doesn't know what he is talking about when he clamors for his bird with half a wing, something that would never happen for obvious reasons. What I'm talking about is that often there are large gaps between specimen, something that one should find less of if all species fossilize randomly. What Waldman doesn't mention is the rarity of fossilization, and how some species are only known from a few fossils, which mitigates (although I think doesn't eradicate) the gap problem.

The last point he discusses, is the age of the universe. Here we have another display of scholarship:
"It's also interesting to note that it has been shown that the methods that scientists use to date different material such as carbon dating, etc. have many inaccuracies."
I won't even discuss the nonsense this is based on, I think the readers are familiar with it, we all know that each of the dating methods are relatively accurate for their respective purposes. But this guy uses carbon dating inaccuracies to show the problem of dating the world as billions of years old. Does he even know what carbon dating is? Does he know anything about it except how to spell it? I'm afraid not.

I do think that the theory of evolution has its shortcomings. First and foremost, as far as I'm concerned it doesn't explain the origin of life. I know all the supposed tries to do so, but they don't cut it for me. I haven't seen anything close to a satisfying explanation of the rise of self replicating systems, life's building blocks. This though doesn't disprove the theory of evolution, it just shows that the theory is either lacking, or not yet fully understood. If someone is so sure as to the only solution to this problem being God, so be it. I think it may be the only solution for now, but it also may be an answer based on ignorance rather than knowledge, because otherwise evolution has too much behind it.
I also find it difficult at times to wrap my head around the idea that all of this complexity is a result of a blind mechanism. If someone feels that this also is only explainable by intelligent design, maybe. I have a suspicion it's unnecessary.
I think that an honest attempt to identify the shortcomings of the theory of evolution, based on a proper understanding of theory, would go only about as far as this paragraph. But obviously Waldman is writing a Kiruv book, and Chas V'Sholom that such a book be based on an actual understanding of science.

I think the post is already way longer than I originally intended, and I'm only half way through. I still didn't get to the real juicy part, chapter two: "The Divine Origin of the Torah." So stay tuned for that display of analytical thought.

20 comments:

Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein said...

You are a Minuval who is sullying the name of skeptics the world over. Surprising you got past the second page of such drivel...

Acher said...

I admit to my sins.
What can I do, I promised the man I'd read it, but once I read as much as I could, I had to get it off my chest. Hence the lengthy post.

Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein said...

I have had a realization recently about guys like this and arguments like these: They are looking for scientific certitude on issues of faith. We live in an age of science and empiricism which, I personally woul argue, do not exclude the Divine. But they are a completely seperate notion: In my opinion, evolution addresses the "How", but theology, philosophy, etc. address the "Why". So you can believe in God or not, but that is a separate issue from the science of the development of life. But when fundamentalists try to prove the "Why" at a scientific level, they only harm their own credibility with "rationalists". BTW, I love your depiction of the author's forewarnings... though I think you missed one "Chas V'Sholom".

Acher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Acher said...

Oy vey, Hashem Yishmerenu (Chas V'Sholom).

>In my opinion, evolution addresses the "How", but theology, philosophy, etc. address the "Why".

But don't you think that these are becoming bankrupt, if they even were ever viable. In other words, what makes you think there is a 'why'.

Hasidic Rebel said...

Good post. Re your own problem with evolution, I don't think that's an issue of evolutionary theory per se, since natural selection and adaptation don't apply (at least not in the conventional sense) to non-living molecular structures. I don't think evolution even purports to explain that puzzle, nor do I think it ever will.

The answer will most likely be found in a new theory that will synthesize a completely different set of observable data from that which led to Darwin's theory.

The Hedyot said...

This book might help. I just took it out from the NYPL.

Acher said...

HR,

Correct, the origin of life is not covered by evolutionary theory because it works through natural selection, which manifests itself on existing self replicating systems. Although, some have tried to explain the origin of life through similar methods. Regardless, what I mean is the self-evolving/random generation of life, as opposed to a directed/engineered explanation of it. I think that God may still be the only answer at the moment, but, I think it's an answer from ignorance rather than one based on knowledge. It's a last resort, in other words not really an answer.

Acher said...

>This book might helpHelp for what? Do you mean for a better general understanding of the theory of evolution (I could certainly use help there as well), or for a specific problem. From the amazon page I didn't see anything in the description talking about the origin of life. Or do you mean the fossil record: gaps, stratification?

Hasidic Rebel said...

Hedyot, I'm actually reading Coyne's book right now. It's a good read, written mostly in non-technical, layman-friendly language. But I don't like his polemical ax against Creationism; I believe science, when doing science, should remain dispassionate.

But it won't answer Acher's question on the origin of life. For that, try this one: Genesis: The scientific quest for the origin of life.

Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein said...

"But don't you think that these are becoming bankrupt, if they even were ever viable. In other words, what makes you think there is a 'why'."

I am not arguing whether or not there is a God, I am just saying that the physics/ mechanics of the world is a separate question from theology and philosophy. I reject the notion that says: If there is a Creator > Then evolution must be false. But I would also disagree with a statement that says: If evolution is true > Then there must not be a Creator. Again -- my argument is made out of logic, not theology.

Acher said...

>But I would also disagree with a statement that says: If evolution is true > Then there must not be a Creator.

Strictly speaking yes. But it makes God and a purposeful world less likely and more superfluous.

Shtreimel said...

How you made it to the appendix is beyond me. Someone got for me as a 'gift' (similar premise to yours) and it took me a chapter or two. I had it in my car for ages - one day, I thought, I will finish it. It now lays somewhere on the streets of this great city waiting for an unsuspecting soul.

Acher said...

Well I didn't read it from cover to cover through the appendix. That particular appendix is basically part of chapter one, so I had to get the complete picture. I ended up reading about half the book.

eitz hadaas said...

Hey Acher,
This Rabbi Waldmen was my English teacher in UTA. He came the first day to class with a grapefruit in his pocket and had us look at the complex packets in it. He was a little Avigdor Miller wannabe.

Anyway, HR and Acher.

What you (HR) write about "natural selection and adaptation don't apply (at least not in the conventional sense) to non-living molecular structures" I think it does since (as I already mentioned to you once, I believe) that Darwinian theory is a statement about rising complexity in any kind of system. Meaning, that in any system the state of survival will become the "good" state, and it itself will be the reward. Any member of the system that utilizes the surroundings best will be favored, in the sense that it will survive.

While on the molecular level there isn't the reproductive factor, as molecules don't reproduce, there is still the adaptability factor as a chemical bonds can break apart and form new bonds (the likes of which an organism can't do, since the only way an organism can change is through the next generation).

And while molecules and their components may or may not have the longest lifespan, the chemical equilibrium they are in does. Therefore the equilibrium sets a standard by which the system selects its components.

I agree that Darwinian Biology and Darwinism as it is used in pop culture refers to the question of bio diversity not bio genesis. However, an understanding of Darwinian systematics (how any exclusive system will produce Darwinian designed forms) should follow through even on the molecular level.

While this idea complicates somethings, since it would mean that tho origin of life was a necessary result of the organization of the primordial soup, not an accidental. Stanley Miller tried to explain and demonstrate that but his experiment design has been questioned.

And Acher, about the fossil gaps. You might want to look up S.J. Gould's paper on Punctuated Equilibrium http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_comes-of-age.html

Acher said...

EH,

Thanks for stopping by.
I won't insist on whether the principle of natural selection can be applied to non-self-replicating systems. I don't think that the present state of knowledge allows us to extend the principle of natural selection to non-self-replicating systems. As to Stanley Miller, I actually had the Miller-Urey experiment in mind when I wrote that proposed explanations of the origin of life are inadequate according to my limited understanding. Miller-Urey only shows that it's theoretically conceivable that complex organic compounds will arise under certain conditions. That's a far cry from self-replicating systems. I'm not saying that these are inherently different in nature, and a Miller-Urey like experiment can't explain their origin. What I'm saying is that I don't currently see an explanation.

Orthoprax said...

Acher,

It isn't evolutionary theory that's involved in abiogenesis-related hypotheses per se. There are a number of different competing ideas out there but none, as you rightly state, which seem to really have a lock on the issue.

This issue though has little bearing on the question of God's existence. The simple fact that the universe has the characteristics that make it possible for these first units of life to form could suggest a "guiding hand" just as thoroughly as an inexplicable arrival of life in the universe.

If anything, the less we need to appeal to supernatural intervention, the more suggestive is the proposition of an overriding "plan." After all, God shouldn't need to intervene on a perfectly planned creation.

Acher said...

Orthoprax,

All true. I, as do many others, have a tendency to fall back on God when coming to a dead end. I think that this is an answer based on ignorance, although I'm not sure. Maybe there are some questions that require that answer. I grow more and more skeptical of this possibility, but you never know. That was essentially my point.

Joshua said...

Regarding microevolution and macroevolution. Whenever anyone claims that speciation hasn't been observed my favorite thing to do is point out that in fact the evidence for speciation is so overwhelming that AIG, one of the world's largest young earth creationist ministries, lists it as an argument that creationists should not use http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers/topic/arguments-we-dont-use which generally trips them up pretty well.

Frum Heretic said...

King Shlomo was right that there is nothing new under the sun: the anti-evolution stuff is just more moronic recycled bullcrap.

BTW, an absolutely wonderful book to check out is Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.