The question I’d really like to ask Ray Comfort

Let me begin by saying that I’m a big fan of Ray Comfort’s 2011 pro-life movie, 180, which packed a powerful punch, but also made you think. The hypothetical question which Comfort posed to the college students he interviewed was simple but stunningly effective, in exposing the intellectual inconsistency of the pro-choice position.

Last night, I viewed Ray Comfort’s latest movie, The Atheist Delusion, which is now available on Youtube. Professor Jerry Coyne has already critiqued some of Ray Comfort’s anti-evolutionary arguments – especially the ones about the chicken and the egg, the origin of the eye, and the origin of the heart and circulatory system (see here: his segment starts at 46:45 and runs till 56:30). I will be saying more below about Comfort’s two main arguments for God (relating to the origin of the universe and the origin of DNA), which Coyne did not address.

But the aim of Comfort’s movie is not merely to convince people that God exists. Ray Comfort is, and always will be, a missionary, and in the latter half of the movie, he tries to convert the people he interviews to Christianity. Not all Christians agree with his theology, however, and in this post, I’d like to ask him one question which I think will blow his apologetic to smithereens. But before I do that, I’d like to describe Comfort’s interviewing technique.

Ray Comfort’s method of interrogating his subjects

Ray Comfort’s standard method of interrogating the people he interviews goes like this:

Do you think you’re a good person?
(Most people, rather foolishly in my opinion, answer yes. The fact is that we’re a mix of both good and bad.)

Have you ever lied, stolen, lusted or blasphemed?
(After some hemming and hawing, most people admit that they have, once Comfort points out that illegally downloading music is stealing, and that taking God’s name casually – even saying “OMG” – is blasphemy.)

What do you call a person who lies, steals, lusts and blasphemes?
(The answer Ray Comfort obviously wants to hear is: a liar, a thief, a fornicator and a blasphemer. But that’s not true. Describing a person who has lied only a few times in her life as a liar is silly: a liar is someone who habitually lies. Also, someone who used to lie habitually but who no longer does so is an ex-liar, not a liar. The same logic applies for the other vices.)

Come on, admit it: you have a vested interest in denying the existence of God, because it gives you an opportunity to do the things you do, like fornicating and viewing pornography, without feeling guilty. Isn’t that right?
(This one usually makes the young guys squirm, as most of them, sadly, are into online porn, nowadays. But the logic of the argument is weak: even if atheism lets you off the hook for doing these things – and many feminist atheists would argue otherwise – affirming the existence of a personal God doesn’t entail that you are not allowed to do these things. The Kama Sutra, after all, was written by Hindus, who are theists.)

How do you think God reacts to your lying, stealing, lust and blasphemy?
(Most people say: He sees that I’ve done these things, but He sees my good points, too. Comfort usually responds by pointing out that a judge wouldn’t be too impressed with a defendant accused of robbing a bank, who argued: “Your Honor, look at all the banks I could have robbed, but didn’t rob. I’m good most of the time.” On the contrary, the judge would still send the man to jail for robbing just one bank. Since God is all-just, He won’t be impressed with that kind of excuse, either. But what Comfort omits to mention is that the penalty for robbing a bank is finite: at most, his argument shows that sinners pay some penalty after death.)

Here’s what the Bible says on the sins of lying, stealing, lust and blasphemy. These sins make God angry.
(At this point, many of Comfort’s interviewees start to look very uncomfortable. However, Comfort’s argument assumes that the Bible accurately reports God’s feelings, which begs the question. It still has to be shown that the Creator is the God of the Bible. Comfort hasn’t established that. How would he answer a Deist, for instance?)

The Bible also says that thinking of murder and adultery is just as bad as committing murder and adultery.
(Actually, the Bible says no such thing. There is a moral difference between:

(a) thinking of X;
(b) momentarily enjoying the thought of doing X, without actually intending to do X; and
(c) seriously intending to do X, if given the opportunity.

It makes sense to argue that seriously intending to do X, if given the opportunity, is just as bad as actually doing X, and I presume that’s what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (ESV). However, cases (a) and (b) are different, although (b) may be morally wrong, too.)

Thinking of murder and adultery really means you would do those deeds, if you had the chance.
(That doesn’t follow at all. See above.)

So, if God judges you by the Ten Commandments on Judgment Day, do you think you’d be innocent or guilty?
(At this stage, most of Ray Comfort’s interviewees acknowledge that they’d be guilty. But hang on. We still haven’t established that the Ten Commandments are God’s rules. There’s a gap in the logic here.)

So, do you think you’d go to Heaven or Hell?
(By now, most of the people whom Comfort interviews are sheepishly admitting that they’d go to Hell.

However, Comfort’s argument assumes there’s no intermediate purifying state, which is Scripturally doubtful – see also here.

Also, if Hell is God’s prison, then why does it follow from the fact that I have lied once that I should stay in God’s prison forever? Show me the judge who would lock up a liar forever.)

