[I started this post trying to talk about free market vs. central planning in the realm of garbage collection in Altoona. It started out a little off-topic as I wanted to talk about the environment of discourse at PSU Altoona before delving into this specifically. It went wildly awry from there and never returned. I’ll have to try again later.]

What kind of person actively listens to positions that they disagree with? I think that more people feel like they fit that category than actually do. I’m similarly confident that I also think that I fit that category more than I actually do. I also think that I fit that category more than most.

That said, I certainly feel like I’ve heard the bulk of the arguments surrounding “creationism.” The problem, for me at least, is not in the arguments, instead it’s in the premise.

I took an intro philosophy course to fulfill requirements at Swarthmore. However, I remember more the skin-tight jeans that the professor wore, and my general teenage lust I had for her at the time than I do the arch of Aristotelian logic. That said, I’m going to reach back to that time, as well as to more recent discussions with a good friend and philosophy major and finally to a little bit of web research to explain my very lay-understanding of epistemology. (Note 1)

We can use logical deduction to take us from one statement (something with a truth value) to another. For example, if we both agree that statement “p” is true (e.g. “you can read English”), and we both agree that the (conditional) statement “p -> q” [p implies q] is true (e.g. “If you can read English, then you can read this blog entry”), then, by the laws of logic, statement “q” is true (e.g. “you can read this blog entry.”)

That’s all fine and well, we can have “q” if we already have both “p” and “p->q”. But how do we know those things? We run the risk of an infinite “regress of reason”. At some point, we have to just “know” something out of experience, or belief, or somewhere else entirely. We refer to these things as “First Principles”. If we take as a first principle, the existence of God, then we can reasonably deduce creationism. I simply don’t accept the existence of (at least the Judeo-Christian) God as a first principle.

My libertarianism [anarchism will need to be a separate blog entry as well] is born from a certain economic understanding in the Austrian tradition, as well as moral first principles of “It is wrong to initiate force or fraud against another human.” I struggle with some aspects of that very simple statement. What defines human? Why not “living thing”? I’m uncomfortable with “initiate”. I understand that it might be good strategy to respond to force with force (note 2), but is it right to do so? Is it more wrong to tell a white lie to my wife (initiating fraud against her) than to, say, butcher cats? Or butcher pigs? What if those pigs are for food? What if by telling the white lie to my wife, hundreds of lives are saved? As you can see, even simple statements aren’t simple.

All of this is the long way of saying, “I don’t buy it” when it comes to creationism, and unless you can prove the existence of God from some first principles that we both agree on, I never will. For that matter, if you can prove the existence of God based on first principles we both agree on, you almost certainly have better things to do than prove the existence of God to me based on those!

While I don’t buy creationism, the concept of “intelligent design” is at least interesting to play with. The basic concept of intelligent design, as I understand it, is this: Basically, there are a number of fundamental physical properties of the universe like Planck’s Constant or the strength of the strong and weak forces. Were these numbers even minutely different from their current values, atom’s wouldn’t hold together, and even if there were a Universe, there would certainly be no life in it. Therefore, somebody really really smart and powerful (like, hmm, God) must have set the Universe up just right.

An analogous example might be if I wanted to know the first 10 digits of Pi, I could ask a mathemetician and he might tell me “3.141592654”, or I could roll a 10-sided die 10 times, and maybe I’d come up with 3.14…, or maybe I’d come up with 1.84139347 and the universe would fall apart. Certainly, it looks pretty good for the mathematician.

However, a little bit of investigation shows this to be basically a logical fallacy called Affirming the Consequent. We’ve already talked about “p” and “p implies q” therefore “q”. The “affirming the consequent” fallacy is “q” and “p implies q” therefore “p”. So, if we use the following substitutions:
p = “God exists and created the universe”
q = “A bunch of crazy constants would be (are) correct.”

We can agree that “q” is true. A bunch of crazy constants are correct. We’re in the universe suffices to show this. And “p implies q” seems reasonable to me. If God exists, and created the universe, he’d probably set it up so that he got all of those crazy constants correct. It is, however, a logical fallacy to derive statement “p” (God exists and created the universe) from those other two. There is certainly still a lot that science cannot (yet?) explain about the origin of the universe. Some of what they can’t explain is interesting to think about, the “logic” of intelligent design seems to fall apart pretty quickly.

So, now where are we? I don’t accept creationism. I think that the primary argument for intelligent design is based on a logical fallacy. However, I think I’m no closer to showing that despite superficial appearances, Altoona is better off with free market garbage collection. I guess this ended up being just a long-winded explanation of what a simple quiz showed us back in March. Oh well. Maybe you found it interesting and thought-provoking anyway.


Note 1

In addition to links referred to in-line above, I stumbled across trying to come up with this blog entry:

As may become clear, if you actually read all of the above, I have not read all of the above. More proof that blogs are (or at least this one is) neither literature nor reporting.

Note 2:
In Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation, he points out that the most successful strategy in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma situation is “tit-for-tat”. Basically, start by being nice, then respond in kind. (If your interlocutor was nice, be nice again. If mean, be mean. But base each interaction only on the previous. Don’t “hold a grudge” as it were.) For more on the prisoner’s dilemma, see http://www.princeton.edu/~mdaniels/PD/PD.html