Friday, October 02, 2009

Does Tom Cruise Walk? A Defence of Stationism

There is an insidious movement afoot intended to deceive our children. I'm talking about the claim that movie stars such as Tom Cruise walk all by themselves. This so-called Theory of Ambulation is being foisted on our kids, and it's time we Stationists fought back.

Now at first sight the Theory of Ambulation idea seems seductive, but ask yourself this: Have you ever seen Tom Cruise walk? Many people will say, "Of course! I saw him walk in Top Gun, and he did a bunch of walking in Mission: Impossible too." But look more closely at the evidence. What you actually saw in Top Gun was a lot of separate pictures, each showing a stationary Tom Cruise in slightly different positions. Yes, it looks convincing when you see a movie, but that's because somebody went to a lot of trouble to arrange those pictures in a certain order and then flash them in front of your eyes extremely quickly to deliberately create the illusion that he's walking. It's all a conspiracy, artfully designed to hide the truth!

So if Tom Cruise doesn't really walk, how do we explain the pictures? There are two possibilities. One is that Tom Cruise was found by chance in all those positions by some photographer who took the pictures and arranged them to make a "walk". Of course, it's obvious to everybody that the probability against random changes in his position somehow ending up in a "walk" is astronomical, so we can readily dismiss this theory.

That leaves only one logical possibility: In between each picture of Cruise that you see, some external agency adjusts his position. The resulting sequence of pictures is what we mistake for walking. Now, I'm not saying that the external agency is God... but I'm not saying that it isn't.

In light of this disturbing evidence, isn't it only reasonable that Stationism be given equal time in our schools alongside the Theory of Ambulation?


Bryan said...

Very interesting read, I like the roundabout approach you made to making your point.

Mr C said...

funny, but weak analogy. If only the changes suggested were as minor as a simple change of position, this might work. Change on position does not equal an increase in complexity. Very clever nevertheless.

Carl Zetie said...

@Mr C: Thanks for the comments. It might help to think of it more as a satire of how Creationists argue their case than as a perfect parody of Creationism per se.

Incidentally, it's a common fallacy to say that evolution requires an implausible "increase in complexity". There's no law of nature that says complexity can't increase -- and in particular that it can't increase locally, say on one planet or in one genome. If it helps, you can think of evolution as something that moves complexity around: it takes it from the environment and concentrates it in one place (i.e. an organism).

An (admittedly imperfect) analogy is gravity. It doesn't increase the amount of matter in the universe, it just concentrates it in places like stars and planets that, as a result, appear more complex than the randomly distributed matter (and energy) that our universe began as. Furthermore, once matter (complexity) starts to gather in one place, it attracts more and more of the available matter around it, and all kinds of surprising complexity start to appear "spontaneously", such as forming spherical shapes. Some (stars) undergo nuclear fusion; others (planets) separate themselves into layers of gases, rocks and metal cores. Some even form into amazing elaborate rings. Would a Creationist look at the rings of Saturn and say that such complexity couldn't possibly be the result of a simple law of gravity, and therefore the theory of gravity is wrong, and God must have arranged the rings by hand? Because that in essence is the "increase in complexity" argument.

(There is also the "irreducible complexity" argument which is more subtle, but still mistaken.)

Mr C said...

While I am still a staunch creationist (meaning that I believe that God made all this junk), i think your statement "If it helps, you can think of evolution as something that moves complexity around: it takes it from the environment and concentrates it in one place (i.e. an organism)" is the clearest and most compelling statement in favor of evolution. Bravo! I like the idea of "moving complexity around".

Of course, the boundaries of semantics begs the question of who is doing the moving. Why is it moved around? How is need movement identified? Are we just really lucky that the movement of complexity has generally been in our favor? Maybe.

I'm not sure that an example of stellar evolution though is good for a discussion of biological evolution. Biological life is a bit more sensitive to change than say, the rings of saturn. The increase of complexity, say in the number or type of bacteria in your bloodstream would have a bit more of a detrimental effect of your heart breath and breathing than an increase in the number and type of matter in the rings of saturn. The rearranging of complexity in a biological system needs to be beneficial or it is cancer (generally, not specifically). The idea of irreducible complexity suggests that the changes must be complete for it to be beneficial. An eye is not useful as an eye until it can see. I am not denying evolution, anyone would be foolish to do so. Adaptive changes over time are observable and provable. I simply limit it to within systems rather than across systems. It is a question of scale I suppose.

Thank you for your candor and civility and willingness to have a real conversation. Normally I'm burned at the stake for even alluding to this whole God thing.

Mr C

Carl Zetie said...

@MC: "Thank you for your candor and civility and willingness to have a real conversation."

And the same to you.

I do try to get heated only over the *form* of an argument rather than the content. I have time for anyone who argues a differing point of view honestly, but little for someone who argues dishonestly (see: Most politicians).

As to your observation about how complexity can move in a beneficial direction: The essential argument for evolution is that it requires two elements: variation, and selection. Variation creates lots of things to try, many of them harmful. Selection weeds out the ones that are harmful in a given environment. Personally I find this easy to believe for something like E. Coli, where the number of variations created in each generation is huge, and the selection is straightforward. I do sometimes wonder, however, whether even 7 million years is enough generations to make a person from a lemur in tiny incremental steps each of which gives the individual only a marginal advantage.

The problem with Intelligent Design as a form of argument is that it is essentially a variation of the God of the Gaps argument: "everything about blood clotting is explicable except this one step, so God must have done that one step". And then somebody studies the problem really hard, finds an explanation for the missing step, and God is diminished a little more. So Intelligent Design (as distinct from any other form of Creationism) is not only bad science, it's also bad theology!

Eyes are an interesting example: they were taken up by ID as an early example of something that is useless until it is complete. But then it was pointed out that a mere light-sensitive patch could be useful, and it turns out that there fish in the oceans that have no eyes because there isn't enough light to see, but do have a light-sensitive patch that helps them orient themselves. And similarly, every major step from patch to eye is represented somewhere in the world today or in the fossil record. So then the staunch IDer has to go in search of another counterexample; and just because something isn't explained yet doesn't mean it won't soon be (as happened with the blood clotting factors example.) It would be very hard IMO to prove that some step in a complex system could never be decomposed into the kind of tiny steps that genetics allows.

Conversely, IMO the most convincing argument against God being involved in the design of the eye is to point out how imperfect the eye is, and how many shortcomings and diseases it is subject to. If somebody designed the eye, they didn't do a very intelligent job!

I'm also not sure how to limit changes to being within systems. For example, we normally consider wolves and dogs to be distinct species; at the level of DNA they can be told apart. But they can breed and the resulting hybrid is fertile. Given enough time, in one set of circumstances where the populations are separated and don't interbreed, dogs and wolves diverge into separate species; but under other circumstances where they can interbreed they converge into one hybrid species. Even more confusingly, there might be a 3rd species of wild canine that can cross-breed with dogs but not with wolves... Are these one species or three?

I think I need some more precise way of defining what it means for evolution to work within systems but not across them, and in particular some more precise definition of what a system boundary is, because "species" is too fuzzy a concept to sustain the argument. Unfortunately, even biologists often use the "species" word as if it were a rigorous delimiter, which confuses the discussion.