There’s only one way out of the strife you’re in. There is no other name under Heaven by which you can be saved but that of Jesus. You cannot earn eternal life from God. Other religions try to do that, but it’s in vain. These religions cannot get you out of God’s jail, Hell. God is a just judge. We are sinners who have violated God’s commands. We’re headed for Hell, which is God’s prison without parole. But Jesus stepped in and paid for our crime. He paid the penalty. So God can legally grant you the gift of everlasting life. What you have to do, to have your case dismissed and walk out of God’s court and receive the gift of everlasting life, is: repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ alone. God will forgive you instantly. God’s grace is a free gift.
(Non sequiturs galore here. Ray Comfort seems to have a background theory of God’s justice that He hasn’t told his interviewees about. He still hasn’t explained why we have to stay in God’s jail forever, even if we tell only a single lie in our lives. He tells us that only Jesus can pay the penalty for sin, but fails to explain why there has to be a penalty in the first place. Why can’t God just commute it, if He is all-powerful and all-merciful? Also, it doesn’t follow from the fact that I can’t earn Heaven that I cannot pay the price to get out of Hell. Comfort is assuming that those are the only two alternatives. What about some sort of lesser, natural state of happiness without the vision of God – i.e. Limbo? Could I earn that? Comfort doesn’t say.

It would help here if Comfort were able to point to independent evidence that Christianity is true – e.g. evidence for the Resurrection. But in that case, he needs to present this evidence first, before accusing his interviewees of being unregenerate sinners. He also needs to show that his own interpretation of the Bible is the correct one.)

Despite these gaping holes in Comfort’s argument, his sincerity is obvious and touching, and many people whom he interviews welcome Jesus into their heart. And as I’m a Christian myself, I refuse to criticize them for doing that. Perhaps these people intuitively recognize that there is something deeply wrong with their lives, which only Christianity can set right.

But there’s one thing about Ray Comfort’s theology which really troubles me. And it’s not Hell, or the Penal Substitution theory. It’s something far more fundamental than that.

And now for the BIG QUESTION I’d like to ask Ray Comfort…

So here’s my big question for Ray:

Do you ever lie, steal, lust and blaspheme, and if so, doesn’t that make you worthy of Hell, too? In fact, since you have lied, stolen, lusted and blasphemed after encountering Jesus, doesn’t that make you even worse than the people you interview, since they did these things before they had met and heard about Jesus? So if you sin, aren’t you damned, too? And if so, doesn’t that make you hoist by your own petard?

Ray, I’m a Catholic. I won’t say I’m a good one; I know I’m not. But I have tried to research what you believe, and I have to say it doesn’t add up. I’d like to quote a few short excerpts from your non-copyright online publication, Sixty-six common questions and objections to the Christian Faith. (Actually, it’s 67.) First, allow me to quote from question 15. (Bolding in the answers below is mine.)

15. “Do Christians sin?”
“The great foundational truth respecting the believer in relationship to his sins is the fact that his salvation comprehends the forgiveness of all his trespasses past, present and future so far as condemnation is concerned (see Romans 8:1, Colossians 2:13; John 3:18; John 5:24). Since Christ has vicariously borne all sin and since the believer’s standing in Christ is complete, he is perfected forever in Christ. When a believer sins, he is subjected to chastisement from the Father, but never to condemnation with the world (see 1 Corinthians 11:31,32). By confession the Christian is forgiven and restored to fellowship (see 1 John 1:9). It needs to be remembered that were it not for Christ’s finished work on the Cross and His present intercession in Heaven, the least sin would result in his banishment from God’s presence and eternal ruin.” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Moody Press, p. 377).

To be fair, you do acknowledge that genuine repentance is necessary for salvation, and you draw a distinction between true and false conversion. But here, you insist that if someone genuinely repents and turns to Christ, his sins subsequent to repentance won’t prevent him from being saved: he will be chastised but not condemned. What kind of justice is this? “Your Honor, I’m a liar, but at least I admit it. And I know you let me out of jail free, once before, when I was summoned before this court, but now, after backsliding, I’m asking you to let me out once again. Please forgive me.” Is that a good reason to get out of Hell, which you describe as God’s jail? I ask again: if you sin, after encountering Christ, and if the just penalty for even “the least sin” is “eternal ruin,” what good reason do you have to think that God will forgive you? And why would forgiveness of the backsliding Christian be compatible with God’s justice in this case, while forgiveness of an atheist who hasn’t heard the call of Christ would not?

And now, here’s a quote from question 19 of your publication:

19. “Are you saying that Christians are better than non-Christians?”
The Christian is no better than a non-Christian, but he is infinitely better off. It is like two men on a plane. One is wearing a parachute and the other is not. One is not better than the other, but the man with the parachute on is certainly better off than the man who is not wearing a parachute. The difference will be seen when they jump. Jesus warned that if we “jump” into death without Him, we would perish.
Our great problem is a law that is even harsher than the law of gravity. It is the Law of an infinitely holy and just Creator. The Scriptures warn us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” They tell us that we are His enemy.

Ray, I submit that the parachute analogy won’t help you here. For on your analogy, the person who sins after repenting and turning to Christ is like a man who receives a parachute, and then throws it away. Should such a man get a second parachute? If I were the pilot, I certainly wouldn’t give him one.

But there’s more. You actually admit that Christians are no better than non-Christians. So you, a Christian, are no better than the lying, thieving, fornicating blasphemers whom you try to shame into repentance. And yet you believe that if you were to be struck by lightning tonight, you’d be saved, while they’d be damned. I ask: where’s the justice in that?

More to the point: if I am a lying, thieving, fornicating blasphemer, then why should I convert to a religion which, according to you, won’t make me any better? Doesn’t that negate the whole purpose of life, which is to become good? And didn’t Jesus command us to be perfect?

Finally, I’d like to quote from question 24 of your publication:

24. “Do you sin, as a Christian?”
If a Christian sins, it is against his will. He falls rather than dives into sin. He resists rather than embraces it. Any dead fish can float down stream. It takes a live one to swim against the flow.

Ray, I put it to you that your logic is specious. It is impossible to sin against your will. Sin, by definition, is a voluntary act. No choice, no sin. “I lied, I stole, I fornicated and I blasphemed, but it was against my will.” Oh, really? Tell that to the Marines: maybe they’ll believe you.

By the way, how do you respond to Professor Jerry Coyne, who accuses you of lying when you pose the chicken-and-egg question and other evolutionary conundrums to your interviewees, despite having had the answers pointed out to you previously by scientists?

I’ll leave it to my readers to decide whether Ray Comfort has a leg to stand on, after my cross-examination. And now, I’d like to address his two main scientific arguments.

Ray Comfort’s top two arguments for God

In his move, The Atheist Delusion, Ray Comfort deploys two key arguments to demolish atheism. He also attacks evolution, but his anti-evolutionary arguments are of secondary importance.

So what is Comfort’s first argument? In a nutshell: an atheist is someone who believes that nothing created everything, which is absurd. But that’s not what the vast majority of atheists believe. Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins might subscribe to that view, but the more common view is that the universe arose as a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. A vacuum is not nothing: it still has measurable properties. It’s simply the ground state of a quantum field. Many (though by no means all) scientists also believe our universe is contained in a larger multiverse.

Now, I have to acknowledge that the thought of a quantum vacuum giving rise to spiral galaxies, salamanders and Shakespeare does seem rather mind-boggling. But Dawkins would say that’s an argument from incredulity, and you need something better than a feeling of incredulity if you want to debunk atheism. Comfort could have said a lot more here about the fine-tuning argument, but unfortunately, he alludes to it only in passing.

Comfort’s second argument is based on the analogy between DNA and a book: DNA is the book of life. Now I could object that much of the DNA in our cells is junk, as Professor Larry Moran has convincingly argued, but I shall refrain from doing so, because the important point is that quite a lot of the DNA “book” (at least 10%) actually has a function, and that’s the part I’m concerned with. In any case, Moran’s view is not shared by all biologists, and even Professor Moran would agree that there are some species of organisms whose DNA is virtually junk-free.

The argument Comfort puts forward is a simple but powerful one: if you don’t believe a book could make itself, how much more illogical is it to believe that DNA, the book of life, could make itself. Just as a book requires a maker, so too, the instruction book of life, which surpasses our understanding, is evidence of an Intelligent Designer.

Comfort’s question to his interviewees is a very cleverly framed one – he is an excellent communicator – but it rests on several false assumptions.

I’d like to respond to Comfort’s argument by quoting from my recent review of Dr. Douglas Axe’s book, Undeniable (HarperOne, 2016). In his book, Dr. Axe frequently likens life to alphabet soup – which I regard as a very flawed analogy, for reasons I point out in my review:

Alphabet blocks illustrate this point perfectly. Let’s suppose you had a large box of alphabet blocks – say, about 1,000 of them. It would be pretty easy to make something useful with them, if you wanted to: a large square made of blocks could serve as a playpen for a baby, while a stack of blocks could support a tray or a pot plant. But only a very, very tiny fraction of all the possible arrangements of blocks in a stack (or a square) would spell out a meaningful message. Most of the possible arrangements of alphabetic blocks in a stack don’t spell out anything at all. That tells us something: the number of ways in which parts can be arranged to perform a useful function is much, much larger than the number of ways in which letters can be arranged in order to convey a meaning. In other words, the emergence of a system of parts that can perform a function is a much more likely event than the emergence of a sequence that can convey a message. The same point applies to the Chinese characters which Dr. Axe discusses on pages 210-214 of his book: they have a meaning, which is intelligible to anyone who can read Chinese, but they don’t actually do anything, so they cannot be said to perform a function. The concepts of meaning and function are quite different, for reasons I shall now explain.

In order for an accidentally generated string of letters to convey a meaningful message, it needs to satisfy three very stringent conditions, each more difficult than the last: first, the letters need to be arranged into meaningful words; second, the sequence of words has to conform to the rules of syntax; and finally, the sequence of words has to make sense at the semantic level: in other words, it needs to express a meaningful proposition. For a string of letters generated at random to meet all of these conditions would indeed be fantastically improbable. But here’s the thing: living things don’t need to satisfy any of these conditions. Yes, it is true that all living things possess a genetic code. But it is quite impossible for this code to generate anything like nonsense words like “sdfuiop”, and additionally, there is nothing in the genome which is remotely comparable to the rules of syntax, let alone the semantics of a meaningful proposition. The sequence of amino acids in a protein needs to do just one thing: it needs to fold up into a shape that can perform a biologically useful task. And that’s it. Generating something useful by chance – especially something with enough useful functions to be called alive – is a pretty tall order, but because living things lack the extra dimensions of richness found in messages that carry a semantic meaning, they’re going to be a lot easier to generate by chance than (say) instruction manuals or cook books. Hence it may turn out that creating life by chance is extremely improbable, but not fantastically improbable. In practical terms, that means that given enough time, life just might arise.

That should suffice as a reply to Comfort’s book analogy.

To be fair, Comfort shows his audience how physicist Lawrence Krauss responded to this argument: he maintained that the laws of physics, chemistry and biology could account for DNA, just as laws can account for snowflakes. Comfort’s counter-reply was that DNA, unlike a snowflake, contains specified and purposeful information.

Most ID publications argue that snowflakes have only a little specified information, rather than none, as Comfort evidently believes. However, in my opinion, it would have been better for Comfort to dispense with the problematic notion of specified complexity (which could apply even to arrangements of pebbles on Chesil beach), and use functional specified complex information (FCSI) as the hallmark of intelligent design. Comfort seems to hint at this when he remarks that the information in DNA is purposeful – in other words, it is beneficial to the organism.

But the problem here for Comfort is that functionality is not an all-or-nothing affair: there are many shades of gray. Some protein molecules, for instance, are only weakly functional. Also, functionality may be either focused and highly specific, or it may be broad and general: some enzymes, for instance, have a much broader specificity than others. Finally, functionality comes in degrees: some functional hierarchies have more levels than others. The visual system has no less than nine levels of organization underlying the top level, whereas the photosynthetic system of a cyanobacterium has “only” three. So, how many levels of organization in a biological system are required to warrant a design inference?

Comfort rounds out his case by quoting from Bill Gates: “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” He omits to mention that Bill Gates was actually referring to human DNA, but we’ll overlook that point. More telling is the fact that the origin of DNA is not as mysterious as it used to be, as Michael Marshall’s BBC article, The secret of how life on Earth began (31 October 2016) beautifully illustrates. We now have a few good leads.

Finally, Comfort recommends that his viewers read “Made in Heaven” a book which tells the story of 32 modern inventions, whose designs were copied from Nature. The reasoning here is obvious enough: if our most intelligent scientists have to copy from Nature in order to come up with their inventions, doesn’t that strongly suggest that Nature herself is the invention of a Super-Intelligence?

Here, at last, I think Comfort is onto something. I would argue that if we know of no natural process that can generate biological structures whose complexity and efficiency far exceeds anything that intelligent scientists could produce in a lab, then the default assumption should be that these structures were intelligently designed.

I’d like to finish by quoting from a 2014 TED talk, “Digital biology and open science – the coming revolution,” by biologist and engineer Stephen Larson, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from University of California, San Diego, and who is CEO of MetaCell, a systems biology research and consulting company. Larson is a Darwinist with no religious beliefs whatsoever, yet he feels impelled to marvel at the staggering complexity of life, which far surpasses anything that even our most intelligent scientists could come up with:

…[A]s science continues to reveal how life works, we find again and again that the magic that seems to distinguish between things that are alive and things that are not [is] actually created by complex interacting molecular machines. These microscopic machines are as precise and intricate as a mechanical watch, but instead of being run on gears and springs, are powered by the fundamental rules of physics and chemistry. Our understanding of the precise coiling and uncoiling of the DNA molecule, or the way that one molecule can literally walk almost robotically along the tightrope of another molecule, continue to show us again and again, this molecular clockwork is real and pervasive.

Now what’s most unsettling to me about this is that we didn’t build these machines. As someone originally trained as an engineer, I’ve got to be honest with you, I kind of hate this.

And yet when I look through a microscope at a humble bacterium — by the way its ancestors were on the planet a billion years ago, billions of years ago — I still wonder how it really works. Because the mechanical watch that is life is not like any watch we’ve ever built. It is biological gears and springs, but they fill rooms and buildings and cities of a vast microscope landscape that’s bustling with activity.

On the one hand it’s extremely well organized, but on the other hand the sheer scale of all of this unfamiliar well-organized stuff that happens in there makes me feel that I’ve stumbled onto an alternate landscape of technology that’s built by an engineer a million times smarter than me.

OK, not literally. I don’t literally mean that I think little green men and women came down to the earth and seeded life here a billion years ago. What we understand of course is that life evolved on the planet over billions of years. But the results of evolution confuse even our smartest engineers when we try to understand how we could build what biology has evolved.

Ray Comfort could have said a lot more about this. And I hope that one day he’ll floor his interviewees with a question about the design of molecular machines. But most of all, I hope he’ll stop peddling his version of how to get saved, which many Christians would regard as simply bizarre.

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83 thoughts on “The question I’d really like to ask Ray Comfort

  1. Patrick: In what way does Avida not meet your criteria?

    It’s rigged. You do know that, right?

    In what way does Avida meet his criteria?

    If you take cubes of the same size and stick them together you can make even larger cubes. Oh, look, hierarchical functionality. Just brilliant.

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  2. vjtorley:

    In what way does Avida not meet your criteria?

    A very good question. I haven’t looked at Avida for a long, long time. When I wrote for UD, it struck me as irrelevant to biology. But I’ve just been looking at Lenski et al.’s 2003 paper, The evolutionary origin of complex features, and I will concede that it appears to be able to generate multi-level functionality. So far, I’ve only skimmed the paper. What I’d like to ask is whether the organisms are purely digital, or whether they have some kind of analog representation (or instantiation) as well. If they did, then I think they would be sufficiently similar to organisms for them to qualify as meeting the challenge.

    You’re moving the goalposts. Your original criteria were:

    I am quite open to such a demonstration, however. I’ve been thinking about what I’d accept as one. It wouldn’t have to be a biological problem, but it would have to be a physical problem and not a purely algebraic one. I was thinking of something involving objects such as geometric 2-D shapes, with a repertoire of basic moves, that were allowed to “mutate” (i.e. change shape and/or change the way they move) and that were pre-programmed with certain built-in goals. A function would then be defined as any sequence of moves that assisted a shape to achieve one of its goals. A mutation would either be a change in one of these functions, or a new function. A higher-level function would be a function that invoked two or more existing lower-level functions to help realize a built-in goal, perhaps modifying the way in which the lower-level functions are called in the process. The interesting question would be how often this would happen in a way that proved advantageous to the object (i.e. helpful to it in attaining its goals). Of course, all these functions would have to form part of the object’s description, in addition to its shape. My ideas are still rather hazy, as you can see. But a successful demonstration along these lines would constitute a “proof-of-concept,” showing that evolutionary processes are perfectly capable in principle of generating multi-level functionality. If you’ve heard of any program like that which builds up functions in this way, I’d love to hear about it.

    I don’t see anything in there about “analog representation”. Do you accept that Avida meets this criteria?

    Most ID proponents have dissed Avida over the years. One noble exception is Johnnyb, whose UD post, Why I Love AVIDA – Detecting Design in Digital Organisms I’m just having a look at now. Johnnyb agrees that Avida “is one of the few evolutionary systems that is truly Universal.” He concludes:

    Also of interest – each AVIDA organism does contain a designed part – the replication loop. It is, in every case I am aware of, the only functional open-ended loop in an AVIDA system. Thus, every replicating AVIDA organism shows distinct, detectable evidence of design within the organism.

    There are a very few functions that AVIDA organisms evolve, but none of these functions use or require open-ended loops to accomplish. Thus, design detection is coherently demonstrated and validated in each AVIDA organism, as well as the way in which evolution works with design to accomplish biological goals. The foundational units of operation (i.e. the open-ended loops) are designed-in, and then shifted around in a parameterized evolution to apply these units to functional tasks. The theory, simulation, and experimentation of Intelligent Design all match up in AVIDA.

    Do you think this is a fair statement?

    No, I think it’s a transparently frantic attempt to find any possible critique that would allow him to dismiss Avida as a demonstration of exactly what intelligent design creationists say can’t happen.

    First, evolution is about what happens when you have a population of replicating organisms with heritable differential reproductive success. Avida demonstrates evolution, not origin of life.

    Second, looping constructs routinely evolve in sufficiently complex EAs. You can look at Tierra or almost any Koza-like GA to see that.

    IDC says that certain types of complexity can’t evolve. Avida shows that claim to be wrong.

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  3. Patrick: Please explain exactly how.

    I decline to play burden tennis with you over Avida. If you think it meets Torley’s criteria, say so and support your claim.

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  4. Patrick: IDC says that certain types of complexity can’t evolve. Avida shows that claim to be wrong.

    As things stand at this moment, this is bare assertion on your part. Are you planning to support this claim or retract it?

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  5. Mung:

    Please explain exactly how.

    I decline to play burden tennis with you over Avida. If you think it meets Torley’s criteria, say so and support your claim.

    You’re the one who said Avida is “rigged”. Support it or retract it.

    (Yes, I know, you’ll choose option 3: Mung it.)

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  6. I’ll give you a hint Patrick. What is the fundamental logic unit in Avida.

    Once you figure that out, ask yourself why.

    Or work it from the other end. What is required, logically, for EQU?

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  7. Patrick: You’re the one who said Avida is “rigged”. Support it or retract it.

    That’s funny, coming from you. No. Really. Really Funny.

    Patrick: IDC says that certain types of complexity can’t evolve. Avida shows that claim to be wrong.

    Still waiting for you to support or retract that claim.

    You did make that claim, right, it is a claim you made? One for which you have “objective empirical evidence.” Right?

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  8. Mung: That’s funny, coming from you. No. Really. Really Funny.

    Still waiting for you to support or retract that claim.

    You did make that claim, right, it is a claim you made? One for which you have “objective empirical evidence.” Right?

    Claim tennis.

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  9. Mung:
    I’ll give you a hint Patrick. What is the fundamental logic unit in Avida.

    Once you figure that out, ask yourself why.

    Or work it from the other end. What is required, logically, for EQU?

    It’s hard enough having a discussion with you when you aren’t being coy.

    You made the claim that Avida is “rigged”. Support it or retract it.

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  10. Mung: If you can’t pass that simple test I’d be wasting my time.

    Making claims and failing to support or retract them is not something you can blame on someone else. If you think that Avida is “rigged”, make your case as clearly and succinctly as you can. I’m not going to play games guessing at what you mean.

    You may take it as given that I understand how Avida works.

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  11. Patrick: You may take it as given that I understand how Avida works.

    I’ve seen no evidence that you understand even the most basic logic function. 🙂

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  12. Patrick: Making claims and failing to support or retract them is not something you can blame on someone else.

    You claimed that Avida demonstrates that it is possible to evolve an irreducibly complex system by Darwinian processes, didn’t you?

    Feel free to start an OP and show VJT and the rest of us how it’s done.

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  13. Mung:

    Making claims and failing to support or retract them is not something you can blame on someone else.

    You claimed that Avida demonstrates that it is possible to evolve an irreducibly complex system by Darwinian processes, didn’t you?

    And I supported that claim with a link to Hoppe’s article demonstrating exactly that.

    You, on the other hand, have claimed that Avida is “rigged” and you have yet to support or retract that claim. Integrity demands you do one or the other.

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  14. Patrick: And I supported that claim with a link to Hoppe’s article demonstrating exactly that.

    Ah, I see. I’ll remember that and see how you like it when I just provide you with a link next time you make one of your tiresome demands.

    I thought, given that you assured me you understand Avida and it’s inner workings, that you might be able to do better than that.

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  15. Patrick: Next you’ll be quoting Sal Cordova.

    Salvador’s a very bright guy. Why wouldn’t I quote him?

    He managed to figure out that you can’t allow just anything end everything to cross the cell membrane.

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  16. Patrick: So, again, where is the support for your claim that Avida is “rigged”?

    I gave it to you. It’s not my fault you don’t believe it. But you can’t deny I didn’t provide you with the link.

    Where’s your support for your claim that Hoppe’s article refuted the claim that Avida is rigged? Was it in claiming that of course it was rigged, otherwise it would not have worked?

    Still waiting for some indication you know how Avida works. Are you claiming that the ability to “evolve” the EQU function was not built in from the start?

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  17. Patrick: By the way, Luskin’s screed is from 2012 and the papers he gushes over were exactly what Hoppe refuted in 2014.

    Hoppe the time traveler!

    Desperately Dissing Avida
    By Richard B. Hoppe
    September 30, 2005 13:35 MST

    Writing for the Discovery Institute, Casey Luskin has dissed evolutionary research performed using the Avida research platform.

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  18. Mung:

    By the way, Luskin’s screed is from 2012 and the papers he gushes over were exactly what Hoppe refuted in 2014.

    Hoppe the time traveler!

    Desperately Dissing Avida
    By Richard B. Hoppe
    September 30, 2005 13:35 MST

    Writing for the Discovery Institute, Casey Luskin has dissed evolutionary research performed using the Avida research platform.

    Try following the link I actually provided: Once again, desperately dissing Avida, April 14, 2014.

    You’re just squirming now, Mung. Please stop, it’s unseemly.

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  19. Mung: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/02/the_evolutionar056061.html

    Well, how do you like them apples. Proof that “Avida is rigged” from a reputable source.

    In the Evolution News and Views screed recommended by Mung, Casey Luskin (of whom the less said the better) reviewed some of the output of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab back in February of 2012. One hopes he carefully scraped his shoes before returning indoors from that fetid field.

    Mung referenced this bit of prose as support of his claim that Avida is “rigged”. Mung supporting one of his claims being such a rarity, I eagerly dug into it.

    Luskin first mentions Avida early in the introduction:

    Thus far, Dembski, Marks and their graduate research assistants have identified sources of active information in key evolutionary algorithms — “Avida” and “ev” — programs that have been widely touted as refuting ID. Their work shows that these programs do not truly model blind and unguided Darwinian processes, but cheat because they were pre-programmed by their designers to reach their digital evolutionary goals. As the lab’s website suggests, “Evolutionary informatics … points to the need for an ultimate information source qua intelligent designer.”

    This is mere baseless assertion, which surely Mung would not use to support his claim. The meat must be further along. There is another mention in the section “Building the Methodology”:

    Having laid this theoretical groundwork, Dembski and Marks aim to apply their ideas to evolutionary algorithms that claim to produce new biological information. They argue that computer simulations often do not properly model truly unguided Darwinian evolution: “COI has led to the formulation of active information as a measure that needs to be introduced to render an evolutionary search successful. Like an athlete on steroids, many such programs are doctored, intentionally or not, to succeed,” and thus “COI puts to rest the inflated claims for the information generating power of evolutionary simulations such as Avida and ev.” They conclude that when trying to generate new complex and specified information, “in biology, as in computing, there is no free lunch,” and therefore some assistance from intelligence is required to aid Darwinian evolution find unlikely targets in search space.

    More baseless assertion and a reference to “COI”, Dembski’s Conservation of Information theorem. Unfortunately for Luskin (and Dembski), the CoI has been roundly refuted (see the TalkOrigins Archive for some pointers).

    As someone well-educated in Intelligent Design Creationism, Mung surely is aware of these refutations and wouldn’t use the CoI as support for his claim.

    In the section “Applying the Methodology” Luskin finally gets to more in depth discussion of Avida:

    Another paper in which the Evolutionary Informatics Lab collaborators reported active information sources in a well-known evolutionary algorithm was authored by Winston Ewert, William A. Dembski, and Robert J. Marks II in Proceedings of the 2009 IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics. This paper scrutinized Avida, an evolutionary simulation program which had been published in Nature in 2003, and was touted by its creators as a refutation of ID which showed “that complex adaptive traits do emerge via standard Darwinian mechanisms.” But the team at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab refuted those claims. Their paper argues that Avida smuggles in “active information” to allow the simulation to find its evolutionary targets, such as the following:

    – “Active information from Avida’s initialization” where “[t]he initialization in Avida recognizes the essential role of the nop-C instruction in finding the EQU.”

    Without going into too much technical detail, even if we accept Ewert’s analysis of the various nop instructions in Avida, eliminating nop-c might cause the evolution of some functions to take more generations but it would not prevent the evolution of those functions. Further, if nop-c were eliminated, Ewert or someone like him would no doubt find another instruction that appeared more important than average in the runs they investigated and blame that for, well, something.

    – “Mutation, fitness, and choosing the fittest of a number of mutated offspring.”

    Known evolutionary mechanisms, in other words. Imagine that, a system modeled on biological evolution using mutation and differential reproductive success. Who would have expected it?

    – Most importantly, there is “Stair step active information” where the digital “mutations” in Avida are essentially pre-programmed to perform a useful function, and are rewarded for doing so.

    Regarding this third point, the authors note that, “The importance of stair step active information is evident from the inability to generate a single EQU [the target function] in Avida without using it.” They ask, “What happens when no stair step active information is applied?” and note what the original authors of the Avida program wrote:

    “At the other extreme, 50 populations evolved in an environment where only EQU was rewarded, and no simpler function yielded energy. We expected that EQU would evolve much less often because selection would not preserve the simpler functions that provide foundations to build more complex features. Indeed, none of these populations evolved EQU, a highly significant difference from the fraction that did so in the reward-all environment.”

    Ewert here insinuates there is something wrong with Avida because it rewards the evolution of logic functions other than EQU and some of those functions can be used together to implement EQU.

    Richard B. Hoppe addresses this criticism in Once again, desperately dissing Avida:

    Ewart writes

    Avida deliberately studied a function that could be gradu­ally constructed by first constructing simpler functions.
    That’s a common ID creationist claim. We hear them shriek They rigged the game by using a fitness landscape that allowed the performance of EQU to evolve!!!

    Well, DUH! To test the hypothesis at issue, should one ignore the topography and composition of the fitness landscape? Ewert goes on to quote Lenski, et al.:

    Some readers might suggest that we ‘stacked the deck’ by studying the evolution of a complex feature that could be built on simpler functions that were also useful. However, that is precisely what evolutionary theory requires, and indeed, our experiments showed that the complex feature never evolved when simpler functions were not rewarded. (p. 143)

    That is, they used fitness landscapes that potentially allowed simpler functions to evolve, providing code that could subsequently be co-opted to form programs that could perform more complex functions. They also ran appropriate control conditions, 37 of them, in fact.

    Be they biological or digital, populations of replicators with heritable variation adaptively evolve on fitness landscapes that display gradients in relevant aspects. Given a flat fitness landscape, one would still see evolution by genetic drift but not adaptive evolution. Add non-uniform topography to the fitness landscape and by golly, there’s adaptive evolution. And Lenski, et al., hypothesized that critters that could peform higher-complexity functions could evolve in populations that included critters able to perform less complex functions, those simpler critters themselves evolved from a population of ancestors that could only replicate. Their research tested that proposition.

    Ewert writes

    Out of all the possible features that could be studied, the developers of Avida chose features that would be evolvable. They have deliberately constructed a system where evolution proceeds easily. They justify this by stating that it is required by evolutionary theory. However, the question is whether this requirement will be met in realistic cases, and Avida has simply assumed an answer to that question.

    Does Ewert imagine that in order to test a theory, one should ignore variables that the theory identifies as relevant? Ludicrous. Is his question, ‘Do realistic cases of biological evolution involve fitness landscapes that display gradients?’ If so, then the answer is obvious: of course they do! The real world is full of gradients. And what exactly does Ewert mean by “Out of all the possible features …”? What features would he prefer? Should we construct a fitness landscape composed of musical phrases and see whether logic functions will evolve? Should we construct fitness landscapes composed of arithmetic problems and see whether dance notation will evolve? Or maybe a ballerina? And I note once again that those “evolvable” features produced results that satisfy Behe’s operational definition of irreducible complexity. That’s the fundamental itch for Ewert.

    Luskin continues:

    But does real biology “reward” mutations to the extent that Avida does? The passage quoted above shows that when Avida is calibrated to model actual biology — where many changes may be necessary before there is any beneficial function to select for (irreducible complexity) — “none of these populations evolved” the target function.

    That’s not what Ewert showed. As Hoppe notes:

    Lenski, et al., actually did 50 runs of a control condition in which the rewards for all less complex tasks were set to zero, with only EQU rewarded, and over those approximately 50,000,000 organisms per run times 50 runs, or 2.5 billion organisms, not once did a critter capable of performing EQU appear. Ewert apparently didn’t notice that Lenski, et al., ran the very control necessary to address his concern about the chance occurrence of the ‘target’ phenotype.

    The type of fitness landscape Ewert apparently prefers (because it doesn’t allow for the evolution of irreducible complexity) has no analog in biological evolution.

    Luskin finishes breathlessly:

    Avida’s creators trumpet its success, but Ewert, Dembski, and Marks show that Avida uses “stair step active information” by rewarding forms of digital “mutations” that are pre-programmed to yield the desired outcome. It does not model true Darwinian evolution, which is blind to future outcomes and cannot use active information. The implications may be unsettling for proponents of neo-Darwinian theory: Not only is Darwinian evolution “on average… no better than blind search,” but Avida is rigged by its programmers to succeed, showing that intelligence is in fact necessary to generate complex biological features. Again, the lab’s investigators developed an online toolkit of programs called “Minivida” for dissecting this program.

    Garbage in, garbage out. Hoppe summarizes beautifully:

    Finally, his last complaint, that the game was rigged, displays his abject ignorance of how one tests a theory. Apparently he imagines that in order to test a theory, one should ignore the variables the theory identifies as relevant. He complains that the experiment included conditions in which performing logic functions of simple and intermediate complexity was rewarded. But co-option of simpler structures and processes is hypothesized to be an important process in the evolution of complex phenotypic features, and by golly, here we have an experiment that tests that very hypothesis in an evolutionary system and finds it to be supported. The evolution of complex features occurs when simpler features, themselves adaptive in their own right while performing different functions, are present and available for co-option. Note carefully Lenski, et al.’s sentence immediately preceding the ‘deck stacking’ one Ewert quotes above.

    Our experiments demonstrate the validity of the hypothesis, first articulated by Darwin and supported today by comparative and experimental evidence, that complex features generally evolve by modifying existing structures and functions. (p. 143)

    Just so: adaptive evolution by natural selection is descent with modification from existing–and often simpler–structures and processes.

    Mung’s claim that Avida is “rigged” remains without support. I look forward to his retraction.

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  20. Patrick: Mung’s claim that Avida is “rigged” remains without support.

    It was right there in all that material you quoted. Didn’t you bother to read it?

    Luskin: …Avida is rigged by its programmers to succeed

    Hoppe’s response: Well, DUH!

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  21. Mung:

    Mung’s claim that Avida is “rigged” remains without support.

    It was right there in all that material you quoted. Didn’t you bother to read it?

    Luskin: …Avida is rigged by its programmers to succeed

    Hoppe’s response: Well, DUH!

    That’s a quote mine, and a pretty stupid one given that the original material is right above your comment.

    Now that we have the details of the article you claim supports your claim that Avida is “rigged” right here where we can all see them, please reference exactly what you think supports your claim. Or do the decent thing and retract it.

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  22. Lead the way, Patrick. Don’t ask others to do what you don’t do. That was, after all, the whole point of my claim.

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  23. Mung:
    Lead the way, Patrick. Don’t ask others to do what you don’t do. That was, after all, the whole point of my claim.

    Let’s recap. You claimed that Avida is “rigged”. After repeated requests that you support or retract that claim, you hand waved in the general direction of some attempted propaganda written by Casey Luskin. I went through Luskin’s nonsense line by line in an attempt to find any support for your claim. There was none. You replied to that effort with a quote mine.

    You grow boring. Either support your claim that Avida is “rigged” (hint: start your response with “Avida is rigged because” and follow with explicit reasons) or retract it.

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  24. Patrick: Let’s recap. You claimed that Avida is “rigged”.

    Let’s recap. Before that, you claimed Avida could meet Torley’s challenge of evolving hierarchical complexity. After repeated requests that you support or retract that claim, you hand waved in the general direction of some attempted propaganda written by Richard Hoppe. I went through Hoppe’s nonsense line by line in an attempt to find any support for your claim. There was none.

    You replied to that effort with a quote mine.

    Well, DUH!

    You grow boring. Either support your claim that Avida is “rigged” (hint: start your response with “Avida is rigged because” and follow with explicit reasons) or retract it.

    And you’re utterly predictable and ham-handed to boot. I’ll start supporting my claims to the level of detail you require when you lead the way and do so for your claims.

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  25. Mung:

    Let’s recap. Before that, you claimed Avida could meet Torley’s challenge of evolving hierarchical complexity.

    Yes, and I supported that claim.

    After repeated requests that you support or retract that claim, you hand waved in the general direction of some attempted propaganda written by Richard Hoppe.I went through Hoppe’s nonsense line by line in an attempt to find any support for your claim. There was none.

    You did no such thing.

    Well, DUH!

    Repeating the essence of your quote mine does not demonstrate any commitment to honesty on your part.

    You grow boring. Either support your claim that Avida is “rigged” (hint: start your response with “Avida is rigged because” and follow with explicit reasons) or retract it.

    And you’re utterly predictable and ham-handed to boot. I’ll start supporting my claims to the level of detail you require when you lead the way and do so for your claims.

    Asking you to support your claims is ham handed? How . . . idiosyncratic.

    The bottom line is that you made a claim and have utterly failed to support it. Either do so or retract it. Any other behavior demonstrates a gross lack of integrity.

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  26. Since you seem to have trouble reading for comprehension, Mung, here is the beginning of the pertinent section of Hoppe’s article:

    In fact, that paper did show that irreducibly complex programs evolved, without specifically using Behe’s term. Using a knockout procedure, the research showed that

    The genome of the first EQU-performing organism had 60 instructions; eliminating any of 35 of them destroyed that function [see Figure 4 of the Lenski, et al., paper]. Although the mutation of only one instruction produced this innovation when it originated, the EQU function evidently depends on many interacting components. (p. 141)

    Further,

    The phylogenetic depth at which EQU first appeared [across 23 different experimental runs] ranged from 51 to 721 [mutation] steps. In principle, 16 mutations, coupled with three instructions already present in the ancestor, could have produced an EQU-performing organism. The actual paths were much longer and highly variable, indicating the circuitousness and unpredictability of evolution leading to this complex feature. (p. 142)

    So a knockout analysis showed that 35 instructions were necessary–the irreducible core–to perform EQU in one lineage. Further, the 23 lineages that evolved to perform EQU were all different from one another–there was no single path to the function. Ewert’s claim is false

    “Ewert’s claim is false.” And so is yours.

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